There are few deal-breakers as universal as infidelity. Most readers avoid any mention of it like the plague, and very few authors can – or even try to– pull off a believable HEA when one of the protagonists cheats on the other. But what if the hero and heroine cheat together?

I recently read Just One of the Guys by Kristan Higgins, in which the hero and heroine sleep together despite the fact that they are both seeing other people. Obviously they both eventually break up with those other people and they end up together (it is a romance novel, after all) but not before they each return to their significant others and try to work things out. Similarly, in Eloisa James’ A Kiss At Midnight, the hero pursues the heroine whilst being engaged to another woman, and in Notorious Pleasures by Elizabeth Hoyt, the hero and heroine begin their relationship despite the heroine’s betrothal to the hero’s brother. And there are others—quite a few, really. Far more than there are novels in which the hero cheats on the heroine (or vice versa). If there is infidelity, it is almost always between the hero and heroine.

It’s a hypothetical I’ve considered and posed before: if you were cheated on, would you rather it be a meaningless fling, or something that turns into a lasting relationship? Both options suck, and there’s no right answer. But I think I’d feel a little bit better if my relationship wasn’t thrown away for meaningless sex. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so cynical if there was some love, somewhere, even if it wasn’t with me. Then again, I’ve never been in that position, so for all I know I could turn into Carrie Underwood and slash some tires.

But for those of us who do read romance novels, and believe in love, can we forgive a hero and heroine for infidelity, as long as we know that they will live Happily Ever After? That as much as people might scoff at “True Love” and “Soul mates,” we as omniscient readers know that the wronged third party wasn’t the “right one,” so it’s okay?

It’s a bit ironic that while writing this blog, I took a break to watch Northern Lights, the Lifetime movie based on Nora Roberts’ novel, which infamously brought together LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian. Both were married to other people when they met while filming in 2009, and are now married to each other – and making headlines recently because she released a very personal song about the beginning of their relationship. LeAnn will probably never escape her “home wrecker” identity, partially because she herself keeps bringing it up and behaving immaturely. I don’t think anyone would be particularly surprised if they filed for divorce tomorrow, not because of any particular outward signs of internal strife, but because the nature of their meeting does not indicate that either places a lot of value on commitment. But let’s pretend for a minute that this is a romance novel, and we can say with certainty that Eddie and LeAnn are getting their HEA, that they will remain happily married for the rest of their lives. Does it make it okay? Or if not okay, then at least slightly less icky?

From a distance, it’s easy to say, “Cheating is never okay. If you have feelings for someone else, then end your relationship.” It’s certainly the most dignified way to deal with the messiness of blurred lines in relationships, but it also isn’t always as cut-and-dried as it sounds. When are your feelings of attraction a true and lasting thing, and when are they just a passing folly? What if you throw away a long-term relationship over a crush that fizzes out? And how do you know it’s a temporary crush, and not True Love? What do you do then?

My point is not that cheating is sometimes okay. It’s never excusable, but maybe sometimes explainable. And that explanation comes a lot easier in romance novels, where we do know that that other person, that temptation away from the existing relationship, is the real thing. They’re romance novels; we know the couple will end up happy in the end, and trust that that happiness is lifelong. We know that our hero or heroine isn’t throwing out a potential HEA for a fling, but that they are getting rid of an imperfect relationship and replacing it with a perfect one. And perhaps it is the certainty that allows us as readers to accept it, even if it isn’t ideal.

– Jane Granville