Old Faithful


Americans disapprove of marital infidelity ó in the movies, at least.

Kate Winslet
Little Children (2006)

Most Americans these days agree that couples should stay together only so long as both parties love each other. That should you fall deeply and irretrievably in love with someone else, you owe it to yourself to follow your heart. That you shouldn't remain in an unhappy union purely for the sake of the children. Marriage, the thinking goes, should entail joy and mutual self-fulfillment.

Yet there's a hitch — so to speak. When characters in film or fiction act on these precepts, the audience usually disapproves. Why is that?

In our private lives, we consider it our right to leave even long-term relationships if we're miserable; with imaginary people, we apply the stricter, fustier mores of the 1950s. So, deep down, might Americans still prize loyalty over the pursuit of happiness?

Screenwriters and novelists get around this retro rule of thumb by stacking the deck. If a character who walks out on a marriage is to remain sympathetic, the abandoned spouse must be blighted with grave flaws: alcoholism, a history of domestic violence, sexual unfaithfulness, etc. Lost enthrallment simply won't cut it — won't protect your character from an audience's judgment that the deserting party is treacherous, flighty or superficial.

For instance, Kate Winslet is nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Little Children, in which she plays a housewife who falls for a househusband when they bring their kids to the same playground. Justifying their infidelity, the housewife's husband has grown addicted to Internet pornography; the househusband has been unmanned by a domineering, high-flier wife. Nevertheless, after plotting to run away together, the lovers pull back from the brink. The audience is relieved. In staying the marital course, the characters retain our sympathy. For the deck was not stacked enough. Porn-addiction and an undermining sex-role reversal aren't so intolerable that we can condone the destruction of two families.

In Jay McInerney's last novel, The Good Life, the deck is stacked more heavily: The heightened circumstances of 9/11 create an atmosphere of exception. Making the main characters' passionate extramarital affair more acceptable still, both their spouses have been having affairs as well. Yet ultimately these lovers, too, pull back from the brink — if only for the sake of their children. (I thought we didn't buy into that nonsense anymore? In make-believe, it seems we still do.) Although ending on a more wistful note than Little Children, the novel leaves the impression that, by remaining in her marriage, the protagonist did the right thing.

Yet the sympathies of audiences in literature and cinema serve as a surprisingly reliable litmus test of a people's underlying moral gestalt. American audiences still do not like cheats, philanderers or flibbertigibbets who violate previous commitments for elusory reasons like "love." Neither do they approve of promises conditioned on the equally elusory state of "happiness."

Able to compel through sheer spectacle, film may more easily succeed than fiction with unsympathetic characters. Thus more brutal movies about infidelity do not stack the deck. In We Don't Live Here Anymore, two couples that are friends as a foursome mix and match. In Closer, two characters split from established relationships to form a new pair. The excuse for straying in both instances is nothing better than "love," a justification that in fictional scenarios always seems strangely flimsy. Consider this bit of dialogue from Closer. Dan: "I fell in love with her, Alice." Alice: "Oh, as if you had no choice? There's a moment, there's always a moment, 'I can do this, I can give in to this, or I can resist it.'" The audience is prone to agree.

Even admiring critics have described the characters in We Don't Live Here Anymore and Closer as unattractive. With all this pursuit of happiness, no one ends up very happy. Both movies cast the quest for self-fulfillment that in real life we supposedly claim as a right as merely the ill-fated exercise of chronic dissatisfaction.

In the classics, of course, romantic adventurism that bursts the bounds of marriage never works out very well. Madame Bovary was delusional, and had terrible tastes in men; Anna Karenina threw herself under a train for a cad. But has anything changed? Aren't our sympathies still profoundly old-fashioned?

This is not so minor a matter as sorting out how fiction writers might most slyly manipulate their audiences' affections. Plenty of real relationships break up for no other reason than that one or both parties is "unhappy," or "in love" with someone else. Yet here in the world, we cannot stack our own decks. We can't rewrite the role of a partner with whom we've grown dissatisfied in such a way as to make our urge to flee more defensible. If your husband isn't, conveniently, a heroin addict, well — he simply isn't.

We may officially embrace the view that a partnership can justifiably be dissolved for reasons of "unhappiness" or "love." Yet we are not only the protagonists but the audiences of our own lives. Thus the same onlooker's standards of judgment apply to our private dramas as they do to entertainment. When we act trustingly on those ostensibly shared social precepts I began with, we're often shocked to discover that we don't sympathize with ourselves.

In my last novel, I decided to deal from a straight deck. Hence I was stuck with the problem of how to make sympathetic a woman who leaves an amicable, 10-year relationship with only commonplace failings for "love" — that ever dubious pretext. Should I have succeeded, it was by taking on the horrifying experience of "not sympathizing with yourself" full-bore. For the morally grounded, infidelity comes with built-in retribution: the anguish of reading your own story, and instinctively siding with someone else; the supreme discomfort of playing the part of a character who, in a book or movie, you would not like. Indeed, the novel proposes that for anyone with a heart, betraying and being betrayed may feel equally awful.

An apt Valentine's Day reflection, then: Given our high divorce rate, we Americans are obliged to think of ourselves collectively as less devoted than we once were, and perhaps too consumed with individual satisfaction. Yet the sympathies of audiences in literature and cinema serve as a surprisingly reliable litmus test of a people's underlying moral gestalt. American audiences still do not like cheats, philanderers or flibbertigibbets who violate previous commitments for elusory reasons like "love." Neither do they approve of promises conditioned on the equally elusory state of "happiness." In this purportedly permissive time, we still do not take vows lightly. More than bliss, we still revere faithfulness. Depending on your circumstances, that enduring elevation of old-fashioned loyalty may be a solace, or a torture.


Lionel Shriver, "Old Faithful." Wall Street Journal (February 14, 2007).

This article is reprinted with permission from The Wall Street Journal © 2007 Dow Jones & Company and from the author, Lionel Shriver. All rights reserved.


Lionel Shriver is a journalist and author. She won the 2005 Orange Prize for her seventh published novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. In July 2005, Shriver began writing a column for The Guardian. She is married to jazz drummer Jeff Williams and lives in London. Lionel Shriver is also the author of Double Fault and, most recently, The Post-Birthday World.

Copyright © 2007 Wall Street Journal

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