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Sam and Alex are a married couple, but Sam is growing dissatisfied with the relationship. Maybe Alex isn't as attractive now as in the past. Maybe Alex doesn't appreciate Sam's friends and hobbies. Maybe the passion's just gone from the marriage. Either way, Sam meets Chris, who's everything Alex isn't, and starts an affair. Now we all know cheating is A Bad Thing, so it follows that we aren't supposed to side with Sam, right? Wrong.
There are many reasons why someone who cheats might be portrayed sympathetically:
- Pay Cheating Unto Evil - their partner's a hateful bastard who stifles or abuses the cheater.
- Pay Cheating Unto Cheating - their partner is cheating themself, in which case the cheating is a form of Laser-Guided Karma.
- Pay Cheating Unto Boring - their partner is boring and they want a more exciting lover, or the marriage has gone on for too long and they want a change.
- Pay Cheating Unto Bad Sex - their partner is asexual, impotent or just bad at sex. A form of Acceptable Targets.
- Pay Cheating Unto Normal - their partner is a Nice Guy or Romantic Runner-Up who just can't compete with the cheater's One True Love
- Pay Cheating Unto Various - more than one of the above
- Pay Cheating Unto Fine With It - for one reason or another, the partner knows about the adultery and is perfectly okay with it.
But whatever the reason, if they cheat and are portrayed sympathetically then it fits the trope.
Contrast Ethical Slut, where cheating usually isn't considered okay or sympathetic at all - but affairs are not considered cheating as long as the communication/relationship is open.
Pay Cheating Unto Evil
- Probably the very best example of this trope in literature, if not in general, is Hank Rearden from Atlas Shrugged. Given the nature of the book, go ahead and guess what his wife is like...
- Commercial example: A recent commercial advertising an internet service that connects lovers...who happen to be married to other people. The commercial shows a woman on a horrible date (with her husband, I assume). After acting like a Jerkass, the husband excuses himself and the wife makes eyes with a handsome man across the restaurant.
- In Jill Paton Walsh's A Piece of Justice, "Giddy"'s wife ironically stifled him in her attempts to try to force him into achieving professional fame. He valued his long-time mistress more as an old friend who wouldn't nag him about his work than anything else.
- In Dorothy L. Sayers' Clouds of Witness, Mrs. Grimethorpe is in an abusive marriage, while the Duchess of Denver is a shrew.
- In the Lost episode "The Other Woman," Goodwin cheating on Harper with Juliet is depicted sympathetically, partly because Harper's a shrew, but also because Juliet is a main character and Harper is not. Goodwin also mentions that he had already been sleeping on the couch for a year before Juliet arrived.
- In the movie Waitress, the main character cheats on her husband and is portrayed with sympathy, mainly because the husband is an abusive jerk. Her lover, whose likability shouldn't be condoned as his adultery, however, who is also married, is given less sympathy in the end when we finally meet his wife, who seems to be a very nice person who has no idea that her husband is cheating. Rightfully, the protagonist gently breaks up with him, telling him his wife has "so much trust".
- The book Ethan Frome portrays Ethan's wife Zeena as a hypochondriac shrew who stifles him, making his attraction to her sweet, vivacious cousin Mattie extremely understandable. Although it must be noted that the narrative is from Ethan's perspective so it's possible he's not being entirely honest about just how horrible Zeena is (especially since there are a few hints that he wasn't entirely understanding of Zeena either) and also that he suffers HARD for trying to escape with Mattie.
- Duncan in Total Drama Island with Gwen at the start, possibly because of the abuse he got from his then-girlfriend Courtney, the Big Bad of the second half of Season 2.
- The Whole Nine Yards: Matthew Perry's character cheats on his wife but she and her mother are freeloading off of him, its a loveless relationship, and she goads him into trying to bring a notorious hitman to justice And thats just what he knows about her. She also calls in a hit on him as her real goal is to get his life insurance money. Naturally, the audience has no sympathy for her.
- Amores Perros. The affair between Octavio and his brothers wife Susanna is portrayed very sympathetically because his brother is a Jerkass of the highest order who abuses his wife
- Titanic. Rose cheats on her fiance but he is a Complete Monster
- The Last King of Scotland. The protagonist having sex with Idi Amin's wife was problematic due to the danger of angering a sociopathic tyrant rather than presenting any moral issues
- Subverted in Frasier: Niles' attraction to Daphne is sympathetic because his wife Maris is a frigid, manipulative, emotionally abusive control freak -- but he still never cheats on her even though no one would condemn him that badly for it.
- In Naruto Veangance Revelations, this can be considered to apply to Sakura cheating on Ronan with Naruto, although she doesn't see Ronan as evil and defends him to Naruto.
Pay Cheating Unto Cheating
- Janet Weiss from the Rocky Horror Picture Show decides to cheat on Brad by sleeping with Rocky after discovering Brad slept with Frank. Though, Frank did seduce Janet before going to Brad...
- There was this Korean movie where the lead male and female found out their wife/husband was cheating on them, with the other. Early in the movie, when the two leads were sitting together and discussing about the relationship between their spouses, one of them joked wouldn't it be funny if they cheated on said spouses for cheating on them. Guess what happens?
- Derek aka "Dr. McDreamy" from Grey's Anatomy cheated on his wife Addison with Meredith, but only because she cheated on him with his best friend (although she isn't without her sympathetic traits), and the audience is expected to root for Derek and Meredith to end up together.
- The Countess in Il Muto (The Phantom of the Opera's pastiche of opera buffa) is cheating on her husband with a mute male servant. The Phantom comments that the role of the Countess must be played with charm and appeal, while the husband is not only a bore but a lech who takes a shine to the 'maid' (the Countess' lover in disguise).
- In the manga/anime Chobits by CLAMP, Hideki's cram school teacher Ms. Shimizu starts a relationship with one of her (adult) students (Hideki's best friend Shinbou) after her husband becomes completely engrossed with their persocom. The turning point comes when she gets locked out of their house because he simply forgot about her.
Pay Cheating Unto Boring
- Sarah Caudwell's The Sirens Sang of Murder: the contessa di Silvabianca, although ironically when her husband suspects infidelity, he nearly always suspects the wrong people of being involved.
- Katrina in Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District cheats on her husband for a variety of reasons: frequent absence of her husband is probably the number one, plus an abusive father-in-law, and the seduction by a sexy hunk.
- John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda is not at all reluctant to step out on his icy wife for Jamie Lee Curtis.
- Nearly in The Scarlet Pimpernel, as Marguerite is unaware of her husband's double life and considers him a tame bore.
- Lisa in The Room cheats on her boyfriend Johnny with his best friend, because she considers Johnny boring.
- The whole reason for Emma's affairs in Madame Bovary are that she finds her husband "boring." While the reader is meant to agree with her, the narrative also makes sure to display Emma's naive obsession with living a life out of storybooks and novels as her biggest flaw.
Pay Cheating Unto Bad Sex
- Gladys Mitchell's The Saltmarsh Murders: the vicar's wife is sexually repressed (the psychiatrist character refers to her condition as 'inverted nymphomania'). Her husband fathers an illegitimate child on their maid; the wife snaps when she learns the father's identity, and kills the maid.
- Connie Chatterley's characterization in Lady Chatterley's Lover. His husband was paralyzed from the waist down in World War I, thus he's impotent.
Pay Cheating Unto Normal
- Embarassingly common in various Fan Fiction set after the series in question but centered upon the Fan-Preferred Couple. Starting with Die for Our Ship is far from unknown, but there are quite a few writers who do not even bother with an excuse beyond "My True Love Is X", whereupon the partner gets ticked and we are supposed to hate the poor Cuckold for it. Bleach and Voltron: Legendary Defender fandoms are notorious for this.
- This is probably the reason for Nancy's affair with John Redcorn on King of the Hill. Not that her husband Dale could ever be called "normal"...but he's significantly less attractive.
- However, who's sympathetic depends on the episode and she eventually does end her affair with Redcorn. Also, while Redcorn is her sons biological father, she considers Dale to be Joseph's real father.
- Gwen Cooper in Torchwood. She sleeps with her bad boy colleague Owen due to her forcing to juggle normal life and life with a group of alien hunters.
- In The Notebook, novel and movie, Noah and Allie cheat on their partners, one of whom is even engaged. But we're supposed to root for them because they're Star-Crossed Lovers. Not to mention that Allie's fiance treats and loves her well.
- Daisy in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button cheats on her husband with Benjamin after he reappears after several years, because Benjamin is her One True Love and her husband is just a nice guy with no development. Also, it was explicitly a one night stand that they both knew would probably be the last time they had sex, since Benjamin had aged down so far its not even clear he was legal at the time.
- Amelia Earhart in Amelia. In this case the reason she is "sympathetic" was because she is obviously remorseful and goes back to her husband who is willing to forgive.
Pay Cheating Unto Various
- Not really fitting with any of the above, but Yuri in Doctor Zhivago is a deeply sympathetic character who maintains his relationships with his loving and beloved wife, and the lonely and sad Lara.
- The Protagonists of Brokeback Mountain are gay, thus, they're not in love with their wives, and they were more or less forced to marry due to the circumstances.
- The pairing of Joan Holloway and Roger Sterling in Mad Men is a fan-favorite because it combines two versions of this. On Joan's end, it's "Pay Cheating Unto Evil", as her husband Greg is a rapist, and on Roger's end, it's "Pay Cheating Unto Boring", as he isn't truly happy with both his first wife Mona and his second wife, Jane. Roger and Joan make each other crazy, but happier than anyone else makes them.
- An Unintentionally Sympathetic example is Therese from For Better or For Worse, who according to a pair of Gossipy Hens was seeing someone before divorcing her husband Anthony. However, this gossip is the only time her having an affair is ever alluded to. Even if one accepts it as truth, it can still be viewed as Pay Cheating Unto Cheating, as Anthony spent most of his marriage lusting after Liz, and the most obivous effort he ever put into making things work with Therese was pressuring her to have a child before she was ready, because Babies Make Everything Better.
- Fire Emblem: Genealogy of Holy War has Cigyun, who cheated on her husband Duke of Velthomer Victor with Prince Kurt of Grannvale, because Victor was a violent drunk who had many mistresses and mistreated her. The guy even has raped under the influence of alcohol Cigyun's personal maid (who has a result gets pregnant with what who'll be Azelle, one of the main playable characters). Kurt was at first sympathetic with Cigyun's situation and was supporting her, but along the way they fell in love with each other.
- In Private Actress, Shiho's parents are this. Her mother, the famous actress Sayuri, is the long-time lover of Shiho's dad Masakazu Ogata, a senior actor known for his womanizing; they're deeply and genuinely in love, but Masakazu's legal wife is a mix of Ill Girl and The Ophelia, and if he divorces the lady there'll be a gigantic scandal. Even more, Masakazu doesn't know about Shiho's existence at all, and Shiho herself later gets to meet Mrs. Ogata and sees how shattered she is...
Pay Cheating Unto Fine With It
- A first season episode of Friends has Joey discover that his father has been having an affair. Joey's father is portrayed fairly sympathetically, since he says that he can't help but love the other woman, loves his wife just as much, and is willing to end the affair over how much distress it's causing Joey. Joey's mother then tells him off, saying that she knew about the affair the whole time (Joey Sr. wasn't exactly the best liar) but tolerates it because it makes him a better person and a more attentive husband. Joey eventually gives his blessing to his father, who remains oblivious to his wife's knowledge.
- A quirky subversion in War and Remembrance . Natalie offers herself to a Nazi camp guard in order to protect her child, but the guard refuses. In this case, her husband Byron, would certainly not have been "fine with it" as such, but he never held it against her, presumably because he understood the desperate circumstances.