When we think of cheating, we think of scandal – particularly when it’s portrayed on TV. It’s all about young men prioritising “the pull” over their girlfriends, and families being torn apart by “homewreckers”. There’s cliches like Eastenders’ Stacey Slater sleeping with her boyfriend’s dad and getting caught on Christmas day, or Gilmore Girls’ Rory and Dean starting a sexual relationship while Dean was married to someone else. And who can forget the infamous “we were on a break” fight between Ross and Rachel of Friends?
All of those instances of cheating are similar in that the cheaters act selfishly and maliciously. The focus is more on the deception and concealing the infidelity, rather than the hurt caused by it. And once the perpetrator is inevitably caught in an intentionally over-dramatic scene to rile up the audience, the characters will then wear their “cheater” status like a scarlet letter forever.
But when the latest Sally Rooney book adaptation, Conversations with Friends, hit BBC Three last week, it offered something new: a refreshing and liberating storyline that explores cheating with some much-needed nuance. Presenting multi-faceted characters who we’re able to sympathise with, even while they commit infidelity, the show helps us understand who cheats, how it happens and, crucially, why it happens.
Capturing nuanced explorations of relationship traumas on telly is more important than you might think. Sure, these are just TV shows, but research has found that the relationships we see on screen influence how we navigate romance in real life and even have the potential to change our expectations of partners.
But if TV shows were anything to go by, they’d have you believing cheaters are few and far between, and when they do appear in our lives, they’re always acting with cruel intentions. This is in direct contrast to what happens in real life. A whopping 60 per cent of men and over 45 per cent of women will cheat on a partner at some point in their lives. And hardly anyone who cheats does it just for fun, revenge or malice, as we’re so used to seeing.
An analysis by The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy reveals eight common reasons for why a person cheats on a partner. Spoiler: none of them involve being purposely destructive or thoughtless. Instead, people cheat as a result of low self-esteem, a lack of love or low commitment in a relationship, a need for variety, as a response to neglect, a need for sexual desire, or because of situation or circumstance. It’s not often that people cheat because they were randomly propositioned by someone who was so hot they couldn’t resist, or because they woke up one day and chose to hurt their partner – even if it might feel that way.
We see this reality mirrored in the relationship of Nick and Melissa in Conversation With Friends, who cheat on each other with Frances and Bobbi, respectively, after meeting them at a poetry show. As the episodes unfold, the audience comes to realise that their affairs were born from an unsatisfying marriage, plagued by severe mental health problems which impacted their sex life and their ability to love one another the way they had wanted to.
As their relationship progresses, Nick reveals to Frances that he doesn’t blame Melissa for her affair. He was in a pit of depression and had essentially pulled away from the marriage, putting no emotional, sexual or romantic effort in, so she sought that elsewhere. And his own affair with Frances is not about taking revenge on Melissa, as Frances and the audience both presume. He’s simply seeking those same feelings from another person too. Thats why, when the truth comes out, Nick and Melissa open their marriage to involve Frances. They understand that no one has cheated with the intention to hurt and, instead of demonising each other, they work to fix the problems that led to infidelity.
But that’s just the tip of the love triangle. Our main character, the emotionally withdrawn writer Frances, arguably cheats on multiple people in various contexts throughout the series, for myriad reasons. Nick believes Frances cheats on him simply to mistreat him. But in reality, we watch as she becomes entangled in the arms – and bedsheets – of a randomly selected Tinder date because she feels hurt by presumed unrequited feelings of love from Nick. It happens because she’s sad, insecure and lost. A lack of communication and discussion around sexual boundaries leads pretty much everyone to cheat on each other throughout the series.
It’s messy, yes, but the four characters’ intertwining infidelities mirror how cheating plays out in real life. As dating and relationships expert Dr Callisto Adams says, “people who cheat are commonly seeking validation, having unresolved trauma, inner issues and complexes, or see cheating as the way out of the relationship.
“In our society, infidelity doesn’t fit into the standard narrative of what a couple should look like,” she continues. “That’s why infidelity is mostly seen as an inexcusable and notorious behaviour [on screen and in real life].”
All of the affairs in Conversations with Friends could have been avoided with communication, love and mutual respect. But often, that’s easier said than done, particularly in long term relationships. Why? Being communicative involves sharing our vulnerabilities and fears, which we’re used to hiding from others. According to recent research, ongoing communication difficulties are the number one reason couples divorce – in fact, 67.5 per cent of divorces stem from this issue. A world away from snogging in the rain and romcom grand gestures, watching these characters’ failed attempts at real conversations about their feelings is unfortunately one of the most realistic portrayals of a romance we’ve seen on screen.
Of course, there are some Stacey Slaters in the world, cruel people taking up space in monogamous relationships who probably shouldn’t be there, cheating simply because they can, because they want to. But these people are in the minority.
“A lot of people who cheat don’t do it with the intention of hurting their partner. In fact, they’re neglecting the fact that their behaviour could be hurtful to their partner,” Adams says. “These are people that are looking to fill a void in them. Some find temporary fulfilment in cheating. What they did isn’t right, but portraying them as pure evil without knowing their background, and letting this define them, is also wrong.”
That’s why it’s so liberating to watch Conversations with Friends. It lays out every detail of how the four characters come to love, betray, leave and relearn to love one another. Infidelity rarely comes from feelings of hate, disrespect or lovelessness. Instead, cheating is usually borne from unresolved feelings. Whether that’s feelings of depression and loneliness like Nick, helplessness like Melissa, or a loss of identity like Frances, infidelity is almost always about the underlying emotions burrowing through a person’s head. It’s not a personal attack. That doesn’t mean cheaters should necessarily be forgiven. But it also doesn’t mean their actions should be a source of shame – for either party.