Cheating Hearts

There are few deal-breakers as universal as infidelity. Most readers avoid any mention of it like the plague, and very few authors can – or even try to– pull off a believable HEA when one of the protagonists cheats on the other. But what if the hero and heroine cheat together?

I recently read Just One of the Guys by Kristan Higgins, in which the hero and heroine sleep together despite the fact that they are both seeing other people. Obviously they both eventually break up with those other people and they end up together (it is a romance novel, after all) but not before they each return to their significant others and try to work things out. Similarly, in Eloisa James’ A Kiss At Midnight, the hero pursues the heroine whilst being engaged to another woman, and in Notorious Pleasures by Elizabeth Hoyt, the hero and heroine begin their relationship despite the heroine’s betrothal to the hero’s brother. And there are others—quite a few, really. Far more than there are novels in which the hero cheats on the heroine (or vice versa). If there is infidelity, it is almost always between the hero and heroine.

It’s a hypothetical I’ve considered and posed before: if you were cheated on, would you rather it be a meaningless fling, or something that turns into a lasting relationship? Both options suck, and there’s no right answer. But I think I’d feel a little bit better if my relationship wasn’t thrown away for meaningless sex. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so cynical if there was some love, somewhere, even if it wasn’t with me. Then again, I’ve never been in that position, so for all I know I could turn into Carrie Underwood and slash some tires.

But for those of us who do read romance novels, and believe in love, can we forgive a hero and heroine for infidelity, as long as we know that they will live Happily Ever After? That as much as people might scoff at “True Love” and “Soul mates,” we as omniscient readers know that the wronged third party wasn’t the “right one,” so it’s okay?

It’s a bit ironic that while writing this blog, I took a break to watch Northern Lights, the Lifetime movie based on Nora Roberts’ novel, which infamously brought together LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian. Both were married to other people when they met while filming in 2009, and are now married to each other – and making headlines recently because she released a very personal song about the beginning of their relationship. LeAnn will probably never escape her “home wrecker” identity, partially because she herself keeps bringing it up and behaving immaturely. I don’t think anyone would be particularly surprised if they filed for divorce tomorrow, not because of any particular outward signs of internal strife, but because the nature of their meeting does not indicate that either places a lot of value on commitment. But let’s pretend for a minute that this is a romance novel, and we can say with certainty that Eddie and LeAnn are getting their HEA, that they will remain happily married for the rest of their lives. Does it make it okay? Or if not okay, then at least slightly less icky?

From a distance, it’s easy to say, “Cheating is never okay. If you have feelings for someone else, then end your relationship.” It’s certainly the most dignified way to deal with the messiness of blurred lines in relationships, but it also isn’t always as cut-and-dried as it sounds. When are your feelings of attraction a true and lasting thing, and when are they just a passing folly? What if you throw away a long-term relationship over a crush that fizzes out? And how do you know it’s a temporary crush, and not True Love? What do you do then?

My point is not that cheating is sometimes okay. It’s never excusable, but maybe sometimes explainable. And that explanation comes a lot easier in romance novels, where we do know that that other person, that temptation away from the existing relationship, is the real thing. They’re romance novels; we know the couple will end up happy in the end, and trust that that happiness is lifelong. We know that our hero or heroine isn’t throwing out a potential HEA for a fling, but that they are getting rid of an imperfect relationship and replacing it with a perfect one. And perhaps it is the certainty that allows us as readers to accept it, even if it isn’t ideal.

– Jane Granville

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14 Responses to “Cheating Hearts”

  1. DabneyAAR says:

    Cheating is like so many other things in love–distinctive in each relationship. I will tolerate cheating in a romance–in real life or in a book–if I understand it and believe it isn’t a true constraint to happiness.

    • AAR Lynn says:

      That’s pretty much where I come down, too. There are some books such as To Love and To Cherish by Patricia Gaffney, where I could completely understand the attraction between the leads even though the heroine was married when it started, and I could definitely believe in their HEA. Then again, the context was exactly what made me less sympathetic when I read Balogh’s Dancing With Clara. The “I’m sorry I cheated on you and I can’t guarantee I won’t do it again,” response of the hero left me wondering whether poor Clara was going to be walking on eggshells forever after.

  2. maggie b. says:

    I advocate Carrie Underwoods response :-) or Jazmine Sullivan’s Bust the Windows Out Your Car.In terms of books, it really depends on the author. I normally hate adultery novels but I gave a DIK to Sandra Brown’s Rainwater. She made me believe in their HEA.

    In real life I am leary of calling the breakups and remarriages real love. The ones I have known the couple has clung to the second relationship long after it was over to prove their decision was the right one. The breakup and divorce is shockingly more bitter than the original one.

  3. Sue Stewart says:

    As Dr. Phil sez, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior — IOW, if he cheated on her, what makes you think he won’t cheat on you? (Or vice versa, gender-wise.) That said, I think there are ways an author can make it work and make the HEA believable — but it wouldn’t be easy. :)

  4. Carrie says:

    There are ways to write a story where the cheating feels less onerous, like in the historical novel where the hero or heroine might be betroth more out of duty or convenience than love. But I must say I’m never comfortable with it. It doesn’t mean I never read a book or watch a movie where the protagonists are with someone else when they meet, but it always makes me feel squicky. And when the hero or heroine outright cheats on the other, then I can’t imagine finishing the book. I have read a story or two where the hero and heroine were split up, even divorced, for a while and had other relationships, then got back together. That I can handle better.

    Just like many other “hated” tropes, the tolerance level might have something to do with the experiences of the reader. As one who was cheated on by my ex, I have little tolerance for cheating in novels. This is a major reason I stopped reading the Julia Spencer-Fleming books even though these are not romance books. What Clare and Russ did was adultery, physical or not, and I kept thinking about his wife of 25 years. I could not respect either character after that.

    There are plenty of rom-com movies that have one or both characters involved when the story opens and that always puts a damper on my enjoyment.

  5. Erika says:

    I have a high tolerance for cheating…heroes. It makes them less perfect which I like. It also creates dark angst and drama which I also like reading.

  6. dick says:

    Great author or not, giving an HEA to someone who has been unfaithful is cheating. Of course, it can be done; after all, the author is in control. But it doesn’t really change anything. It’s still condoning wrong actions. Nicole Jordan re-issued one of her books, removing an instance of infidelity, an impressive move IMO.

  7. As someone who went thru being cheated on and dumped 10 days after the birth of my only child – I would never willingly read any book where the so called hero and heroine are adultering cheats. I have no respect for anyone who tries to whitewash what is, in reality, an extremely painful betrayal. I heard every lame excuse about how they were meant to be together – star-crossed lovers – blah, blah, blah. What they were in reality was two very selfish people who wanted what they wanted and didn’t care about who got trampled along the way. Incidentally – two homes were wrecked for nothing. They figured out pretty quick that once the excitement of the forbidden was gone – it wasn’t really love after all – just a couple of shallow cheats scratching an itch. Unfortunately – they left a lot of damage to the poor schmucks that got caught in the crossfire. I find any situation where adultery is “romanticized” to be extremely distasteful and in no way romantic.

    • TJ says:

      There are people who cheat and they generally defend cheaters and then those who won’t cheat. They can’t stand cheaters. I tend not to find too many people in between.

      A book with cheating is a DNF for me. It automatically makes the characters unlikable no matter what just as people who cheat in real life are unlikable (and I’m being kind here).

  8. Laura says:

    Cheating is a deal breaker for me too. But I agree that it MIGHT be less unpalatable if the H cheats WITH the h or viceversa.
    On another forum, there recently was discussion of ‘The Secret Pearl’ by Mary Balogh, where the H, in a sexless marriage, cheats with the h, a prostitute.
    The author did a good job of showing us the bad place to H was in, and the fact that he was a wh**remonger disturbed me a lot more that the cheating, if even it could be called that.
    So it depends as usual on how we can relate to the characters’ emotions.
    OTOH if the H keeps thinking that the h was the love of his life, but he had to leave her and fu**s his way through half the country before catching up with her again, that pushed my ‘cheating’ button even if it’s technically not so – like the latest ‘The Seduction of Elliot McBride’

  9. Jennifer says:

    I usually cringe at plots involving infidelity and adultery because, well, I want to believe in the characters. I want to root for them, and cheating tends to erode my sympathy.
    I make an exception, though, for Madeline Hunter’s The Romantic, in which the hero first becomes intimate with the heroine while she is still married to someone else. If pressed to name my all-time favorite romance, this would be it. Why can I get past the cheating? On one hand, the heroine and her husband have been estranged, living mostly in separate countries, for years, and the husband is a murderous, sadistic rotter. On the other hand, well … the hero. Oh my. *swoon* A man who’s been steadfastly in love with the heroine, with no real hope of seeing his feelings returned, yet quietly refuses to let his feelings turn him into a doormat? Yes, please, I do enjoy reading about that.

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