Illicit Affairs

Why Do We Root For Some Cheaters But Hate Others?

Unpacking our ~big feelings~ about infidelity in pop culture.

Originally Published: 
Ariela Basson/Elite Daily; Getty Images, Shutterstock, HBO, Amazon Prime

Do you remember where you were the moment the Scandoval news dropped? How you gasped with glee when Daphne not-so-subtly hinted she was sleeping with her trainer in The White Lotus? The way you furiously refreshed Twitter when you found out Tristan reportedly cheated on Khloé (again)? Infidelity has the entertainment news cycle in a chokehold — but reactions to each scandal and storyline can vary greatly.

Despite infidelity being largely considered a no-no in our own lives, not all cheaters are treated equally in fictional stories, reality TV, or Hollywood. The same month Tom Sandoval was getting dragged for cheating on his longtime partner Ariana Madix with their Vanderpump Rules co-star Raquel Leviss, many people were swooning over Billy and Daisy’s slow-burn affair in Daisy Jones & The Six.

So, what makes some instances of cheating more forgivable than others in the court of public opinion? Below, experts outline the factors — from our natural psychological responses to PR finessing — that can influence whether the general consensus surrounding a cheater is one of ire, admiration, or something in between.

The Less Cheating Feels Like Reality, The More Acceptable It Seems

According to clinical psychologist Jaime Zuckerman, Psy.D., one key ingredient that differentiates our feelings about cheating in pop culture versus our real lives is the detachment we feel from the former. “It’s an escape from our own day-to-day mundane life relationships,” she tells Elite Daily. “For ourselves and for our friends, because we are actually living it and have a front-row ticket, we tend to be more rigid with our rules.” Finding out a friend’s partner cheated would be a nightmare — your friend would be devastated, and you’d be there to help them heal. But when it’s a celebrity or a character in a TV show, you can relish in the drama without having to bear the brunt of the betrayal yourself.

If more distance from the cheating equals more flexibility in our judgment, this can help explain why fictional characters tend to get more leeway than public figures — for example, Fitz and Olivia’s extramarital relationship on Scandal was much more palatable than former Try Guy Ned Fulmer’s affair (even though in both cases, there were some off-kilter power dynamics at play). “Your brain knows with fiction that [while] you maybe can relate to it, it’s not real,” Zuckerman says. “Whereas when it’s happening [to celebrities], you realize ‘Oh, this could happen to me.’”

Fans Love A Good Story

Fictional characters also get a leg up because viewers get access to a more complete story. “Sure, we can cast judgment upon a character in a moment, but we stick around knowing there is an ending coming,” says Liz Duff, viral publicity analyst and pop culture commentator. “We don’t always get that with stories involving real people.” With fictional cheating, audiences are often told, both directly and indirectly, how to feel — it’s part of the storytelling.

Take Daisy and Billy in Daisy Jones. A married man and father betraying his beautiful, devoted wife to make out and do drugs with his sexy bandmate? Objectively bad. But make them soulmates with similar traumas and enough heat between them to burn down the whole stage, and it doesn’t seem quite so terrible. “I would like 10 more episodes of them just wildly cheating on everybody together,” pop culture expert and TikTok commentator Vicky Sparks says. “When we put it under that banner of twin flame, soulmate, explosive chemistry, what else were they supposed to do? We forgive it.”

If we feel like we understand why the person did it, we can relate and be more empathic.

Revenge cheating also tends to get a pass. Amid Daisy and Billy’s epic will-they-won’t-they saga, Billy’s wife, Camila, has an implied tryst with Billy’s bandmate Eddie. But fans of the show didn’t hate Camila for what she did — in fact, many celebrated her for going out and making a secret of her own after years of being hurt by her husband’s duplicity.

Daphne Sullivan, it girl of The White Lotus Season 2, was also a fan-fave — not despite her cheating on her philandering husband, Cameron, but largely because of it. “She was surviving her marriage,” pop culture commentator Alexandra Nikolajev says. “Cam was a huge jerk. … It was hard to feel sorry for him and easy to side with Daphne.”

Context (& Good PR) Is Key

While not as overt, the narratives surrounding celebrity cheaters can also shape public opinion. “If we feel like we understand why the person did it, or they have had trauma or tragedies that have influenced their romantic choices, we can relate and be more empathic,” Meredith Prescott, LCSW and couples therapist, tells Elite Daily. “[People tend to give cheaters] a pass when the person they cheated on isn’t that likable or has done heinous things.” Take Princess Diana. The late royal icon admitted to being unfaithful during her marriage to Charles, but fans could hardly turn on her when they knew about Charles and Camilla’s affair and the trauma Diana reportedly went through as a royal — and this was even before her tragic death solidified her legacy as the People’s Princess.

The inverse is true as well, as Adam Levine experienced in September 2022 when IG model Sumner Stroh claimed she’d had an affair with him. Levine denied physically cheating, but the reported screenshots of his flirty messages to Stroh and others were damning enough to turn public opinion against him… especially considering his wife, Behati Prinsloo, was pregnant with their third child when the scandal broke.

“Viewing the messages makes it feel more personal [and] real to the audience — it gives you a stronger reaction, like your heart is sinking for his wife,” Prescott says. “It also was a time when she was incredibly vulnerable, which makes this way worse for his reputation.”

Then there’s Good Morning America hosts Amy Robach and T.J. Holmes’ alleged affair in late 2022. It was juicy, sure, but it managed to stay out of “disgraceful” territory for a number of reasons. Unlike Levine, who was messaging with fans, Robach and Holmes had less of an ick factor since they were co-hosts of equal status. Their years of on-camera chemistry, followed by lovey-dovey public appearances post-scandal, actually made it hard for people to root against them. “These two just seemed so happy,” Nikolajev says. “It also appears that they were already removed from their current partners — or that’s the sign of a strong PR team!”

Gender Matters… Because Of Course It Does

You know what’s too powerful to be PR’ed away? Misogyny, baby! It’s always been more dangerous — socially, legally, and physically — for women to practice infidelity, and public opinion has reflected this at every turn. Author and female sexuality expert Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., points to the colonial period, when women could receive harsher sentences than men for sexual encounters outside their marriage, as an example, noting that “our country still reeks of these foundational hypocrisies.”

Case in point: The harsh treatment of women who have cheated in Hollywood. When Kristen Stewart was photographed kissing her Snow White and the Huntsman director back in 2012, thus tarnishing the public’s image of her relationship with Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson, fans swiftly turned on her. Stewart also claimed the scandal was the reason she wasn’t hired for the Snow White sequel. More recently, despite Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith confirming her “entanglement” with August Alsina was not, in fact, infidelity, Pinkett Smith continues to be the butt of “cheating” jokes, while Smith’s own admitted extramarital relationships (which he subtly confirmed in a 2021 GQ interview) fly under the radar.

These patriarchal double standards are so deeply rooted, society is primed to believe women just don’t (and shouldn’t) cheat as often as men. But the reality, per Susan Shapiro Barash, author and researcher on women’s infidelity, is that “70% of women at some point in their lives will have some sort of affair.”

That reality may feel more palatable in works of fiction, especially in recent years. As more women take the helm as writers and directors, women in TV and movies are evolving to be more complex — so when they cheat, it’s not always a black-or-white, right-or-wrong situation. There are those who are truly in love (Daisy Jones) and those getting even (Camila Dunne), but there are also those who are just… living their lives. Succession’s Shiv Roy, for example, may have been unfaithful, but fans know her infidelity is a small piece of the much bigger, twisted puzzle of Tom and Shiv’s messy marriage — and besides, they love her too much to judge too harshly.

These fictional characters are afforded more nuance than celebrities, to be sure — but their gender may also play a role in how the public perceives them. “There are always harsher judgments when it comes to women and affairs,” Barash says. “[But] what I’m seeing is more understanding of what women long for and of what they endure in these relationships.” When we forgive female characters for cheating (or even cheer them on), perhaps on some level, it’s a way to push back — a symbolic middle finger to safely flash at the patriarchy.

Pop Culture May Not Be So Different From Real Life

When all is said and done, opinions on cheating in pop culture aren’t so far removed from opinions on cheating IRL. “I think people have very strong feelings about real-life cheating situations … [but they’re] not able, for lots of reasons, to express themselves 100% truthfully,” Sparks says. “[With pop culture], there are no feelings to protect because we don’t know these people, so you don't have to hold back.” You can root for the cheater, or despise them, or post a 10-minute TikTok unpacking the intricacies of why you think they did it.

That’s a big reason why cheating discourse is so prevalent and can be toxic — especially on social media. (As Sparks puts it: “TikTok is where nuance goes to die.”) Our digital echo chambers of group chats and For You pages make idea-sharing easy, but they aren’t equipped to paint the full picture of any cheating scenario, including the vast range of personal beliefs, values, and experiences that inform our individual opinions about them.

So no, a single meme can’t possibly convey all the complexities of a cheating scandal — just as one singular scandal can’t sum up society’s collective consensus on cheating. But the discourse surrounding these moments can teach us a thing or two about how people view infidelity, sometimes even profoundly so. Who knew Tom Sandoval wielded that much power?

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