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Good Adultery, Bad Adultery

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When it comes to infidelity, like most things in life, human beings commit what social psychologists call the actor-observer bias. If you cheat, it’s because you are a selfish, weak, untrustworthy person. But if I do it, it’s because of the situation I found myself in. For ourselves, we focus on the mitigating circumstances; for others, we blame character.

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. The best 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. It is 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.
  • Rather than giving any actual reason for an affair, they just do it because it feels good.
  • They dislike their partner for shallow reasons, such as being too old or unattractive, and cheat on them with someone more conventionally beautiful.
  • 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, 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.

Compare Sympathetic Adulterer. See also The Unfair Sex, where the distinction seems to fall across the Gender line (but may also use the above to justify it).


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    Comic Strips 
  • For Better or for Worse:
    • Good: Anthony constantly pursuing his childhood sweetheart Elizabeth... while married to Thérèse. Anthony is clearly meant to be the one we sympathize with.
    • Bad: Elizabeth being 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.)
    • A pair of Gossipy Hens claim in one strip that Thérèse has been cheating on Anthony. However, no evidence of their claims is ever presented, and comes off as Cheater Gets Cheated On.

    Fan Works 
  • In Dirty Sympathy, Daryan is perfectly fine with Klavier sleeping around with female groupies, as he does the same thing. However, he's also a Domestic Abuser, and dislikes the notion of Klavier getting romantically involved with anyone else. Klavier falling in love with Apollo is treated very sympathetically by the narrative, as he's desperate to escape Daryan's grasp.
  • The Draco Trilogy has Ron fall victim to a Bed Trick where the culprit magically disguised herself as Hermione. This is treated as an unforgivable betrayal, even though he honestly had no idea of her true identity. By contrast, Hermione making out with Draco and spending several nights cuddling in bed with him is completely glossed over and treated as no big deal.
  • Help Me Hold Onto You: Daniel and Charity are cheating on each other. For Daniel, this is sympathetic because he's trapped in a loveless marriage — and in the Le Domas family, Divorce Requires Death. Charity, by contrast, is vilified for this; when Grace discovers that she's been cheating on him with her husband, Alex, she's so furious that she can't even speak at first, and it fuels her own affair with Daniel.
  • Percy Jackson: An Age Gone By: Perseus starts the story married to Medeia, but eventually decides to start a relationship with Artemis, intending to divorce his wife after returning to Greece. Later, following his death, Artemis learns that Medeia had started an affair of her own while her husband was away, and is so infuriated that she kills them both at his mother's request. To make this more palatable, it's heavily implied that either Medeia or her lover had been abusing Perseus' mother.

    Film — Live Action 
  • In Braveheart, the English have quite a few bad cheaters, with their lords raping married (and non-married) Scottish women, and King Longshanks's 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—which she goes on to whisper to Longshanks's ear while he's on his deathbed, powerless to tell anyone else or do anything about it.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A Royal Affair: Neither Christian nor Caroline are faithful to each other. Christian's numerous dalliances with prostitutes are 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

  • Magpie Murders: Moonflower Murders. Bad adultery is Susan's considered affair with Craig (though she doesn't actually do it), and Melissa's in-story affair with Leonard, who murdered her to conceal it; good adultery is Cecily cheating on the sociopathic Aiden, who eventually murdered her, with Stefan, and even getting pregnant by him and raising the baby with Aiden - since it meant that Roxana still had a father when Cecily was murdered and Aiden committed suicide.
  • The Silerian Trilogy: Ronall constantly cheats on Elelar with random women and is an abusive drunk. Elelar also sleeps with many other men, though only to gain information for La Résistance, and she is mostly portrayed sympathetically, as she's stuck with him as her husband.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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 on 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's 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.
  • Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: In episode Choreographed Wesley Masoner and Naomi Cheales are married lovers, but Naomi is treated much more charitably by both the story and the detectives. While Wesley was a smug serial cheater with a bit of a violent streak, Naomi only cheated with Wesley and was driven to do so because she felt suffocated by her husband Glenn's insecurities. She also reveals how she didn't like Wesley boasting to Glenn about their affair—referring to Naomi as "Jen" while doing so—and seems genuinely remorseful when Glenn finds out.

  • Bon Jovi: in the music video for "Always," a pair of lovers mutually betray each other. The behavior of the man is seen as frivolous (he attempts to sleep with his partner's friend the first time they are left alone together), but the cheating of the woman is portrayed more as an emotional response and an action that she clearly regrets afterwards. Although they reconcile, the man doesn't handle his partners infidelity very gracefully and responds by blowing up the other man's apartment, which causes the woman to end the relationship permanently.

    Myths and Legends 
  • Tristan and Iseult: In the early versions, the title characters were treated sympathetically (somewhat justified since they accidentally drank a Love Potion), but so was the cuckolded King Mark. Later writers, apparently displeased with this moral ambiguity, turned Mark into a Dirty Coward who rapes and murders his own niece, so now it's okay that Iseult is sleeping with his nephew.note  Modern retellings sometimes go back to the nicer King Mark.

  • Diana: The Musical: Diana and Charles are mutually unfaithful in their marriage, but Diana's infidelity is portrayed as the result of years of mistreatment by Charles, who began cheating on her with his longtime mistress very early in their marriage. When their affairs come to light, the public is more sympathetic towards Diana and sees it as an indictment of the royal family.

    Video Games 
  • In Dragon Age: Origins, it's possible to get married and have an affair in a couple of different combinations, with entirely different connotations from the characters involved. Zevran refuses to romance you and Alistair or Leliana at the same time, because he's "no cheat." But if you're just married for political reasons, he'll be happy to be The Mistress. Leliana expects faithfulness if romanced, but her attitude toward being The Mistress to a married Warden depends on whether she's been hardened or not. (For their part, the marriage candidates know the score and will not object to a lover.)
  • 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.

    Visual Novels 
  • 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.

    Web Animation 

  • 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 him angrily rant to a friend about how he'd been wasting it all on the other woman.
    • When Lucy was 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 that 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 he doesn't admit how immature he was at the time.