Savage Love, Jan. 25, 2024

21 things that aren't cheating (even if you think they are)

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I was seeing this guy for about four months. We were pretty much dating, doing all of the normal boyfriend/girlfriend stuff. Everything was going great up until last night when he told me he feels all of these feelings for me, but they don’t mean anything because he’s felt this same way about others, but nothing has ever worked out. He told me that whatever we have “isn’t enough.” 

I’m not sure what that even means. But last night he also told me that he loves me and yet he still left. I’m so confused. Do you have any insight? 

— What The Fuck  

Thank you for contacting Savage Love. Your question is very important to us and one of our representatives will be with you shortly. 

But first… 

Polyamory is having a moment. The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and The New York Post have all run big stories about polyamorous relationships in the last two weeks. Hell, even the ladies on The View are arguing about it. The talk about polyamory has suddenly gotten so loud that some conservatives — not usually the kind of people prone to conspiratorial thinking (cough cough) — are convinced it’s a plot. 

“The memo has gone out,” Matt Walsh of The Daily Wire posted on Twitter last week. “This is the next frontier in the war on the nuclear family!” 

No memo went out, Matt, it was something far more banal. A book that came out: More: A Memoir of Open Marriage by Brooklyn-based writer Molly Roden Winter. There were press releases, not memos, and thanks to a big marketing push — a big and very successful marketing push (congrats to the PR team at Penguin Random House!) — polyamory is suddenly everywhere. 

If I were a different sort of writer — if I had one self-promoting bone in my body — I might take a victory lap. I mean, I’ve been credited with helping to mainstream the conversation about ethically non-monogamous relationships; I’ve discussed the subject in my columns and podcasts, on The View and on the Colbert Report. But instead of claiming a share of the credit for polyamory’s breakthrough moment, I’m going to offer a little counter-programing instead. While everyone else is talking about polyamorous relationships, I’m gonna talk about monogamous relationships. 

I’m not here to run them down, I’m here to make them a little more resilient — not resilient in the face of the polyamorous conspiracy that wasn’t, but resilient in the face some deeply unhelpful bullshit monogamous people keep trying to make happen. 

I’m speaking, of course, of the concept of “micro-cheating.” 

If monogamous people are going to define cheating as unforgivable — and most monogamous people do — then monogamous people should really define cheating as narrowly as possible. That is if they want their marriages to be stable — which frankly, at this point, I’m not convinced they do. Which would explain why monogamous people have spent the last decade growing the list of what “counts” as cheating; everything from looking at porn to sending an ex a birthday text has had the “micro-cheating” slapped on it. If I were the conspiracy-minded type myself, if I were more of a Matt Walsh, I might see this sustained effort to make “micro-cheating” happen as a nefarious plot to undermine monogamous relationships. 

Anyway, while everyone was talking about polyamory this week, a memo went out  in the form of an Instagram post. Dr. Manahil Riaz, a sometimes couples counselor based in Texas: “21 examples of micro-cheating.” As a public service, I’m going to share Dr. Riaz’s list one-by-one and clarify what does and doesn’t count as cheating. I do this not to promote polyamory (because my work there is done), but to strengthen monogamy (because you people need all the help you can get). 

1. Secretly messaging someone.  

Not cheating. I mean, what if your spouse is secretly messaging your best friend about the surprise birthday party they’re hosting for your 40th? Sending furtive messages while your spouse is in the room is never a good idea, as doing so can arouse the kind of suspicions that might tempt an otherwise reasonable person to start snooping. But “secret messaging” is a broad and meaningless category and declaring it a form of cheating is an invitation to insecure, controlling, and abusive people to terrorize their partners over innocuous text messages. And for the record: people in relationships — even monogamously married ones — are allowed to their own friends, a little privacy, stupid private jokes they share with those friends, etc. 

2. Meeting with someone without you knowing.  

Not cheating. What if your husband is meeting up with your best friend to plan your surprise 40th birthday party? Or what if your current wife is meeting up with her ex-husband to discuss co-parenting and you have a history of melting down when they meet and so your wife decided to spare you the anxiety (and herself the stress) by not telling you about this meeting right away or at all? Yes, cheaters do meet up with affair partners without their partners knowing — that is definitely a thing that happens when people cheat — but like the previous example, no distinction is made between legit DL meetings and illicit DL meetings. 

3. Complaining about you to another person.  

Not cheating! Also, what the actual fuck? According to Dr. Riaz’s website, she does couple’s counseling. Listening to people complain about their partners is literally her job. And I’m sorry, but if people weren’t allowed to complain about their spouses to friends, coworkers and couple’s counselors, the murder rate would skyrocket. (Here’s hoping Mrs. Matt Walsh has someone she can complain to about Mr. Matt Walsh.)  

4. Sharing knowing looks behind your back.  

Not cheating. Shooting someone a knowing look — pulling a Jim or a Pam — is how married people let third parties know 1. We’re aware our spouse is being unreasonable or ridiculous and 2. We will address it with them later. While a knowing look sometimes says, “We’re totally having an affair and HA HA HA my husband is an IDIOT!” more often than not, a knowing look says, “I know he’s being an asshole right now and I’m sorry about that.” (I expect Mrs. Matt Walsh uses the latter look a dozen or more times a day, and I’m hoping she gets to use the former at least once in her life.) 

5. Saying things like, “If I weren’t in a relationship…” 

Not cheating. Monogamous married people use this expression or one of its many variations (“If I were single…” “If I were younger…”) to let someone know they’re unavailable. It’s a rejection wrapped in a compliment that may or may not be sincere, but it’s a rejection just the same.

6. Maintaining contact with exes.

Not cheating. Kids aren’t the only reason people sometimes remain in touch with their exes. Some people stay in touch with their exes because — and I hope you’re sitting down, Dr. Riaz — they actually like their exes. It’s not a bad sign when your partner is on friendly terms with an ex, it’s a good sign. People whose exes all hate them and want nothing to do with them are almost always awful; people who are too insecure to let their spouses remain in cordial contact with their exes are always assholes — and Dr. Riaz is essentially running interference for assholes by including this on her list. 

7. Flirtatious joking. 

Not cheating. People in monogamous relationships sometimes wanna feel wanted — they wanna feel like they’ve still got it — and swapping a few flirtatious jokes with an attractive stranger or coworker or chatbot can meet that important need. 

8. Creating a dating profile. 

Okay, this one I’m willing to grant. But sometimes married people get on dating apps because they wanna feel wanted by someone else and they don’t actually plan on meeting up with anyone else, even if they are putting themselves in a position where they may be sorely tempted. If you find your spouse on a dating app, go for a walk around the block, listen to the “Piña Colada Song” on Spotify at least five times, then head home to discuss it. 

 9. Trying to impress someone you have a crush on. 

Not cheating. Monogamously married people want the people they would fuck if they could fuck them — they people they would fuck if they were single and/or ethically non-monogamous — to think they’re cool. Everyone wants the people they think are hot to think they’re impressive. It’s a natural human impulse and, really, how are you supposed to correct for this? Go out of your way to be disappointing asshole at all times? We all can’t be Matt Walsh. 

10. Sending someone photos of themselves to someone else. 

Not even grandma? 

11. Discussing intimate desires with someone else. 

Not cheating. Women talk to their girlfriends about their intimate desires and men talk to their buddies about their intimate desires and monogamously partnered people get on Reddit to brag or bullshit about their intimate desires. Feeling isolated in your relationship — being told you’re not allowed to talk to complain to anyone else about your relationship or discuss your intimate desires, fears, whatever — is one sign you may be in an abusive relationship. This is terrible advice. 

14. They follow inappropriate accounts on Instagram. 

Not cheating. Also, who gets to decide what’s inappropriate?  

15. Giving their number to a stranger. 

Not cheating — sure, it could signal intent to cheat and/or lead to the kind of late-night sexting that results in cheating. But it could just signal intent to swap Wordle scores or memes.   

16. Stalking a crush online.  

Stalking is a crime — no one should stalk anyone — but a monogamously married person following someone they think is hot on Instagram is stalking. They’re looking. And as monogamously married people who got caught looking were fond of saying before this micro-cheating bullshit came along, “Hey, I’m married, not dead!” 

17. Paying special attention to a particular person. 

Not cheating. Monogamously married people shouldn’t pay “special attention” to other people with their genitals. But the problem with this standard is the same as so many others on this list: It can easily be weaponized by abusive or controlling partners. Because who gets to decide what “special attention” means?  

18. Always commenting on and liking a different person’s pictures. 

Not cheating. I comment on and like my sister’s pictures all the time and I do not want to have an affair with my sister. If policing your spouse’s likes and comments makes you unhappy, maybe don’t police your partner’s likes and comments. 

19. Hoping to make someone notice you in a romantic way. 

Not cheating. Hoping to be noticed ≠ intent to cheat; being noticed ≠ having cheated. Again, married people — even monogamously married people — are married, not dead. 

20. Asking someone personal or inappropriate questions. 

Not cheating. And, again, isn’t this what a couple’s counselor does for a living? 

21. Turning to someone else to get emotional needs met when the relationship is in a rocky patch. 

NOT CHEATING JESUS FUCKING CHRIST. If you can’t meet your spouse’s emotional needs for whatever reason — like you’re in a rocky patch — your spouse’s emotional needs don’t just disappear. I’m personally grateful to the people who were there for my husband and provided him with emotional support, i.e., met his emotional needs, when I couldn’t during some rocky patches of our long marriage. 

 P.S. I tweaked Dr. Riaz’s list for clarity. The original post — and Dr. Riaz’s defense of her list — can be found here. https://www.instagram.com/p/C2OVZzIsyVf/?img_index=1 

P.P.S. The shitty-couples-counselor-to-divorce-court pipeline is real and it’s a bigger threat to the nuclear family — to all those monogamously married straight couples out there with kids — than a million features on polyamory ever could be. Maybe Matt Walsh should blow up about that instead. 

WTF: Here’s some advice for you from one of our specialists: You got dumped — which I think you know — and I’m very sorry about that. Getting dumped sucks, I realize, but most people get over it and you’ll probably get over it, too. And he was either lying about loving you when he broke up with you, which was cruel and disqualifying (you don’t want to date a guy like that), or he was telling the truth about loving you and broke up with you anyway, which was crazy and disqualifying (you don’t want to date a mess like that).