When Is It Cheating? By L.A. Witt

The very touchy topic of cheating has been discussed on this site a few times because so many romance readers abhor the very idea of cheating, regardless of the circumstances, and the opinions have ranged from no cheating to ….. absolutely no cheating. 🙂 So this post by L.A. Witt is very timely not only in light of her upcoming release Where There’s Smoke, but also as it relates to hundreds of other books you all hate because one or both of the MCs have cheated on their partner(s).

Here’s L.A. Witt’s perspective and she would like to hear from you AFTER you have read her essay:


The issue of cheating in romance novels has been discussed here before, but after talking with Marie Sexton about the issue a few times lately, I wanted to approach it from a slightly different angle. Specifically, when is it cheating?  I’m quite curious how readers feel about this, so I want to put it out there for people to discuss.

I think we can all agree that if one person tells another, “I’m with you and only you,” and then they sleep with someone else, that’s cheating. Pretty safe bet.  But… after that, it gets a little gray. If two guys hook up for a one night stand, and then hook up again, is it cheating if one of them goes off and sleeps with someone else? After all, they haven’t established a relationship, right?

This is also where real-world and romance novel rules might not completely jive. After all, when we pick up a romance novel, we know the main characters will end up together eventually. So do we necessarily want to see them, for better or worse, hooking up with someone else between the beginning and the happily ever after? There’s a (Written? Unwritten? Set in stone?) rule in romance that once the characters meet, that’s it. No hooking up with anyone else. But… does that work for every story?  Is there wiggle room, a gray area, times when characters should be given a pass?  And if they do hook up with someone else, is the author breaking a rule of the genre, or is the character cheating?

In Marie’s book, Between Sinners and Saints, Levi is fairly promiscuous before he meets Jaime, and he continues to be even after they meet (while they’re still just friends). In my book, Rules of Engagement, Dustin sleeps with someone else after he and Brandon break up.  Matt and Jared from Marie’s Promises both have sex with other people during the course of the book, but not after committing to being monogamous with each other. Obviously in the real world these wouldn’t be considered cheating since there isn’t (or is no longer) an established relationship. But do the same rules apply within the confines of a romance novel?

Then, of course, there’s the touchy issue of adultery. Technically, sex outside of marriage is adultery. Period. But then you have open marriages, swingers, sham marriages, things like that.  If a spouse sleeps with someone else, it’s defined as adultery, but is it always cheating? For example, if it’s done with the other spouse’s knowledge and consent?

This is a timely question for me. In my upcoming release, Where There’s Smoke, Jesse is married, but the marriage exists on paper only. Jesse and Simone publicly portray themselves as a happy couple for the purpose of furthering Jesse’s political career, but they’re both miserable. And lonely. When Jesse meets Anthony, Simone practically shoves them together. Adultery? Yes. Cheating? Myself, I don’t believe it is, but I’m curious how readers feel about this sort of thing.

So, readers, sound off! 😀  How do you feel about characters hooking up with other people after meeting the one with whom they will eventually get their HEA?  Is it cheating if those characters haven’t declared themselves monogamous? If they’ve split up, even temporarily? If the characters are married, regardless of the state of the marriage?  Is cheating about getting into bed or otherwise involved with someone else, or is it about lies and deceit?  And do the rules and definitions apply differently to characters than they would in real life?

Where do you draw the line?


L.A. Witt Contact Information

email: thethinker42@gmail.com
website: http://www.loriawitt.com
twitter: GallagherWitt




  • I’ve never had a lot of patience for the “never-ever once they’ve met” rule. It’s actually worse on the het side than here in m/m, if you can believe it.

    If it happened before the characters had established a committed and monogamous relationship, it’s not cheating. If they’ve broken up previously, it’s not cheating until after they get back together. If the other partner doesn’t mind, it’s not cheating.

    Heck, even if it is cheating, that’s not necessarily a bad thing from the story POV. A lot of people howl about the cheating in Bareback, but I thought it was realistic and well handled. It contributed to the story and the characters and the relationship development, and the story is better for it. Cheating is only a mark against a story if the writer handles it badly. But then, that’s true of pretty much any plot device. [shrug]


  • One of the fascinating things about romance is that it is both universal and very personal, so we all bring our own attitudes to a standard formula.

    The problem with cheating only seems to arise if it’s one of the two main characters doing the cheating: after all, there are lots of books with off-screen or villainous characters doing the cheating – quite often an ex, or soon to be ex, of one of the main characters – and it just helps move the plot to the HEA.

    If it is one of the main characters cheating. I wouldn’t rule the story out – any genre that makes its rules too narrow is going to run out of steam sooner rather than later. There does need to be breadth of plot and story to sustain the genre.

    My personal hate is people who lie for their selfish personal advantage, whether it’s over sex or anything else. If it’s one of the main characters who does this, they are going to have to do some serious self-analysis, repentance and grovelling before I can be convinced that they deserve their HEA.

  • As a female, I may be in the minority here, but I have always firmly believed there is a difference between sexual cheating and emotionally cheating. So in my romance novels, I don’t have a problem with it all. I actually prefer it because I believe that a truly strong and loving relationship can handle that “fine line” and sometimes even spice it up. :flirt:

    OTOH, I do have a problem with it if the cheating is used maliciously against one or the other (using the Friends reference, I was always on Ross’ side on the whole “we were on a break”, lol!). But communication is always the key, though. If one partner is dead set against any cheating at all (for instance, maybe they had a bad experience before) then the other must respect that – because then it becomes lying and abusing trust, and that I can’t stand at all. Both partners must be able to communicate with each other. If you can’t be upfront with your supposed true love about all your wants or desires without worrying about offending, then the relationship is already on shaky ground, I think.

  • On a flip side, I supposed this is why (at least me personally) like the werewolves M/M romance a lot because they often use the mate concept which promise HEA. Which let me escape a bit from the fact that I am still painfully single… 🙁

  • I don’t mind nonmonogamy at all, but I do not like dishonesty, whether related to sex or something else.

    Also, I think there’s a big difference between an occasional one-night stand and an ongoing affair. The former may well be a mistake, whereas an affair is deliberate – in a sense, the difference is between a crime of opportunity and a crime of forethought. In both cases I think the relationship is potentially salvageable (although a lot less likely in the case of continued and repeated deception), and I often wish that characters wouldn’t immediately write off a relationship for a single instance of infidelity, even if ending the relationship was necessary to advance the story.

  • I don’t think what you have in “Where There’s Smoke” is cheating. Not at all if he gets the go-ahead.

    A Life Without You has gotten a number of negative reviews for having cheating content

    (**Spoilers ahead!**)
    The guy questioning his sexuality is in a relationship with a girl and plans to marry her. He comes from a small, narrow-minded town and has pretty set ideas about his future. He thinks he’s straight at the beginning, then bi after he sleeps with the MC, and then sleeps with the girl as a last resort to hang onto his future (no girl-bits shown or anything – and this is the cheating bit most people have a problem with).
    (**End of spoilers**)

    When I decided to write the story this way I knew it would never work unless there were some serious consequences. You can’t write cheating without them. I don’t mind reading books with cheating in them (obviously) if it’s realistic. It can create a hell of a lot of roadblock and it’s very often nice to see how the characters work around it. I want the cheater to go through hell before he’s forgiven though 😛

    The thing with romance is that people expect different things from it. Some want hard core reality (and face it, cheating happens in real life – condomless sex also happens) while some don’t want hard core reality because they want to escape it by sinking into a nicer reality (fiction). It’s hard to figure out which group you want to write to or if you want to try to find something in between. I prefer to write on the reality side, though I don’t plan on smacking the reader in the face with it every time. I‘m not at all saying there‘ll be cheating in everything I write, but I will try to keep things real in every story…even though I did make one oopsie in ALWY – and no, it‘s not the cheating 😉

    So, to those wondering, go ahead and write cheating, just keep it realistic and have consequences (and grovelling!). Just my 2 cents.

    • Erika

      He thinks he’s straight at the beginning, then bi after he sleeps with the MC, and then sleeps with the girl as a last resort to hang onto his future (no girl-bits shown or anything – and this is the cheating bit most people have a problem with).

      What I had a problem with was not that the character slept with his fiancee but the cruel and callous way he informed his male lover that he intended to do so in their dorm room, whether he stayed or not. That was incredibly wrong on so many levels. He was a double cheater – he cheated on his fiancee and then on his lover. Here’s a link to my review for those who haven’t seen it:

      • I wasn’t talking about your review specifically. I know what Jesse did was cruel and callous and it was meant to be so. Some people really hated Jesse and he ruined the story for them, but others loved the whole thing – it’s just a matter of opinion and preferences. Can’t please everyone and all that 🙂

        I was actually referring to the Goodreads reviews. There was one who admitted being a hypocrite because she didn’t mind Jesse cheating on Anne, but hated that he cheated on Adam.

        (Sorry about the double-post. I accidentally clicked send before I was finished).

        • I deleted the double post.

          I can’t pretend to like Jesse because I didn’t, I thought he was a scumbag and a user.

          There’s cheating and there’s cheating. I love many books with cheating boyfriends or spouses so that’s not an issue for me. One example is Chris Owen’s Bareback which other commenters mentioned and that book is on my all-time Top Ten list. Where There’s Smoke by L.A. Witt which I reviewed two days ago is another wonderful example of how cheating can be used to advance the plot. It’s all in the writing.

          • Wave, I think that for the readers like yourself and yours truly, who has no problem with cheating per se, the trick is basically to make the character likeable at the end, even if the character is very flawed. Not every author can pull it off (I have not read Erica Pike’s book and I am just using it as jumping point, I am not talking about the book I have not read) and some authors IMO just plain forget that flawed character can be likeable and redeemable at the end. I mentioned Felicia Watson’s book in this thread. She made me feel and root for a guy who hit his wife, trust me I never thought it would be possible, period, but I was so happy for Logan at the end of his journey, and even though I read this book few months ago, I still remember it and love it so much. If you want to make your character a cheater, I have zero problem with cheating as a story line per se, but depending on how you handled it, I may very well ending up hating the book, NOT because cheating was there, but because how it was handled, just with almost any dramatic issues. Of course there is absolutely no way you would win a reader for whom cheating is a triggering issue, period, no matter how well you handle it, in this case I agree that “you cant please everybody” is the best thought to have. Same way that with couple of exceptions, there is no way you can make me interested in storyline where one MC rapes each other and then they fall in love for example. But in pretty much most other situations you *can* win a reader like me over, because I have no objections whatsoever to cheating being used in the story, I may just hate how you chose to write it. Of course, if thats a deliberate choise, like Erica said to make the character’s actions be cruel and callous, then sure, you cant please everybody.

            • Sirius

              As you and I both agree, if an author writes a flawed character in such a way that we come to love him in the end then it’s all good, but the writing has to be exceptional. It almost always comes back to the writing.

              Of course I probably will never love a serial murderer like the one in Errors and Omissions, but that character was not one of the protagonists so he didn’t really matter. While not a trigger for me, I’ve stopped reading books with rapists because it just seems that one out of every two M/M romances lately use this trope, just like BDSM is now the new in thing regardless whether the writer knows anything about the discipline. Some of these books are laughable.

              I think new writers who try to make their stories dramatic by characterizing one of their MCs as cruel and callous run the risk of alienating most readers because they don’t have the experience IMO of making the character redeemable. I love flawed characters as you know, and one writer you love whose MCs never have any faults or flaws 🙂 lost me a long time ago because her characters are just not believable. However, that’s just me.

              Cheating is a trigger for many readers but not for me if the character is well written and the issues in the relationship are logical and the protag can be redeemed realistically somewhere down the road. No one is perfect and expecting characters to remain faithful forever once they meet their one true love, not even looking at another man, reminds me of het romance which is one of the reasons why I stopped reading the genre. However, as I said before, it takes a lot of skill to redeem a cheater and it depends on the circumstances around the cheating and how the character is written.

              • Oh yeah, I love flawed characters too and usually vastly prefer them to the perfect ones (well with the exception of that writer, but we all have our exceptions lol. Can you believe I am looking at her upcoming new release and telling myself I should not I should not I SHOULD NOT and I know I will do it again? Yeah, you probably can :), I whined to you already in the past). I mean, I can love a character who is a “nice guy”, but nice guy does not mean flawless human being to me. And yes, totally “serial killer” is probably a character I cannot love under any circumstances, you kill more than once and even in fiction you lose me, thats a capital sin as far as I am concerned. But *in fiction* I can totally love *remorseful murderer* character, if his remorse is handled well and I am talking about murder, obviously I am not talking about characters who had to kill be it on battle field or in self defense, but I know that skillfull writer would be able to make me love a character who deliberately killed once and experienced a great remorse, so really there are very few flaws that can make me stay away from the character, but as you said it all comes back to writing. I will read about addiction battles, cheating, killing, about almost any bad things the characters commit and as long as they are redeemed at the end, I am totally fine with it in romantic fiction.

                OOOOO have you read “A private gentleman” by Heidi Cullinan yet? It does not have cheating, but both guys were so very flawed imo that less skillful writer could make one of them at least look as first rate jerk and Heidi made me root for both of them. I think this book will be another entry in my imaginary text book in my head – books which can show you how to write flawed characters in romances without makingg them look as irredeemable jerks 😉

                • I haven’t read A Private Gentleman because I was waiting for Damon to review it but it looks like at least another 10 days before he gets to it (he’s trying to finish Hard Head), so I’m taking the book with me when I leave on Friday. I can’t wait that long.

                  You’re not really considering buying another book by your favourite author, are you? You’re a sick, sick woman. :)Really sick, but I’m not surprised. 😮

                  I take back what I said about killers. I just remembered D from Zero at the Bone who was a contract killer, but that illustrates what I said about the writing. Not many writers could have made me love a killer but Jane Sevile wrote an exceptional book and I fell for D hook, line and sinker. Ally Blue also made me love Leon Fisher, a contract killer in Untamed Heart, but again it was the writing that won me over.

                  Well I guess we shouldn’t ambush this post to talk about killers when it’s about cheating. 😀

                  • I do not think you will be dissappointed in A private gentleman even if you will read it before Damon’s review, but I guess I should not sound too sure, or I will jinx it :). OMG you are so right – I loved D too, so I guess it is possible to make me love almost any character if good writer so wishes. Although at the very least I will need that killer to not do killing anymore. Part of the reason why I disliked Angel and Assassin (I only managed to read book one) is because I was not enjoying sexual dynamics, but I think another part was because Assassin kept erm assassinating. Anyway, you are right,could you please make the next item on your agenda to write a post about the characters who are killers? 😉 See, thats what happens when I am sittig at home and bored 🙂

                    As to that new book, by that writer, I am trying hard to ignore, believe me, but I know what will happen eventually.

        • I will happily admit that I am one of those hypocrites that doesn’t mind an MC cheating on anyone as long as it isn’t on the other MC. But as I said earlier, just because I don’t like it, it doesn’t mean I won’t read it. I’ll download a sample of your book Erica and give it a go.

  • As a reader, for me cheating is when one partner in a committed relationship willfully has sex outside of that relationship, seriously flirts, kisses, has phone sex, or even exhanges heated glances with someone else in blantant disregard of their significant other. If it’s an open relationship, or casual, then it’s not cheating, as long as both partners are in agreement about being non-exclusive. No one gets hurt.

    That said, while I personally am strongly against cheating, it happens in real life, why not fiction? I’ve known relationships that survived infidelity that went on to be stronger, though many never get past the mistrust.

    I love an author so skilled with characterization that they can create a believable yet sympathetic cheater, someone who makes a mistake, is repentant, and makes amends, and who I can read about and say, “Ya know, in their shoes, I can’t say for certain that I wouldn’t have done the same thing.” That, my friends, is one heck of a writer.

    “Insignificant Others” by Stephen McCauley is a book about cheaters that inspired mixed feelings about the protags.

  • OK, I just deleted a long (and I mean _long_) text about cheating that I wrote in answer to this essay, as I think the resume stands for itself, without boring you all mindless.

    Almost any form of cheating in a book is possible, if the author knows, that a loss of trust (varying with the kind of cheating and the views of the reader) is the result. If the author acknowledges that and invests in rebuilding the trust, it can be a very good dramatic device.
    However, with too much rebuilding of trust might not enough. I am a quite forgiving reader, but others might not be.
    As it stands, in a romantic novel cheating is a capital crime and the story has to live up to this fact.

  • *Possible Spoilers*

    To me in romance it is all about the author’s writing style/ability. I will define cheating as what the MC’s define as cheating. And if it happens (whether it is just emotional, a kiss or sex), I like the story if the characters deal with it in a way that is true to them.

    So the examples for me in Bareback, I liked what it did for the story. The MCs lived it, and worked through it in a way that was believable to what I had come to know about them. I struggle more with feeling like the lost love of one of the MCs was a bigger problem to the HEA.

    In Divide & Conquer, I struggled more with a simple kiss not because of the kiss itself but the way the character dealt with it did not feel right to me. Also, IMO it was not dealt with between the characters enough and that bugged me.

    So my final opinion, it has to fit the characters and storyline. No cheating just to advance the plot.

  • Very interesting thoughts from everyone. Thanks again for joining in!

    As I’ve said, I very much believe cheating depends on the act and the people/relationships involved. For me, it’s the lying and deceit, not the actual act.

    In the case of Where There’s Smoke, I’ve had some criticism of the adultery. And technically, it IS adultery. Jesse is forming a sexual and emotional relationship with another man while he’s married. His wife is aware of it and in favor of it, and in fact Jesse is very sensitive to her feelings on the issue, so in my eyes, it’s not cheating…but not everyone will agree, of course.

    There are a million shades of gray when it comes to ANY aspect of relationships, so I’m always curious what people think of where lines should be drawn, etc. Especially readers!

    L. A.


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