This is where I immediately contradict myself. I don't seek out romantic fiction, by that I mean category/standalone contemporary and historical m/f. I prefer stories where relationships evolve organically over the course of two or more books rather than being constrained by HAVING to provide a happily ever after at page 350.
My main reading (if you didn't already know) is fantasy, urban fantasy and dark fantasy, my contemporary romantic fiction is mainly m/m.
But I think regardless of genre my opinion on infidelity between partners in fiction is:-
- It depends strongly on the skill of the writer.
- The infidelity MUST serve the story in some way. It must push the story forward either through character or plot development. Something must either change or be revealed.
Where one partner sleeps with someone outside the relationship, to protect either their partner or their children. This is essentially a form of rape. Although as an observer (the reader) you could argue that the character had other choices open to them, it's usually clear that the character themselves feels trapped in the situation.
I've read this with both a female character and a male character as the trapped protagonist. In both cases there was a major effect on both character and plot development. Nobody walked away from the situation unscathed, there were profound consequences for all involved.
WHEN ONE PARTNER KNOWS THE OTHER WILL BE UNFAITHFUL
This is trickier to pull off.
Again two examples.
Phaedre the heroine of Kushiel's Dart is a courtesan and a masochist. Her consort, Joscelin, knows this - knows that she will have sex with other people. But the reader doesn't doubt that they have a strong relationship. Their circumstances are part of the society they live in and the social status they have. Importantly, she doesn't make false promises to him.
Warrick and Toreth of The Administration Series are probably one of the most complex couples I've read. The more emotionally intimate they become (or seem to become), the more Toreth reacts against it by 'fucking his way round the city'. Everything they do is completely wrapped up in who they are as characters, everything serves to pull back another layer and reveal more.
MAKE OR BREAK
Perhaps the most common use of infidelity - one that definitely seems to crop up often and I think one that is therefore most likely to be mishandled by the author and/or misunderstood by the reader.
There is a breakdown of some kind in the relationship and the affair/one night stand is either a last ditch effort to get the other partner to wake up or it's a cry for help.
There are probably numerous examples if I thought hard enough and it doesn't always have to involve sexual intercourse, sometimes the infidelity is more about emotional intimacy. One example of this Sterling leaving Owen in Bound and Determined by Alexa Snow and Jane Davitt.
I think in the end it will always come down to the individual writer and reader.
But infidelity between characters shouldn't be used as shorthand for 'they've got a problem', quickly followed by ' it's okay now, all's forgiven'. If there's a breakdown in trust that should have consequences. If it's an accepted part of the relationship that will still have ramifications for how the protagonists deal with each other, and how readers respond to the characters.
I don't think it's a plot direction that should be taken lightly but when handled well it can produce powerful writing that makes you think about the nature of relationships.
I have a copy of Fallen by Claire Delacroix to give away to one commenter to this post. Name to be drawn on Friday (possibly Saturday) using random numbers at randomnumber.org