No More Happily Ever After

Infidelity Still Seems Taboo in Fiction

I read all of the original Mortal Instruments novels by Cassandra Clare, but as I binge watch the TV series (Shadowhunters on Free Form), I’m finding a renewed appreciation for the number of serious social issues she touches on with sensitivity and complexity: racism, homophobia, child abuse, incest, corruption, and more. But one issue that studies estimate affects at least a third of all couples–infidelity–becomes a monochromatic, irredeemable sin. Two principal characters’ father has sex with another woman, and the whole family is ready to write him off forever.

This is not to say that authors never question the assumption of fidelity. There are a few who deal with both the betrayal of a marriage vow and reconciliation afterward, but even those stories portray infidelity as a moral weakness that needs to be overcome. Like overcoming an addiction.

I myself have been guilty of sidestepping this issue. I am happy to give my characters any number of medical conditions and tics to make them more distinctive and relatable. But when it comes to my characters’ relationships, I only go as far as emotional infidelity, because I don’t want to saddle them with an issue that could sidetrack my plot and pull even more of readers’ sympathy away from characters already thrashing about in moral grayness.

But if as many as two-thirds of us will be in a relationship where at least one person betrays a stated expectation of fidelity, why should I be so worried that my characters’ sexual exploits will not resonate with my audience?

Because infidelity isn’t about sexuality outside a primary relationship. It’s about breaking a promise. And that means that the person left holding the short end of the stick, if really feeling betrayed, leaves the relationship. If there is reconciliation to be had, it is the regaining of trust.

And the near-necessity of readers trusting a narrator especially, means that a reader could be thrown out of rapport with the story, or even throw the book down in disgust. It is because their innocently offered trust was stomped on. How can I trust characters if they have shown themselves to be duplicitous in their relationships?

The solution is a good one not just for our fictional narratives, but for our lives in the real world as well: Do not expect fidelity. If it is as common a circumstance as we have found, we need to enter our relationships prepared for one or two instances of sex with others. Without the weight of a vow of fidelity, outside sex partners can become just a blip in an otherwise happy, enriching life together.

This is something that has been much easier for gay people to consider, since we’ve been sexual outsiders without marriage rights for so long. We recognize that sexual drives are rarely in sync with our mutual free time, and occasionally they will be more in sync with someone else’s. This has led to a higher percentage of open relationships among queer people than among straights. This has led to a higher percentage of poly relationships than among straights.

Especially if we are writing future-oriented science fiction or alternate-reality fantasy, we should be able to shine a light on this evolution in human relationships too, right?

Let’s retire the fairy tale of “living happily ever after.” Let’s just enjoy the rest of the ride!

2 thoughts on “No More Happily Ever After”

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