Friday, May 25, 2018

Your Cheatin Heart Will Tell on You

Hello again! The wonderfully talented (and funny as hell) Dal Maclean is back to chat about infidelity in romance and other stressful interesting topics. ;-)

We had some thought provoking comments on yesterday's blog ;-) as well as a great discussion on Facebook. The three questions we threw out to readers were:


1 – Do you believe a relationship can survive infidelity?

2 – Do you have personal experience with infidelity?

3 – Barring murder, can you think of a worse “relationship crime” than infidelity?

Share your thoughts in the comment section below and you'll automatically be entered in the giveaway for one of five audio book download codes from Audible.com (good for any of my titles--including the brand spankin' new The Magician Murders narrated by the wonderful Kale Williams). 

So here we go! 


JL – I’m entirely in agreement about most readers probably preferring their protagonists’ flaws to be of the romantic variety. Like those old Mills & Boons where the hero was temporarily blinded or paralyzed and was a complete asshole because of it (but then luckily ended up with a miracle cure anyway, so no worries!) Addiction and alcoholism is a harder sell—and I’m in agreement on that; I will almost never read a book where the protag is struggling with addiction or alcoholism (although I’ve got no problem writing such a book). I suspect readers would prefer to read about a recovering sex addict than a guy who deliberately and in full control of his senses (if not body parts) chooses to be unfaithful. Thoughts?

DM - I think you’re right. Many readers would prefer to read about recovering sex addicts and recovering drug and alcohol addicts than, as you say, someone who cheats ‘in full control of his senses.’ But again, as I said in the piece, maybe that’s because the flaws we accept in our romance heroes almost require the hero not to be responsible as it were? An addiction is something the hero cant help – it’s an illness (like those Mills and Boon heroes), though done well and with an attention to the psychology, it can be great (I just read a really great one). I’d say though, addiction isn’t a flaw in a hero, so much as a hurdle the couple have to overcome to be together?  Cheating is an active flaw.  I’d liken it more in Romance hero-active flaw-dom to being an assassin or a ruthless slave owner. Just, as I said, less acceptable.
Uh oh. 

The cheating I was talking about though wouldn’t be ‘I fancy a fling with that very attractive person’ but, for example ‘I’m terrified of where this relationship is going and how much I’m feeling, so I’m going to sabotage it’ or ‘I’m miserable and unhappy and so I’m succumbing to temptation’ – both scenarios which would create intense, genuine regret in the culprit and punishment would be losing something they realize too late they cant bear to lose. They made a Big Mistake but they made it as adults. Hence they’d have to face up to consequences. That’s what I meant about a redemption arc.
Of course, in reality, that’s a romantic best-case take on cheating, but Id suggest so is every other scenario we talk about in Romance books, like addiction.  Again that my big question -- if we can romanticize The Mafia, assassination, slavery, rape, torture and personality breakdown, why cant we romanticize infidelity?

JL – It occurs to me that infidelity is probably more forgivable depending on subgenre. For example, it’s rarely a deal-breaker in mystery. Meaning mystery readers might not like it, but they won’t refuse to read the book. And in historical or, better yet, spec fiction, it’s probably not nearly as problematical as it is in contemporary romance.

Anyway, harkening back to your essay, ludicrous misunderstandings aside, I will say that inability to communicate is one of the most realistic problems any couple can face, but that comes more from styles of communication, including the inability to listen properly—which is tied up in personal history and sometimes education and experience. When I read a story where two men are struggling to make the other understand, I really do sympathize. It can be hard to be honest and vulnerable, even with the people you love most.  

DM -Yeah I do agree. That’s actually not that common a trope in Romance is it? I mean that ‘trying to make the other understand’ but failing. It’s not really ‘romantic’ as issues go – and in real life, as you say, it often doesn’t go away for the HEA.

JL – I kind of divide readers into two camps. (Well, three camps if we include readers just skimming for sex scenes. ;-D)  One camp has trouble believing in happy endings if the problems between the main characters are sufficiently painful and realistic. It doesn’t matter how much relationship work the couple does, these readers always have trouble believing anyone could surmount big issues like…infidelity. Heck, these readers have trouble with even the suggestion of infidelity, say a kiss that shouldn’t have happened. The second camp are the readers who, like you and me, enjoy the struggle to achieve that happy ending. In fact, I prefer those stories because to me the couple has been tested through fire and their love is triumphant.

DM - Yes again totally agree! Lisa Horan at The Novel Approach said in her review of Object of Desire I write ‘Genre Non Conforming Romance’ which was a revelation because-- who knew? She wasn’t talking about cheating there--there isn’t actually any cheating in OOD or BL. But--she’s right I think. That’s what I’ve been writing without realizing it, and perhaps what you wrote, more bravely with Jake Riordan in the brilliant Adrien English series?

 The second part of the audience you mentioned which includes you and I, may be more open to that kind of story? We value the struggle and a real fight for a happy ending.

But I also think people are right to say that Romance is a unique genre in that there is a kind of contract with the reader. Many people read it to relax--for the joy and security of knowing what’s coming.  That’s what the contract is. And I totally get that and understand the sucker punch of being dragged out of that comfort when you didn’t want or expect it, and get given something different that you didn’t want. I didn’t mean to bend the rules of the contract guys! It just keeps happening…

JL – One hundred percent in agreement that, when a book is labeled genre fiction—and regardless of what that genre is—there is an implicit understanding that writers will abide by the terms of the “contract” formed with the reader. If the book is labeled Western, there is an expectation of cowboys. If the book is labeled Mystery, there is an expectation of detecting—and a solution. If the book is labeled romance, there is an expectation of true love and a Happy Ever After.

What’s less clear, in fact, what I find fascinating is how “infidelity” can be defined, depending on the reader. As mentioned above, there are readers who get angry if the hero exchanges a kiss or even considers fooling around. Now in real life, these things happen. They just do. And that should be the point. Moral fortitude is tested by resisting temptation, not by never being tempted. It’s like courage. Courage is how you behave under fire, not being blind to a real and present danger. Also I notice timing is very important to some readers. I had a character break off his relationship over the phone and then go have sex with his romantic interest. One reader was troubled by this “infidelity.” To me, infidelity would have been not breaking the relationship off. As far as I know there is no official wait period once you’ve ended things.

DM - That’s a great point. The comfort zone in defining ‘cheating’ differs. For some it’s lying and betraying. That’s pretty clear. But as you say, for others it’s more… zero tolerance than that? I’m thinking of Jason in The Monet Murders – he didn’t half get it in the neck for a one night stand, even though Sam had broken up with him. He was hurt, he was trying to distract himself, he was being human. But there’s an element of ‘he has no business being human--he’s in a romance book’. Same with Ben in Bitter Legacy and  Tom in Object of Desire.  It’s how far Romance readers are prepared to tolerate that kind of ‘humanity’ in their heroes. I come from a fanfic tradition as you know and it’s definitely redder in emotional tooth and claw there. Maybe MM Romance comes more from MF romance? Maybe it’s evolving into a hybrid of both?  Or maybe not?

Actually, on this point, I read recently that there’s a sneak Third Romance Rule (after 1-Happ ending 2- No Cheating) that readers expect to be followed. Maybe that’s what’s in play here. The love interests must not have sex with anyone else after they meet in the book, even if they’re in sexual relationships with other people when they do meet. This applies even if they don’t commit to each other for some time in the book. For some readers, a character breaking that rule is tacit cheating (even if its awkward to call it that)- as Jason, Ben and Tom discovered. I crashed through that one in both books without knowing it existed.


 JL – Yeah, I would have to say that third rule is more of a guideline. 😉 If not outright wishful thinking. That said, I’m in complete agreement with your observations on inveterate cheaters. It’s one thing for extreme circumstances to result in a Big Mistake. The inability to resist any temptation…that’s just...ugh. Whether it’s gluttony or sloth or promiscuity or an addiction to QVC, the inability to control one’s self is something as a society we really, really look down on. We don’t like weak willed people, so fair enough that horn-doggery should be condemned in romance.

DM - Yeah I’m with you on that. I talk big about realistic flaws but in the end, we are talking… carefully chosen flaws. An inveterate cheat is pretty unattractive imo and one of the most unromantic concepts out there.  Personally, as a reader, I can’t deal with consensual non-monogamy as an endgame in Romance, so I’m marshmallow to the my core.

 One thing I’d possibly quibble on is promiscuity as a plot choice (if it’s not some sort of compulsion I mean).  Ben in BL used promiscuity deliberately as a defensive barrier against any romantic commitment and an emotional distraction for himself–it was a choice, not a compulsion or a helpless need for rampant sex with lots of men. A lot of readers though were very sure that he could never change his spots because promiscuity is looked at compulsive like inveterate cheating–an inability to resist any temptation.

JL – Oh, definitely! Plus, Ben was NOT in a committed relationship. When you’re young and single, is fooling around a lot genuinely promiscuous or is it just…normal male-in-his-sexual-prime behavior?

DM - So I think maybe there can be nuance. Ben for example, now he’s found someone who fits so perfectly what he wants and needs, will be compulsively faithful. Tom uses sex as part of an avoidance of commitment, sometimes as an avoidance of confrontation or loss.
On the whole though, yeah – pffft to horndoggery!


JL – You wrote: ‘Redemption and Forgiveness.  Genuine mistakes, genuine regret. All are powerful drivers of romance for me’. 
Ding Ding Ding!!! This. Like you, physical torture, abuse…that’s a no can do for me. A bad man on his knees? (Er… ) That’s romance.

DM - It really is. That’s putting it…perfectly!

******

Faithful reader, what do YOU think? Comment below!


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29 comments:

  1. I’m not a fan of cheating in romance. If I know a book has it, I just won’t read it.

    I have experience with a cheating spouse so I have no tolerance for it. I’ve also known several people who stayed with a cheating spouse but then years later ended up divorced when the spouse cheated again.

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    1. Very often it is a deal breaker. Yes. I have a good deal of experience with infidelity from pretty much every angle (other than me being the, er, infidel) so I know it can be weathered. I know of a nearly sixty year old marriage than weathered a series of infidelities twenty years ago.

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    2. I can totally understand and respect that Heather. but someone was mentioning today that there are Cancer survivor romances and endless addiction romances and I wonder if it applies that if these awful things have touched a readers life they cant stand the issue being touched in romance either? Maybe infidelity and these real life agonies are just too close to home for some of us? But not for others who can view them as plot details and grist for a happy ending?

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    3. Yes! And the thing is, romance is probably the most personal and subjective of all reading choices. Readers can be turned off by things as superficial as a mustache on a main character! Let alone the nitty gritty topics.

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  2. I’ve run across one or two romances that include infidelity (aside from those listed here), and surprised myself by rooting for the cheating couple. In each case, that’s who I was supposed to root for - they were, after all, the MCs. But in other novels and in real life, I find infidelity at the very least upsetting. I wonder how much of it is dependent on the MCs’ feelings of guilt?

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    1. That, and probably also the circumstances. Is retaliatory infidelity as hard to swallow as the original infidelity? Not sure myself.

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    2. Thats a great point - why do we root for unfaithful couples if theyre the MCs being unfaithful to other people? I very much agree about the real life reality of it Zoey, as opposed to the romance take on it- but as I said we do use a lot of unpleasant stuff in romance and give it a happy ending I suppose. I think the MCs feelings of guilt are pretty vital for redemption.I read a story not so long ago where the unfaithful guy came back after a few years, never apologised, never explained why he'd done it other than he wanted to, but the hurt party, while still scarred by what happened, went back to him because he couldnt resist the sex and his family were telling him not to be bitter. I found that one hard to cope with I admit. Because thats not a HEA to me.

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    3. ARGH. Yes. Remorse is key, I think. The main inflicted on the other character, the more groveling is required for that HEA to be believable. Or at least satisfying.

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    4. Yes! There has to be grovelling! Major sustained grovelling!

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  3. I'm definitely in your camp when it comes to 'cheating' in romance--although I wouldn't call it cheating, really. Cheating implies lies and deceit, which is hardly romantic. But in the case of Ben and Tom nobody is lying about what they’re doing, but they are knowingly hurting the person they love by sleeping around—and they’re doing it out of a misguided emotional self-defence which is actually sort of romantic once it resolves into a committed relationship. And also, crucially, they are hurting themselves just as much. Possibly, even more. They’re messing up—it’s not behaviour to applaud, and it’s not meant to be. It’s destructive and in the end they have to pay a price.

    But romance heroes making mistakes is what romance should be about! But they have to own the mistake and fix it. Darcy is a great example of this. He wasn’t misunderstood by Elizabeth, he acted like a genuine asshole. He realised it, learned from it, and changed. He earned his HEA.

    As for what turns me off in romance… Anything where the mystery in a rom-suspense centres on the death of a child would be an automatic no. Too painful. I’m not fond of romanticising PTSD either, especially when it only involves a few bad dreams and is cured by love. Another trope I’m not fond of is when the school bully and his victim meet again and fall in love—bullying is so traumatic and destructive that I find this very difficult to believe, and impossible to romanticise. (Having said that, Alexis Hall’s Pansies is an example of where it did work, but I think it’s a delicate subject that you have to be good to handle.) And ‘low angst’ is a tag that will have me backing away from a romance fast—I mean, what is the point of a romance with no angst? It’s like advertising food as ‘low flavour’.

    And now I’m off to eke out the last few chapters of Object of Desire which I’m loving and which I read entirely too fast! :D

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    1. God yes. If there's no journey, no character arc, what is the point of the story really? And that's as true in romance as any other genre.

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    2. Thats pretty much a perfect comment. It sums up - everything. Maybe we should just go and get drunk now J?

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  4. Infidelity in romance is such a different thing from real life cheating. There are convoluted but exculpatory reasons for cheating in many romances. In real life...there *can* be understandable and sympathetic reasons (the spouse is incarcerated? the spouse is MIA for years? the spouse is unable to function sexually for whatever reason?) but mostly it comes down to simply...straying. And that is not very sympathetic.

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    1. Thats the thing for me. Why cant readers distinguish between reality and fiction in that instance - infidelity - but they can for murder, assassination, organised crime, rape, torture, addiction, slavery/abuse...? What is it about this singular thing?

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  5. I think the point that infidelity means different things in different genres is correct. Jake Riordan from Josh's Adrien English series commits infidelity, rather frequently for awhile. And with Paul Kane! PAUL KANE! And yet, that is not the thing I remember disliking him for. I remember disliking him more for the way he treated Adrien and the way Adrien let himself be treated by Jake. Ultimately, I feel infidelity in literary works is both a writer's choice and a reader's prerogative. Some may find it's okay while others do not. Reading and writing, for that matter, are so intensely personal, that in some ways a general consensus would only last as far as the next reader.

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    1. It IS intensely personal, which is why it's impossible to insist people read to order--especially when it comes to escapist fiction. One person's trigger is another person's favorite trope, and that's fine.

      What does interest me though is how feelings about infidelity in romance have changed surprising little despite the fact that marital statistics have changed so much. We now take it for granted that people will have serial long term relationships.

      Yet the idea of a "soul mate" remains just as popular as ever, I suspect.

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    2. I agree Robespierre that tastes in literature are a hugely personal and subjective thing. What you describe there as your reaction to Jake in the Adrien English books is the opposite of my reaction to that exact same scenario. But dyou think it might have something to do with the continuing need for perfection in romance heroes? And that idea of 'soul mates' that means once two people meet they look at no one else in any circumstances? Someone said yesterday that they need their heroes not to have those kind of flaws by which they meant infidelity.
      But as I said in my initial post, Romance repeatedly uses aspects of real life that would be horrible in reality and absorbs and romanticises (sanitises?) them. Assassins? Mafia overlords? Slave owners? Rape? Personality disintegration? Sexual drives outwith the characters control?My puzzlement lies with why those things arent controversial really in Romance, but infidelity is, even with believable even understandable reasons. Jake in the Adrien English series is human. He makes human mistakes out of fear and self loathing really, and he pays a price for them, as Adrien does. I loved that the character's behaviour was so uncompromising because I understood why he did it and it made his character arc absolutely riveting. But I dont agree that Adrien let him off easily at all. Jake suffered too. The proof for me that the infidelity wasnt some sort of serial compulsion or anything other than situation-driven, was their HEA. I honestly thougth that series for all that the two MCs overcame including all Jake did, to be together is the most romantic out there. and theres a reason its iconic. )Sorry - Im pretty passionate about Adrien and jake. :p) But I totally take your point that its an entirely personal thing, as we both just proved. What I find intolerable or fascinating in a story, you might not, and vice versa :)

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  7. In my own experience (I was cheated on once), trust is really fragile, and once it is shattered, there is no way to recuperate it. And I cannot have a relationship with a person I do not trust so... The answer, in my case, would be no, a relationship cannot survive infidelity (unless you never find out, of course). I guess it is the best way to murder a relationship

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    1. Other than murder, well...you're probably right! It's kind of interesting what we can accept in fiction that would never play out in real life--but then fiction is not real life.

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  8. Well, obviously I don't think promiscuity is a dealbreaker cos I actually published the books we're talking about here. (lol) One caveat though: I wouldn't categorize Bitter Legacy or Object of Desire as a romance. They're thrillers with strong romantic subplots, but don't actually meet the sort of standard criteria for this story structure called "romance." But what's interesting to me is how, for romance readers, infidelity is in a separate category from other ways to break trust in a relationship. I mean, what about a spouse who spends/loses all your money in some irresponsible fashion without consulting you? Is that not also problematic? Selfish? Arguably more damaging thatn having an existential crisis and thinking that finding some strange will somehow cure it? If you're talking about a relationship that is, as the kids say, "endgame" each party is going to really, really fuck up somehow at some point because how can you possibly go 30+ years without making a huge mistake? (Just thinking aloud...)

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    1. Right. Exactly. The real crime is the betrayal of trust. Sex can be no more meaningful than playing tennis with another partner, depending on what your mind set is--and the mind set of your partner. The physical act...well, it's sacred in books in a way that it is not in real life. But trust actually is sacred in real life as well as in fiction.

      I watch a lot of true crime and it's interesting the number of husbands (and wives) who want to murder off a spouse simply because of financial considerations. Often they pretend to fall in love with new partners who are actually dupes.

      You could maybe forgive someone for fooling around or maaaaybe even losing your life savings gambling on horses, but planning to kill you...I'm pretty sure there's no forgiving that one. ;-)

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    2. Im in a state of emotional collapse at being told by my own editor (after the second book) that I dont write romance. Pass the smelling salts and call my lawyer. :p I mean - I TRY. *Sniff* Seriously Nikki, I do agree. There are multiple stories too where one main character takes some hugely highhanded decision (usually to dump the other MC to 'save' them, without consulting them ofc, thus causing them huge pain. But that's 'romantic'. In RL it would be appalling Id' think. But the truth is there - that mistakes are inevitable in a long relationship. Its just that one mistake -- choosing even for a moment - someone else- is in a different category from absolutely everything else for romance readers.

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  9. @Dal - you mentioned groveling... it took Adrien and Jake 5 books to get their HEA, which perhaps made it more believable to some readers. Did you ever consider writing more than one book to resolve Jamie&Ben's? Although I suppose Ben is still suffering inside, being in a relationship with the man he loves but still experiencing bouts of mistrust and jealousy.

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    1. Motty - hello! Right - Jamie and Ben. The thing is, Ben didnt really commit infidelity. During the start of their affair, he was monogamous only in Jamies head - he didnt promise a thing. And he went along with Jamies illusions because he didnt want their fling to end.- which was uncharacteristic in itself. He had a thing about being upfront about his unavailability, so I suppose you could say his 'lie by omission' was a kind of evidence that jamie was different. Jamie himself acknowledges that their monogamous love affair was all in his own head. But - I know what you mean. It *felt* like infidelity to the reader because it felt like that to Jamie. The reason I didnt explore Jamie and Bens relationship further in another book was really because I felt I had already put them through so much that challenging their relationship seriously (as one would have to do in a sequel) would not be acceptable to readers. Jamie and Ben really did go through the mill. Ben is still as you say suffering inside, but he probably always will to some extent, because his childhood left permanent scars. Jamie is his perfect fit though - something he never thought to have - and he wont ever risk losing him. Jamie in turn understands Ben well enough to know that he can count on him completely now Ben's taken that leap into trust at last. Imo BL kind of did resolve their issues, because when Ben made the decision to be with Jamie, that was the end of the promiscuity that he'd used as a shield against involvement. From that point their issues have been as you noticed - Bens fear of losing Jamie. But Jamie has no intention of letting him down and Ben does trust him. Jamies a white knight, remember? In a nutshell - they're happy. is that any use as an answer?

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    2. Teal aka Howie BingMay 26, 2018 at 1:46 PM

      I like the idea of one MC being a "player" who eventually gives up that lifestyle because he falls in love and discovers the appeal of monogamy. I'll always be interested in a story like that. And I'm willing to give a cheater a chance, so to speak.

      But I have my limits. Ben missed the mark for me, because he knowingly & deliberately misled Jamie, & allowed him to imagine they were exclusive. Only when Jamie had hopelessly fallen for him did he come clean about the fact that he was screwing everything that moved & intended to keep doing so.

      That deceit was impossible for me to forgive.

      But I love to see authors taking chances with flouting the (old, tired) conventions. Some readers will love it, some will hate it, but in the long run I think it helps keep the genre alive and vital.

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  10. I like it when individuals get together and share opinions.
    Great website, stick with it!

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  11. "Music and wood-chopping. What more could you ask for of a man? Besides fidelity, I mean."
    Christopher Holmes in Somebody Killed His Editor

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