Cheating is a common trope in romance stories. It can add a lot of tension and conflict to a story, leaving the reader uncertain whether the couple will pull through and mend their relationship or if they’ll end up breaking up and being unable to forgive each other.
It’s easy to say, speaking very generally, that “cheating is wrong.” I doubt there’s many people that would promote cheating on your partner in real life. If you’ve been cheated on, it hurts like hell, and many people who’ve cheated on someone else end up wracked with guilt over it. Alternatively, infidelity could be rationalized by saying that the relationship was already broken due to other problems. If someone’s partner is abusive, uncaring, or for whatever reason doesn’t deserve them, then one might not care if they get cheated on because “they deserved it.” Though you could also argue that it’s best to end the relationship before getting involved with someone new. Oftentimes, relationship problems lead to people cheating because they’ve already begun pulling away from their partner even if the relationship isn’t over yet. As Jess said in When Harry Met Sally, “Marriages don’t break up on account of infidelity. It’s just a symptom that something else is wrong.”
But when it comes to writing a novel, there can be a wide variety of ways to express infidelity. I’d like to explore four different angles: the Main Character as the cheater, the MC as the victim, cheating as a mistake, and cheating as the right choice.
The Main Character Cheated
In most romance novels I’ve read, the story is usually told in first person from the main character’s perspective (usually a woman; I haven’t yet found a romance novel told primarily from a male lead’s point of view). The basic formula of a romance novel is: they meet, there’s chemistry and attraction, the relationship grows more serious, then there’s some kind of crisis (which leads the reader to fear the relationship won’t work out), and at the end the crisis is either resolved or it leads to everything falling apart. The ending of a romance is almost always either “they live happily ever after” or “they broke up but learned valuable life lessons as a result.”
(Note: This formula is based on my personal reading experience, but if you’ve read any books that greatly deviate from it, I’d love to hear about them.)
The “crisis” that leads to the relationship either ending or surviving can come in a variety of ways. I’ve read novels recently where the crisis could be anything from a lie being revealed, to a betrayal, to an ex-girlfriend coming back into the picture and causing conflict, and so on. The main character cheating is, by this formula, just another source of conflict.
So what leads the MC to cheat? Well, as an example from a friend’s book I once read, it could be because the MC actually isn’t happy in the relationship and they’re subconsciously sabotaging it. In one novel I read, the MC cheated on her fiance with the fiance’s brother, then tried to cover it up, only to have the lid blown off the lie at the wedding. The relationship was torn apart, and the affair with the brother couldn’t last either. In the long run, the MC broke things off with both the fiance and the brother, and ended up making some major changes and starting her life over. While as a reader I was disappointed in the MC’s decisions, in the long run, I could see that she’d learned some valuable things and she was ready to move on. The ending left me with the hope that her next relationship would be more successful, because she’d learned not to “fake” being happy with a man she didn’t truly love.
Now, it’s possible a story could involve the MC cheating without suffering any consequences. It would all depend on how it was portrayed. But I think, as a reader, it’s important for me to see consequences occurring and lessons being learned. Because if the MC never even feels a twinge of guilt, I would just see them as immoral, and I’d likely lose sympathy. But if the MC changes their life afterwards, the cheating can be seen as a mistake that they overcame. If a writer wanted to show the other side, where it wasn’t even treated as a mistake, it would be important to show the MC’s perspective and help the reader understand why they don’t regret it. It would be necessary in order to keep the reader rooting for the MC.
The Main Character is the Victim
Alternatively, the MC might be the one who’s been cheated on. In this case, it’s more likely that the cheating will be painted as simply wrong. It puts the MC’s partner in the role of the villain, hurting the MC and ruining the relationship. The MC might break the relationship off and move on, finally leaving behind someone who didn’t deserve them. Or the MC might find it in their heart to forgive their partner after the partner works to make things right.
The difference here, regardless of whether the relationship is salvaged or ruined, is that the MC wasn’t the one who made a decision that led to the conflict. If the MC chose to cheat, they face consequences they must address based on their own actions. If their partner cheated, it’s more like a catalyst coming from an outside source. It could serve as a “wake up call,” letting the MC see their partner for who they really are. Or alternatively, if the MC was mistreating their partner and driving them away, then the MC might come to realize something about themselves. There could be introspection as they consider how they neglected their partner or in some other way allowed their partner to slip away. How this is addressed–whether the MC is seen as the wrongdoer or their partner is–will depend a lot on the MC’s perspective. For example, the MC might come to say, “I’ve been mistreating them, no wonder they sought out someone else,” or they might say, “Nothing I did makes me deserve this, they had no right to hurt me.”
The focus here, of course, is still on what the MC gets out of it, and what they decide in the end. They can choose to forgive their partner, or choose to end it all. What decision they will make will be the question that will keep the reader hooked.
Cheating as a Mistake
I already touched on this a bit in the above sections, but I’d like to go into more detail. Cheating might be seen as a mistake the MC (or their partner) made, and a sign that the character isn’t perfect. Everyone succumbs to temptation now and then, and there have been stories about seduction and weakness going all the way back to biblical tales and ancient Greek myths. Such affairs can have disastrous consequences, such as when Helen of Troy ran off with Paris, leading to the Trojan War (note: while the 2004 film depicts this as a voluntary affair, other versions of this story say that Helen was kidnapped).
There are several different ways to address the “cheating as a mistake” trope. One can be to make the affair lead to consequences, as in the example of Troy, above. Or the victim of the affair might resort to violence or murder, killing either the cheater, the person they cheated with, or both. There could also be less severe consequences, such as a divorce, a broken family, or public scandal if the characters are celebrities and the affair is revealed by the media.
In each of these cases, the consequences of the affair will be far-reaching, and will likely affect the rest of the plot. Though it’s also possible for the consequences to be more internal to the MC. Say, for example, the MC simply struggles with their own actions for the rest of the plot. An example of this is the movie Eyes Wide Shut, which depicts Tom Cruise going down a path of dangerous choices because he’s angry with his wife over an almost-affair (the wife confessed that she was tempted to cheat once, but never did). Early in the film, Cruise comes close to sleeping with a prostitute, presumably because he feels betrayed by his wife and he is driven to drastic actions. He stops just short of going through with it when his wife calls his cell phone while he’s at the prostitute’s apartment. Later, he finds out that the prostitute just found out she is HIV-positive, so Cruise barely escaped the serious consequences he would have been faced with if he had slept with her. His actions for the remainder of the movie still continue down a dangerous path, until he finally gets caught in the end.
Cheating as the Right Choice
I started this post saying that it would be hard to consider cheating as the right thing to do, but there are some examples in media that address it this way. One of the most famous is The Notebook. During the main flashback scenes that show the MC’s past, she has a short-lived love affair with a man named Noah, only to have the relationship end, partly due to interference from her parents. Years later, the characters reunite, only by that time, the MC is engaged to another man. It’s clear that the MC doesn’t truly love her fiance, and she ends up cheating on him with Noah, rekindling the romance they ended years ago. The fiance even offers to forgive her if she’ll stay with him, but in the long run, she leaves him for Noah.
Stories like this depict cheating as “the right choice” because the MC ends up with the person she truly loves and is meant to be with. It is still a struggle, and such stories usually involve a moment of indecision where the MC has to choose between their current partner and the person they’re having an affair with. Sometimes, they choose to leave and go with their true love. Other times, like in the classic movie Casablanca, the affair has to end because the characters know it can’t go on. This is the meaning behind Bogart’s most famous line in that film, “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” This is Bogart’s way of telling her that she needs to stay with her husband and not be swept away by the fantasy of a passionate romance that will never work.
In any case, infidelity is a complex issue in many stories, and there are a lot of different ways to address it. Because not every relationship is guaranteed a happily ever after.
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