Adultery – The Great Romance Taboo

Before I get to actual books, I have to begin with celebrity gossip, about a very famous German soccer player. Some time ago, while she was pregnant with their second child, he left his wife of many years and very publicly fell for a much younger blonde. He dated this younger woman for several years, yet never divorced his wife, spending part of his holidays with her and their children every year. Last year, the relationship with his girlfriend came to an end, and since then he has been accompanied by his wife to public appearances. Though it is not confirmed they are together again, the public – including the yellow press – wishes them well and applauds their effort at reconciliation. This reconciliation is, in fact, considered romantic.

And if you think there might be a double standard at work here, listen to my second case: An heiress to one of the big German industrial fortunes, married with three children, fell victim to a professional con man. She had an affair with him and then was blackmailed to pay several millions, until his demands became outrageous, and she went to the police. This caused a first-rate scandal, but the blackmailer was arrested. The lady and her husband have spoken very little to the press, but it is known that he supported his wife, and it is assumed they are giving their marriage another chance. Again, the adultery itself is not condoned by the public, but it is not seen in absolute terms; the fact that two people who have seen their marriage in terrible straits are trying to mend it meets with general approval and even the occasional romantic sigh.

How would these couples fare in a printed romance? Would their attempts at reconciliation after one partner committed adultery in a spectacularly public fashion elicit approval from readers, or would it appear their love was irredeemably tainted, and that the partner who was betrayed should find true love somewhere else? Would we let them have their HEA?

While numerous romances out there deal with marriages at some point of crisis, outright adultery is a red flag for a number of readers. On a recent list on the AAR Potpourri Forum about “Situations you avoid” in a romance, several readers named infidelity as a big no-no. And I can think of comparatively few romances where a couple gets a believable HEA after adultery.

One example is The Counterfeit Betrothal by Mary Balogh. Miles and Olivia married for love when very young, but in a drunken moment he is dragged along into a brothel by some friends, and his wife hears about that and throws him out. Fourteen years later, their daughter instigates a scheme that will force her parents to meet again, and it is only now that we and Olivia understand that Miles never slept with anyone that night, although he did have an affair for a limited period of time during the long years of their separation. In this romance, adultery is regarded as such a horrible betrayal by Olivia, but also to Miles, that the end of their relationship is felt to be the appropriate result. Looking at their situation realistically, there is comparatively little she has to forgive him for, and Mary Balogh makes clear that not talking to each other about what happened is the true reason for their estrangement, and in fact more devastating than the adultery as such.

In Eloisa James’s Your Wicked Ways, Helene and Rees eloped to Gretna Green because they were so deeply in love, but soon their different attitudes towards life (and some bad sex) put a great strain on their happiness, and they separated. Nine years into the marriage, at the beginning of the novel, Helene is as straitlaced as ever she was, while Rees pursues a Bohemian lifestyle, live-in mistress included. As in The Counterfeit Betrothal, Helene is able to forgive her husband as she grows to understand their natures better, and this is aided by the fact that although he did indeed betray their marriage vows, he was not quite what his reputation suggested.

The newest Eloisa James novel, This Duchess of Mine, will feature a couple that have been separated for years, with both partners committing adultery at some point. As the story of the Duke and Duchess of Beaumont has been central to the Desperate Duchesses series from the start, we already know a great deal about their relationship. Jemma’s and Elijah’s marriage was arranged, but they were very fond of each other nevertheless, and very happy, until one day Jemma caught her husband with his mistress, whom he hadn’t given up because he believed a nobleman entitled to both a wife and mistress. Jemma left him and lived in Paris for many years, earning a scandalous reputation with her many liaisons. Because he needs an heir, Elijah finally asked her to return, and they have slowly gotten accustomed to each other again. At the end of the last novel in the series, When the Duke Comes Home, Jemma is finally ready to enter into marital relations once more. While Elijah’s betrayal is undisputed, we already know that Jemma did not sleep with all her admirers and in fact permitted her reputation to appear worse to punish him. I do hope we won’t find she was faithful to him all those years, and only pretended to have affairs, as there are so very few unfaithful wives in romance, and here infidelity makes the couple equals in an intriguing manner. I am looking forward very much to reading This Duchess of Mine!

Why would I find romances featuring love after adultery to be, well, romantic? Undoubtedly adultery is an act of betrayal, and one I hope I will never have to face in my own life. On the other hand, love represents our greatest power of forgiveness, and the kind of love that doesn’t give up in the face of terrible difficulties, the kind of relationship that is so precious that it’s worth fighting for even if the hurt has been dreadful moves me when I read it. And I’m not talking serial adulterers or philanderers here – I’m talking people who may even mean well but stepped horribly wrong, and who now, with the help of love, make a true new start. That amazing power makes for a very moving story, and when done well, it’s very much worth reading and considering as romance.

-Rike Horstmann

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63 Responses to Adultery – The Great Romance Taboo

  1. Rike says:

    Thanks, Virginia, these are a number of title I will look up! Like other in this thread said, contemporaries in which a couple finds their HEA after one partner committed adultery are hard to find. Thanks also to others for their recommendations!

  2. Virginia DeMarce says:

    One more, although the adultery was in the past. Nita Abrams, The Spy’s Reward. Nathan Meyer and Abigail are a mature couple (he with two children grown and married; she with a daughter in her late teens). After being widowed childless, she remarried to her husband’s brother. Later, to force her alcoholic second husband to divorce her, she hired a male prostitute and had sex with him while her maid arranged for her husband’s family to find her in flagrante. She tells this forthrightly to Nathan, whose response is, basically, “we all do what we have to do, and sometimes it’s not pleasant.”

  3. Debbie says:

    Certainly historically, adultery by men was much more condoned (and actually, to some degree by married women who had provided heirs.) On the other hand, adultery still presented two big hazards–illegitimate children, and disease. These could be mitigated by taking precautions, but they couldn’t necessarily prevented altogether.
    I find books that at least recognize this as an issue to be much more compelling–even where the the H and H didn’t marry for love.

    And I think Mary Balogh has done the best job of any author I know of exploring the ramifications of these situations…in very compelling ways. The obedient wife is a great example….

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  5. THE EXAMINING MAGISTRATE — quoted here from:

    Very Interesting points made in this short story….

    “And which came first, her husband’s infidelity or her idea of dying?”

    “Not likely, not likely she would poison herself! . . . it’s impossible. She forgave him at the time.” “That she forgave it quickly means that she had something bad in her mind. Young wives do not forgive quickly.”

    “Not likely, not likely,” he went on. “No notion of anything of the sort being possible ever entered into my head. . . . And besides . . . he was not so much to blame as it seems. . . .

    He was unfaithful to her in rather a queer way, with no desire to be; he came home at night somewhat elevated, wanted to make love to somebody, his wife was in an interesting condition . . .

    then he came across a lady who had come to stay for three days — damnation take her — an empty-headed creature, silly and not good-looking. It couldn’t be reckoned as an infidelity. His wife looked at it in that way herself and soon . . . forgave it.

    Nothing more was said about it. . . .” “Yes, yes . . . it was very shortly after that incident that she began talking of death. Yes, yes.”

    “People don’t die without a reason,” said the doctor. “That is so, of course, but all the same . . . I cannot admit that she poisoned herself. And indeed, it cannot be that she poisoned herself! No!”

    The examining magistrate pondered. The thought of the woman who had died so strangely haunted him all through the inquest. On the way back, the examining magistrate seemed to the doctor to be overcome with fatigue, as though he had been climbing up a high mountain.

    He stopped and, looking at the doctor with a strange look in his eyes, as though he were drunk, said:

    “My God, if your theory is correct, why it’s. . .. it was cruel, inhuman! She poisoned herself to punish some one else! Why? Was the sin so great? Oh, my God! And why did you make me a present of this damnable idea, doctor!”

    The examining magistrate clutched at his head in despair, and went on:

    “What I have told you was about my own wife, about myself. Oh, my God! I was to blame, I wounded her, but can it have been easier to die than to forgive? That’s typical feminine logic — cruel, merciless logic. Oh, even then when she was living she was cruel! I recall it all now! It’s all clear to me now!”

    The new idea the doctor had imparted to him seemed to have overwhelmed him, to have poisoned him; he was distracted, shattered in body and soul, and when he got back to the town he said good-bye to the doctor, declining the dinner invitation he had accepted earlier in the day.

  6. Oops, forgot to mention: ROSEMARY ROGERS was one of my favorites back in the 70′s!! I used to read a good 10-12 books a week.

    I don’t think reading the internet is the same thing but oh, well . . .change is good. HAROLD ROBBINS — one of the very best… I used to literally WAIT for his next book!!

  7. Cat says:

    I read historical romances for the fairy tale HEA. Adultery will definitely kill a story for me and I steer far far away from those books. In real life as well as in fiction, I don’t see how one can trust the other person again after breaking the most sacred vow. Forever in the back of the mind is the question of is he/she cheating again. Let’s not forget the consequences of infidelity…disease and children. Call it double standard, but, a heroine that commits adultery is rather tough to forgive. I guess I feel this way because the woman is the “stronger” partner of the relationship.

  8. Wonderful writing! I think you have really touched on some valid points and I agree with you on many aspects. It’s been a great pleasure.

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