Adultery in fiction is very much a mixed bag. Sometimes you have good adulterers: those you see as "just messing up" and can be sympathised with. Sometimes you have bad adulterers: those who are genuine Jerkasses and deserve to be caught and humiliated in front of a large crowd. This trope is in effect when there are at least two instances of cheating, and the work treats one as 'good' and the other as 'bad'.
On a superficial level, in fact, the distinction between good adulterers and bad can be entirely arbitrary. Most good writing, however, takes clarity and nuance into account, and there are many possible reasons why one adulterer can be seen as better than another.
Signs that someone is a "good" adulterer:
- The adulterer is the protagonist.
- Their partner is physically and/or emotionally abusive, to the point that they may well kill a partner whom they discover is cheating.
- Their partner is neglectful. A spouse who is constantly working late/taking long business trips, or always going out with their friends rather than staying home with their wife/husband (or taking them out instead).
- The relationship being "ruined" is quite literally loveless, so the adulterer is seeking emotional escape.
- The relationship is quite literally loveless, and that's basically expected. In works featuring arranged or convenience marriages, both spouses may very well take lovers near—or entirely—openly. (Or only the husband may have the option ) With political marriages in certain historic or fantastic societies, lovers may even be an acknowledged part of the household.
- The cheater was forced into the arrangement, either against their will, or as a guarantee to keep something terrible from happening to a loved one.
- For the sake of the One True Pairing. Especially obvious if both adulterers are long-term characters, but the individual being cheated on is only in the show at all because they are married to one of the adulterers.
- A couple still love each other but they are going through a rough spot, or they are "on a break." However the original relationship is not over over, so it's still portrayed as a kind of infidelity. Obviously this has a tendency to make the situation worse. Loneliness is often a huge factor in the cheater's motivations.
- The cheating is with a member of the same sex, unless the cheated on partner is also of the same sex.
- The other party cheated first. If they were only Mistaken for Cheating and find out that their partner retaliated by doing it for real, expect a lot of heated discussion of this trope.
- The adultered-upon spouse is physically incapable of sex due to age, disease, or injury. (Especially if they know about it and do not object.)
- For one reason or another, the cheaters in question (adulterer and/or paramour) simply did not know they were committing adultery. The adulterer might be unaware of being part of an Accidental Marriage, the cheated spouse might be deemed Legally Dead, someone may simply have neglected to get the divorce papers finalized, or the paramour may not be aware that the partner was already taken. See also Accidental Adultery.
- It's a society where it's accepted that marriage is for procreation and lovers are for pleasure, and the roles of a spouse and a lover are mutually exclusive.
Signs that a person is a "bad" adulterer:
- The person being cheated upon is the protagonist.
- Sheer shallowness. Rather than giving any actual reason for an affair, they just do it because it feels good. Or they just don't like the way their spouse looks anymore.
- In spite of the fact that they're cheating, they have no moral compunction about manipulating their partner for their own ends.
- Plain old dishonesty. Oftentimes, if a character is involved in an open relationship or is simply dating casually, having multiple partners isn't really a big deal. What really sets off the person being cheated on, though, is being lied to. Claiming to have an exclusive relationship, while actually not, is a guaranteed Berserk Button if the scorned lover finds out.
- When the cheated-upon character is dealing with heavy stress brought about because of the marriage or something else in their lives, and the affair further aggravates it.
- A Family Affair aka the cheater is cheating with another member of the cheated-upon character's family. The "mild" version tends to involve a cousin, sibling, uncle/aunt, etc.; some such situations grow out of a Sibling Rivalry that has taken a rather dark turn. More extreme cases may involve an Abusive Parent engaging in Parental Incest, which typically makes the cheater utterly irredeemable and has tragic consequences for both of the other partners.
- The cheating in general is meant to provoke discomfort in the form of sexual jealousy in the audience—see Cuckold.
- Lack of respect for the paramour. The paramour may be as much a victim of inexcusable deception as the cheated-upon partner. Or a paramour who knows about the cheating may be treated as an inferior or an object to be used, or strung along with empty promises of leaving the primary partner. Or the adulterer may deceive the paramour into thinking that the paramour is his only non-primary partner, when in reality the adulterer Really Gets Around and has many other lovers. (Points for hypocrisy when the paramour is knowingly participating in the deception, but is still outraged at being a victim of further deception.) The sympathetic adulterer, on the contrary, will seek as much as possible to have an undeceived paramour who is getting what they want from the relationship.
- The series displays Black-and-White Morality, in a setting where any deviation from sex within a marriage is considered morally wrong. This usually results in some form of Can't Get Away with Nuthin'.
- A female character in a very patriarchal setting, where men can do all the philandering they want, but women are expected to be chaste and faithful. However, she may risk falling into Unintentionally Sympathetic if she is already in a bad relationship with her husband.
- A male character in an equally harsh matriarchical or female-centric work where regardless of the circumstances of his relationship, he is expected to remain absolutely faithful and submissive to his partner's desires and will pay for his adultery no matter the justification.
- The partner has gone away, and the cheater has promised to wait for him or her to return, but finds their hearts (and other parts of their anatomy) wandering in the meantime. Especially if the cheated-upon partner is in the military, and has been deployed, or if they're part of a Long-Distance Relationship.
- The illicit relationship results in an unplanned pregnancy, or the transmission of an STI, or both.
- The person gets a Karmic STD for their infidelity.
- The cheated-on partner finds out by way of their being diagnosed with an STI they could only have contracted from their cheating spouse or significant other.
- If it involves royalty and nobility, the affair ends up resulting in a Succession Crisis.
- The cheater is coercing or outright raping the person or people they're cheating with. This is especially horrific if the cheater is targeting children.
A lot of this probably stems from the fact that adultery in Real Life is complex and difficult; while people cheat for many reasons (some understandable and sympathetic, others less so), it's still considered a betrayal of the other partner in the relationship.
Note that this documents how a specific work varies in its portrayal of adultery and the reasons thereof, not to cast your own judgments on a character's decisions.
- For Better or for Worse
- Good: Anthony constantly pursuing his childhood sweetheart Elizabeth... while married to Therese. Anthony is clearly meant to be the one we sympathize with.
- Bad: Elizabeth cheated on by her long-term boyfriend at college is treated as a great betrayal. Intriguingly, when she finally figures out what's going on and confronts him at the other woman's apartment, the other woman immediately turns around and cries "you pig! You're cheating on me!?"
- And in between the two there was her boyfriend Paul, who cheated on her with his childhood friend. While this was meant to show how bad Paul was for Elizabeth, she led him on. (Example: When he finally got the transfer to the rural town Elizabeth was teaching at so he could live with her, she decides to move back to her hometown.)
- In Braveheart, the English have quite a few bad cheaters, with their lords raping married (and non-married) Scottish women, and King Longshanks' sniveling son having an obvious affair while ignoring the needs of his wife, Princess Isabella— not to mention). On the other hand, Isabella then has a romantic affair with the heroic Scottish rebel William Wallace.
- Spanglish. Adam Sandler's character is the one left sexually unsatisfied due to how quickly his wife gets off (and subsequently falls asleep). Later on, when she is discovered to be a cheater, she is vilified. Meanwhile, his affection for the maid is justified in much the way that the typical "woman finds love out of marriage" is, but they are both strong enough to realize that they can't have what they want.
- Used in Dodsworth. Throughout the main part of the film, the wife, desperate to feel young, wealthy and attractive, pursues other men and lashes out at her husband whenever he implies any impropriety on her part; the film makes an effort to understand her state of mind, but she's still unsympathetic. The husband, meanwhile, winds up leaving her in the end for a much nicer woman, and it plays out as a triumphant moment.
- In The Wolverine, the good adulterer Logan, sleeps with Mariko, but he's a wounded soul and she's trapped in a loveless engagement. The bad adulterer, Noburo, is just getting his jollies on, and was engaged to Mariko to get money. He's also conspiring to have her killed for even more money.
- Little Children fits this mold as well. Sarah's husband is shown to be rather perverse, using internet pornography and fetishes to get his kicks and ignoring Sarah's emotional and sexual needs; so her cheating on him may be seen as acceptable. Brad, however, is a stay-at-home father who seems to have latent resentment over his wife's control over the money, and run of the household. But, Brad's wife does not commit any major indiscretions against him, with the exception of being somewhat distant to his feelings of personal inadequacies; so Brad cheating on her is somewhat less sympathetic. However, one of the central themes of the film is the fact that basically good people can do very bad things, and that social mores and values often don't factor in well in real world situations.
- Frida: When Frida Kahlo's husband Diego cheats on her, it's nearly always portrayed in an unflattering, unsympathetic light. When Frida herself cheats, it's always presented as sexy and/or romantic, along with the not-so-subtle implication that she's only doing it because her husband already did.
- Played With in The Last Letter From Your Lover. Anthony cheated on his wife in the backstory and this is seen as a negative thing by both his ex-wife, himself, and Jenny, who wonders if Anthony might also cheat on her. And while Jenny is a Sympathetic Adulterer and her affair with Anthony is the film's big romance, her husband Larry rightly points out that the courts will see her as a bad adulterer regardless.
- In The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), Mercedes sleeps with Edmond, who she had been engaged to before his arrest and apparent death, was still in love with after all these years, and was the true father of her son. It's also implied to be the only time she strayed from her husband in nearly two decades of marriage. Her husband Fernand, on the other hand, had casual affairs with at least four other women since getting married, some of them already married themselves, and on one occasion killed his mistress' husband in a duel when he objected.
- A Royal Affair: Neither Christian nor Caroline are faithful to each other. Christian's numerous dalliances with prostitutes is treated less sympathetically than Caroline's affair with Struensee. At some points Christian brings prostitutes into the palace where Caroline can see, humiliating her in front of the court. Caroline puts up with Christian's wild and sometimes cruel behavior for years with little in the way of support and companionship, until she falls in love with Struensee. They also try to keep their affair discreet (though everyone figures it out eventually). Caroline passing off her daughter with Struensee as Christian's is treated as a necessary act to protect her children, and the lovers are punished extremely harshly for their affair in their end.
- Blackpool: Ripley's affairs are casual sex, while Natalie's is about love. Ripley eventually tells her to go be with the man she loves.
- ER: Jeannie Boulet is a Sympathetic Adulterer during her affair with Peter Benton, as her husband has been cheating on her left and right for years, culminating in him contracting HIV and giving it to her.
- Fresh Off the Boat: Next-door neighbors Marvin and Honey Ellis' affair is seen as either, depending which side of the conflict you're on. Marvin had issues with his last wife Sarah long before he started having an affair with Honey, which ultimately led to him divorcing her and marrying his mistress. Yet, most of the neighborhood wives still vilify Honey and make her a pariah in the cul-de-sac community.
- Friends: While Ross' reasons for cheating on Rachel were understandable if not condoned it was played for drama, a few episodes later Joey slept with a married woman just because he wanted to and that was played for laughs.
- In Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War, a highly plot-significant couple features both. Duke Victor of Velthomer is bad, as a serial adulterer and rapist who tried to throw his pregnant victim out of his householdnote . His wife Lady Cigyun is good, as she takes The Wise Prince as a lover in the aftermath of finding out about Victor's crime. Those who know the story sympathize with her for having such an awful husband.
- Adultery is one of the main themes of In Your Arms Tonight, which begins with the protagonist's discovery that her husband of three months is having an affair. She has the option of divorcing him immediately, but there are several routes in which she doesn't, and instead ends up getting involved with another man while she is still married. This is always portrayed sympathetically as the protagonist finding the love and support that her husband is not providing to her, and only in one such route does she carefully refrain from physical intimacy with her love interest because she feels it would make her no better than her husband. Her husband's infidelity, on the other hand, is never presented sympathetically: it is a purely physical relationship, and in one route he goes so far as to tell the protagonist that he is cheating on her because she does not have enough sex appeal.
- Better Days:
- Elizabeth caught her husband screwing the head of their homeowner's association, and she responded by having an affair with Fisk before confronting her unfaithful husband and demanding a divorce. For worse, they had been attempting to have a baby at the time which made he angrily rant to a friend about how he'd been wasting it all on the other woman.
- When Lucy is in college, her roommate, Rachel, frequently cheated on her boyfriend while expecting to marry him someday. This is treated as bad adultery, since the boyfriend is a sweet guy. Lucy having the boyfriend cheat on Rachel with her is good adultery, because Lucy really loves him and is the protagonist. Granted she is faithful to him and they eventually get married, but a later storyline that has her debate whether or not to cheat on him with her other roommate's boyfriend partially shows her as sympathetic because she feels unsure about limiting herself to one lover. The only reason it's treated as bad is because one of her friends points out that she'd be throwing away a good, loving relationship for a fling.
- Fisk's best friend in grade school has parents in an obviously dysfunctional marriage, his father strikes up a friendship with Fisk's (widowed) mother that quickly turns into an affair that leads to divorce. The friend's mother moves away and takes her son with him, causing Fisk to hate his mom's new boyfriend; however years later he forgives him, though doesn't admit how immature he was being at the time.