Friday, December 14, 2012

Cheating: A Sticky Issue in Romance Fiction – Part One – By BG Thomas

So first, a quick apology. It’s been a month since I posted. A lot was going on. My anniversary with my husband (12 years!).  Going to CA to spend Thanksgiving with his family and we got to go to San Francisco for two days! His first time and for me the first time in about 13 years. My husband’s birthday. NaNoWriMo (I made the 50k and the novel will be finished in the next day or so). And more. Plus I am wigged out about my impending surgery to get a knee replacement on Dec 10th (send me healing energy?).

No excuses. Just an apology.

And now on to the meat of a situation that I am HOPING gets me some input to understand a sticky situation in Romance Literature. And that is the subject of cheating.

I can say one thing, it will get you some bad (and I mean major bad) reviews every time if one of your character cheats or does something a reader considers cheating in any way whatsoever. It seems to be the anathama in romance, no matter what. There doesn’t seem to be a situation where it is permitted, unless the cheater is the villian. Once a cheater, always a cheater in many a romance reader’s mind.

Even in a situation where the story is about redemption, about someone making a mistake that he is deeply sorry for committing and wants nothing more than to make up for it.

The cheating can be the result of many a Real Life event. Maybe he was weak. Perhaps he was hurt and having revenge sex. Hell, I remember a soap opera I saw a thousand years ago when I was in college where two people are stranded in a snow storm in a cabin and wind up having sex. Seems in M/M romance, a hell of a lot of readers would not only be unforgiving of the two character’s mistake, but might hold the grudge on the writer as well. A hero isn’t permitted to have sex with anyone but his lover even if he’s stranded for ten years on a deserted island.

Now what the hell is this about?

Cheating happens. It is a part of life. It is a part of being in a relationship. In my research I found that estimates that between 20 to 60% of couples will fall into infidelity at some point during the relationship. Many sites argued that those numbers are on the conservative side. Some put it at around 20-20%. The trouble on getting an accurate count is that very few people are willing to admit their adultery.

The statistics I found for gay couples was alarming, reporting that at least 29% cheated, and the book “Sex in America: A Definitive Survey,” by Michael, Gagnon, Laumann, and Kolata cited that in couples they studied, and who had been together 1 to 37 years, 100% of all the couples experienced infidelity within the first 5 years and that couples who made it past 10 years did so only by accepting the reality of infidelity in their relationships.

Wow! Even I was surprised. Not very romantic, huh?

So the fact is, in the real world, people cheat for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s just because they’re a scum ball. I would never say that about my cheating ex-husband of many years ago, because he’s not here to speak for himself. But sometimes the cheating happens because the person is just a jerk. But there are tons and tons and tons of other reasons. I know of someone that I think is a great guy, and he cheats for several reasons, the major one being that his partner of many years is pretty much unable to have sex and refuses to allow them to have an open relationship.

Sometimes it just happens, when it was the last thing they ever wanted. They were going through a really bad patch, they weren’t having sex, they were spending too much time apart, loneliness became a huge issue, and then one day it the right (or wrong) circumstance led up to infidelity. Say one partner was out of town and the one left at home was feeling desperate and ugly and unattractive and horribly lonely and then some stunning hot stud at a bar just started being nice to them. Before he knew it, he’s laying there in bed after sex asking himself, “What the fuck did I just do?”

SO! I ask myself as a writer, isn’t all this incredibly fertile ground for some great stories? The biggest ones being how a couple deal with this and come together in forgiveness and pull themselves through stronger and better than ever? I’ve asked gay couples who’ve been together for decades how they did it. The biggest answer? Forgiveness.

I was asking a close friend about all this and was surprised that despite all I have said above, she said that when she read a romance she doesn’t want reality. She lives in reality every day. When she reads romance, she wants it practically sugary sweet, where both men fall in love and could never consider anything but monogamy.

Here is my guess on the big reason why readers don’t like cheating in their romance stories.

I see through statistics and by simple looking at my friends and acquaintances, gay and straight, that for whatever reason, a lot of people have been cheated on. I was. My first long term lover cheated on me so much he should have installed a revolving door to replace our front door. He cheated hundreds of times and I stupidly kept forgiving him, thinking that one day he would change. "He’s a good man," I would cry. "He just has this problem and he’s trying to get better. Marraige means for better or for worse, not just for better. If I ride this out, he will finally stop cheating on me and we will survive!"

He never stopped and I finally realized I would rather live in a cardboard box in an alley than live with him one more minute. I gave him the boot.

So for those who have been cheated on and deeply hurt? I understand. Trust me.

However, my intial forgiveness of my ex’s cheating? It wasn’t because I was a sap. Nope. It was because I understood he was human. And as humans we make mistakes. I’ve been tempted. I was on a campout with 120 gay men and my husband wasn’t there. I was feeling sad and lonely, I was deeply depressed because of my job. This beautiful young man started talking to me. He was smart and emotional and energtic and passionate about life. We conntected on many levels. Then I suddenly realized that we had a mutual attraction going on. This thin, stunning man, twenty years my junior, wanted me. And I wanted him.

I managed to resist. We didn’t cheat. But Lord I wonder what might have happened had a had a few glasses of wine or beer under my belt?

Was my attraction to this man because I am a scum sucker? No. I am a good man. A very good man. But I was tempted.

Would my husband have left me if I had played around with this guy? No. We love each other deeply and are commited to making our relationship work. I told him the instant he arrived at camp two days later what had happened and he told me there was nothing even to forgive.

A lot to think about…

And in Part Two of this…I’ll get back to cheating in fiction and romance fiction. I hope to hear back from you on this! It will certainly guide what I write about in the future!

BG Thomas


  1. I am one of the unique readers who don't mind cheating in a book. I don't read to escape-I read because well, I enjoy reading LOL! I actually prefer novels with realistic storylines. Life is messy and imperfect and I like seeing how fictional characters overcome their problems. It gives me hope that the same can be achieved in real life.

    Hope the knew replacement went well :).

  2. I don't mind cheating in a book either, because I know sometimes that's how real life pans out, and I enjoy it as a plot complication, but I get why readers often find it hard to handle. Great article. Looking forward to part 2.

  3. For me it depends on how things are handled, and it all comes down to the story.

    There's a difference between the characters just not being monogamous at first, and cheating. Technically, in a romance novel, characters are supposed to be monogamous from the moment they meet. I've seen some authors buck this in MM by mentioning in retrospect that they "occasionally saw other men at first, but over time decided not to." As far as I'm concerned as a reader, that works fine. But I'll be honest—I don't want to see those hook ups described.

    There is nothing worse to me than reading a romance and not knowing who the heroes are. GAH, I HATE that. I want to know who to root for, and who to care about. If the hero starts boning someone else in the first few chapters I have no idea what's going on. But, that's not cheating. That's just unclear storytelling.

    Then there's having an open relationship. Personally, I'm sorry more MM authors don't incorporate more elements of openness into their stories. I've read so many MM romances where characters got jealous if their lover DANCED with another man. DANCED! I'ma straight lady in a perfectly mainstream marriage to a guy from the midwest, and I would never in a million years feel like my dancing w another guy was "cheating". I go to cons and dance w guys, come back and laugh to my husband about whether they got tipsy and squeezed my ass. It's all in good fun!

    But "cheating" is different, because it means you and the other person agreed to be monogamous. It's hard for me to relate to the concept of cheating as I've never had a discussion with a partner where we "agreed to be monogamous." I was always monogamous from the first time we hooked up, and the guys I was with pretty much were, too. I'm an insta-relationship type and I tend to attract men like me.

    Basically, what I'm saying in a really un-elegant way, is that there are several issues here.

    1. "Cheating" means the hero let the other person down, or transgressed in a way that was hurtful. From my perspective, doing so is no different than any other hurtful transgression. BUT-Is cheating like leaving the toilet seat up? Or is it like maliciously running the dog over with the car? Depends on the couple. Depends on the story.

    2. Just not being monogamous (yet). This is a reality in many early relationships, and how its handled should work with the story. The goal isn't insta-monogamy, but good storytelling.

    3. Degrees of openness. This, to me, is where MM romances (and all romances, imo) fall short. According to romance-lore, my dancing with a go-go boy at a writer's con should be reason for my husband to go into full-on chest-beating alpha-male mode. It should lead to sulking and wailing, husband vowing to beat the crap out of the tiny go-go boy for daring to touch, NAY! TO LOOK AT! my ass. And that's just freaking ridiculous.

    ..anyway, that's my 2 cents (sorry it's so long. :)