Infidelity is one of the most traumatic, heartbreaking experiences someone in a romantic partnership can go through, so why does it often get glamorized on screen? Our culture seems obsessed with cheating as a concept – with entire shows based around it. And in real life cheating scandals, we live for the drama. Adam Levine, The Try Guys, Good Morning America hosts Amy Robach and TJ Holmes – these stories compel us because we see the mask of celebrity slip, and we’re able to view these people through a different lens. Here’s our take on the popularity of infidelity stories, why they’re so entertaining, and how more nuanced portrayals of cheating show us that it’s not always so black and white.
Infidelity is one of the most traumatic, heartbreaking experiences someone in a romantic partnership can go through, so why does it often get glamorized on screen? Our culture seems obsessed with cheating as a concept – with entire shows based around it. Film scholar Jeanine Basinger says of its prevalence in film that, “It’s interesting, it’s common, and it’s juicy.” It’s possible that, given nearly 50% of people in monogamous relationships say that they’ve had affairs – watching these real-life scenarios play out on screen can be cathartic.
And in real life cheating scandals, we live for the drama. Adam Levine, The Try Guys, Good Morning America hosts Amy Robach and TJ Holmes – these stories compel us because we see the mask of celebrity slip, and we’re able to view these people through a different lens. The real life consequences may be devastating, but we become invested because we too feel like we’ve been misdirected
“We found that Ned had engaged in conduct unbecoming of our team, and we knew we could not move forward with him.” – Try Guys
Here’s our take on the popularity of infidelity stories, why they’re so entertaining, and how more nuanced portrayals of cheating show us that it’s not always so black and white.
The uncomfortable truth is, no matter how taboo it is, infidelity often feels exciting. In fact, it’s because it’s taboo that it’s so exciting. What helps create this spark is also the fact that the stakes are high. Getting caught could irrevocably change lives, and we don’t know whether it would be for better or for worse. In Scandal, Fitz and Olivia Pope’s affair has the potential to ruin their careers. Alicia and Will’s affair on The Good Wife has the added complication of a workplace power dynamic. Connie’s affair with Paul in Unfaithful feels actively dangerous, because of what we anticipate Connie’s husband may do if he finds out.
In The White Lotus, we see how the spark that infidelity creates gets harnessed by Ethan and Harper to almost rekindle something dormant in them. When we first meet them, there is a flatness and a boredom to their relationship. Harper’s infidelity doesn’t feel like a complete surprise – in fact, given how loveless their relationship seems, we almost will her to do it — because we want someone to see her in the same way that we, the audience, see her.
Harper: “We’re not attracted to each other anymore, or at least you’re not attracted to me.” – White Lotus
But once they’ve both cheated (or at least we believe they did) – the couple reunites, and they’re able to find each other attractive again. The takeaway is that they must effectively become like their friends Daphne and Cameron, who openly enjoy the sting of infidelity, in order to keep their sex lives and marriage alive.There’s a brief flash of contentment, but there’s still something that feels unresolved in their final moments, which maybe speaks to how messy and complicated infidelity actually is.
Sometimes, the spark of infidelity is preferable to the dullness of married life, and so we see cheating as the more exciting, even the more romantic option. In Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love , the relationship that Chow and Su develop over the course of the film is achingly romantic. And in watching it, we can’t help but be sucked in by the excitement of new love blooming. Similarly in Brief Encounter, Laura and Alec’s secret relationship never crosses the line to become physical, but that doesn’t detract from how emotionally heart-wrenching it is. In these cases, we are invited to examine the so-called immorality of infidelity. If someone is stuck in a relationship that doesn’t make them happy, and then meets someone who does – we seem to immediately want them to do the rash, reckless thing of following their heart, regardless of the consequences.
Alec: “Shall I see you again?”
Laura: “It’s the other platform isn’t it, you’ll have to run. Don’t bother about me, mine’s not due for a few minutes.” – Brief Encounter
Ultimately, the spark of infidelity is about desire. Whether that be the desire for another person, or the desire for another life entirely. But what’s interesting is when we as the viewer understand, and even encourage that desire – versus when we judge or shame it. And often, there’s a gendered divide in where we draw that line. Our image of the male cheater is very different from our image of the female cheater. With male cheaters, we are often invited to side with the scorned woman, and see the man as immature, stupid, or even cruel for compromising his relationship.
When it was revealed that Jay-Z cheated on Beyoncé, or that Adam Levine cheated on his Victoria’s Secret model wife Behati Prinsloo, the responses weren’t so much criticism as much as they were disbelief. Implicit in this is the fact that when men cheat, there’s very little understanding. In Friends, Ross’ repeated cry of “we were on a break!” is more of a running gag, and even though we know the situation is blurry, and the morality of what he did was not completely black and white, he still has to do a lot of atonement in order to win Rachel back.
Rachel: “My Mom never thought this would work out. She was all ‘once a cheater, always a cheater.” - Friends
Men cheating often feel selfish, or driven by ego. In Marriage Story, Charlie admits that his notoriety and his fame encouraged him to have affairs because of the newfound attention he was getting, and almost blames Nicole for not allowing him to take advantage of that. When Owen Hunt cheats on Cristina in Grey’s Anatomy, it feels like it’s an act of spite to get back at her for not wanting kids. The multiple affairs had by nearly all the men in Mad Men all feel evidence of their lack of care for the women they’re supposed to love.
Similarly, in Revolutionary Road, Frank Wheeler’s affair feels like it’s born out of a need to feel young and exciting again. As a result, these male affairs often feel empty and pointless, and it becomes hard to sympathize with them. As Jeremy Helligar writes, “In Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close had to go homicidal for Michael Douglas to get an ounce of sympathy.”
On the contrary, when women cheat they often get a pass. Arizona cheating on Callie in Grey’s Anatomy is arguably just as ego-driven as Owen’s, but her explanation rings truer. In Desperate Housewives, we don’t mind so much that Gabrielle is having a steamy affair with the younger gardener because it feels like her husband Carlos sees her more as a trophy wife. Even Carrie cheating on Aiden with Big in Sex and the City – while heartbreaking for anyone who’s #TeamAiden – is somewhat justified by the fact that her and Big are the central romantic story of the season, that they’re “meant to be” in the end – and the fact that her contrition over the affair feels genuine.
Carrie: “He was married and it was a mess, and I don’t know what I was thinking, I wasn’t thinking.” — Sex and the City
Other times it’s more than a pass. Women who are unfaithful are often seen as having to cheat out of necessity to escape an unfit partnership with a villainous man – like Rose in Titanic or Pam from The Office. In real life, we often think of infidelity as a male problem, but in fact, instances of women cheating have increased by as much as 40% over the past few decades. So, by challenging our assumptions on who can cheat, we’re faced with the reality that infidelity isn’t always so easy to pass judgment on.
Often infidelity itself isn’t what’s complicated, it’s what happens after the infidelity is exposed. How a couple has to navigate the road ahead knowing that this betrayal has taken place, and that the perceived solidity of their relationship has crumbled beneath them. An interesting example comes in Worth, where it’s revealed that one of the 9/11 victims whose wife, Karen, is entitled to compensation had a secret other family, who would also be entitled to compensation.
So not only does Karen have to grieve her husband, she has to grieve him doubly, knowing that this betrayal was going on under her nose and she was never able to confront him about it. At the same time, neither she nor his brother are willing to throw him completely under the bus, given the heroic nature of how he died, and how good a father he was. When given all these competing emotions and facets of the man’s character, it’s much harder to make firm judgments.
Karen: “What are their names?”
“Karen go back in the house.”
Karen: “No, I wanna know.” – Worth
In The Crown, we also get a more complex, nuanced take on one of the most notorious cheating scandals of recent times — Prince Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. For a long while, this did feel like a simple case of a bad man, a mistress, and a scorned woman. Diana’s famous “there were three people in this relationship” line was a shot that rang out through the ages. But the show complicates this by showing how Charles always wanted to marry Camilla, but wasn’t allowed and how badly Camilla was treated by the public.
So the piecing back together of Diana’s life is less about seeing Charles as the man who scorned her, but rather about what her life is now that she’s in the aftermath of this event. A similar dynamic exists with Alicia on The Good Wife. We regularly see flashbacks of her life then, before her husband’s infidelity was the talk of the town, and her life now that she’s back at work – still discovering more information about the truth of her husband’s affairs. She has to move forward, but the grief over her lost relationship is a constant weight on her life. Bobby Goldstein, executive producer on the hit reality show Cheaters, calls infidelity “the drama of life,” but maybe the falsehood in representations of infidelity is that it’s always seen as dramatic.
In Conversations With Friends, all that drama is removed from the situation, and we see infidelity as something that emerges in a more organic, almost prosaic way. And perhaps this ordinariness is truer to the reality of infidelity. That it isn’t always couples being thrown off course by a third party thrown into their midst, or lives blowing up after shocking revelations. That sometimes it’s the culmination of a lot of different things, and something that takes time to wrestle with and make sense of. Infidelity is common. Despite this, it can still be traumatic, and feel like something that’s impossible to come back from — both as a couple and as an individual — either someone who’s been wronged, or someone who’s done the wrong thing.
Don: “I’d do anything I could to undo what happened.”
Betty: “What happened?”
Don: “I was not respectful to you.” – Mad Men
We’re drawn to these stories because they allow us to imagine the worst, and maybe re-frame it as something that is manageable, navigable, even understandable. And as much as it seems we’re invested in the spectacle of a dramatic, gut wrenching, cheating story – hopefully shows like Conversations With Friends – that offer us a more realistic portrayal of infidelity – become more of the norm.