Friday, March 18, 2011

Adultery and Love Triangles in YA

In the last young adult book you read, I'm almost positive you came across a love triangle in one form or another. It was probably between two boys and one girl. Am I right? Eight times out of ten, I'd say yes.

We have a not so new trend of indecisive, fickle heroines that are unable to make up their minds when it comes to their love lives. One minute she's in-love with Grayson, the mysterious alluring boy that just moved next door. The next, she's in-love with Will, the cute naive boy that would never leave her side. Then, the emotions overwhelm her to the point that she just can't choose. Will she pick Will or Grayson? Will or Grayson? If you get the pun, kudos to you.

Apparently, true love is being unable to pick who you want to date. Instead of discontinuing your relationship with one of the guys, you go back and forth between both of them, making out with one or the other on your latest whim.

Last time I checked, this was called cheating. If you were married, it would be called adultery. The way many heroines go on about true love, they act as if they're already married. Either way, it isn't cool.

I can tell you first hand that cheating--and adultery in general--isn't cool. But why is it being treated as the beacon of true love? Is this the message we really want to send teens?

Remember, this isn't the time of arranged marriages. Nor are these books marketed to adults. They're marketed to teens.

My favorite example of cheating treated as the righteous path comes from Vampire Academy. I'm sure many of you are familiar with this series. Instead of commenting on the age difference, or the inappropriate relationship between the hero and heroine, I will focus on the topic at hand. If you haven't read the series, there will be spoilers.

Our first love triangle consists of Rose, Dimitri, and Mason. It is very obvious that Mason likes Rose—in fact, Rose acknowledges his crush in Vampire Academy #1. Mason is one of her best friends and Dimitri is a teacher that she barely knows. What should she do?

Well, if you're a decent person, like Shizuku in Whisper of the Heart, you'll try to tell your friend  that you don't feel the same way. Leading them on is wrong. Honesty is the best route, even if you don't want to ruin your friendship.

Rose, on the other hand, leads Mason on until he dies. She never tells him that her heart lies with Dimitri. And after his death, she doesn't think about him past Shadow Kissed #3.

But Rose isn't done yet. Instead of letting time pass, she immediately jumps into a relationship with Adrian, days after she gives up on Dimitri. Then, when Dimitri wants her back, she gives in without a moments hesitation. She doesn't bother to think about Adrian because he's still of use to her. Instead of breaking up with him, she leaves uses him until she doesn't need him anymore. Then, she has the nerve to accuse him of playing the victim. Her callousness continues for the remainder of Last Sacrifice #6, but that's for another post.

Other times, heroines are just too dumb to make up their minds.

Even if I like Jacob Black, you can't deny that Bella was cheating on Edward when she kissed him. Even if I'm champion of the nice guy, cheating on your boyfriend isn't right. Is it so hard to break up with someone before moving on to your next make-out session? With teens, things happen, but these events are played off as true love and holy righteousness.

In one of my favorite books, Looking for Alaska, cheating is handled in a mature, albeit inept way. Miles cheats on Lara and he has to apologize.

In another one of my favorite books, Looking for Alibrandi, Josephine Alibrandi is in a committed relationship with Jacob, even though she has feelings for—or used to have feelings for—John. Does she act on those feelings? No. Does she work through them and manage to keep her friendship with John? Yes.

In a rather recent book, Before I Fall, Sam realizes that she no longer loves her boyfriend. Rather, she is in-love with another boy. But before running into a relationship with said boy, she breaks up with her boyfriend first.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not against love triangles per-say. In fact, my WIP features love triangles, cheating, and dysfunctional relationships. What I am against is cheaters being portrayed in a positive light while those who are cheated on are seen as stupid saps.

In a book I recently reviewed, Invincible Summer, there is a love triangle and an abundant amount of cheating. Yet, the flaws with this relationship are pointed out and the topic is handled maturely.

If I'm sounding preachy, it's for a reason. When reading, I like a certain amount of morality present. I'm not saying that all the characters should be saints—that would make for a boring read—but I would like certain characters to be called out on their flaws. A self righteous jerkass should not get away with being a self righteous jerkass. More on that when we discuss what makes a flawed sympathetic character.

Remember, even Darth Vader doesn't believe in cheating. 


  1. I love your posts and wow this one is pretty on point. It was a bit difficult to hear what you said about Rose because I'm quite the fan of her and of the series. Your right though, even I was frustrated like hell with the way she treated Adrian in particular. I know this happens all to often. The love triangles always have cheating going on somewhere, but it's not seen as cheating. Rather has this "oh I couldn't help it" kind of thing going on and is almost accepted. The least that authors could do is make the character feel at least ashamed and apologise. Now that I think of this, it's quite disturbing. Thanks for the awesome post! :)

  2. Thanks Aly. I liked VA at first too. In fact, I even liked Rose. But then it went down around the fourth book. 'Oh, I couldn't help it' is definitely the wrong attitude to have. Like you said, a simple apology really isn't too hard to give.

  3. This is genius. I mean, seriously, I can't count on one hand the number of times I've considered buying a copy of The Last Sacrifice just to burn it. Rose sucks. So does Bella.

    But that's not the point. I also enjoy a decent love triangle, but hate the lack of morality (and common sense) in YA these days.

    BTW, I get the Will Grayson pun. Does that mean I can have a cookie?

    And also,

  4. Even if I like Jacob Black, you can't deny that Bella was cheating on Edward when she kissed him. Even if I'm champion of the nice guy, cheating on your boyfriend isn't right. Is it so hard to break up with someone before moving on to your next make-out session? With teens, things happen, but these events are played off as true love and holy righteousness.

    I can't believe that I'm about to defend Bella Swan, but here we go: I don't think I completely agree with the analogy that you're drawing between these love triangles and "cheating." In the case of a teenage girl who has been dumped (as was the case with Bella), it's just plain wrong to moralize about their unfaithfulness. In fact, I found the unrealistic pressure to choose one's lifelong partner before adulthood to be far more troubling in Bella's case than her conflicted emotions--which were realistic. Sparkling hunk of love or not, it's damned hard to come to terms with accepting that kind of decision at that age.

    Sometimes YA authors draw their women as indecisive teases, sure (in fact, I'd argue this was more the case with Katniss in The Hunger Games; Gale was drawn hazily and wasn't developed sufficiently enough to justify their relationship, or her indecisiveness, from the beginning, and her inability to choose seemed at odds with her personality). But I also think that there's a realistic middle ground here, and somewhere in there is the fact that a boyfriend is not a husband, and, more importantly, shouldn't be.

  5. I'm agreeing with you here, but I'm still saying that Bella was in the wrong. It's an entirely different situation sure, but I used it because Twilight is the biggest example of a love triangle. I'd rather have used Evermore, but not as many people have read that.

    You're right, Katniss is even more indecisive. But I didn't mention The Hunger Games because I never really thought of that love triangle as an actual love triangle. Her relationship was Peeta was somewhat forced--at least that's the way it seemed to me. And I haven't read read Catching Fire or Mockingjay yet, but I have read the summaries, so I can't really say my full opinion on it just yet.

    Circumstances aside, I'm just really anti-cheating. You shouldn't make permanent decisions at such a young age, and by no means is a boyfriend your husband, but is it really that hard to apologize to someone you cheated on?

    I'm for conflict, and I understand Bella's--god, I never thought I'd actually say that--but I don't think what she did was right. But once again, I don't agree with anything Twilight says. Especially teen marriage and eternal commitment.

    I am sick of commitment being played off as eternal, then we have a love triangle rear it's ugly head. More or less, I'm for realistic portrayals of love. But I do not root for selfish assholes, and no, Bella is not a selfish asshole in that situation. Other times, yes, but not then. Confused is the proper word.

    Basically: If your heroine cheats, have her apologize. Don't have her act like the person who was cheated on is in the wrong.

    Sorry for the long reply, and I hope I didn't come off as sounding rude.

  6. I haven't read the books mentioned, so I can't speak to the behavior of those characters in particular. But I'd point out that it's only "cheating" if the characters have agreed to an exclusive relationship. I see nothing wrong with a girl who fancies more than one guy and makes out with whomever she likes, as long as she hasn't made any promises, implied or otherwise, to them. (If they assume she's promised something just because she kissed them, that's their problem.) In fact, I'd like to see more heroines who feel free to play the field rather than being stricken by True Love and immediately pledging themselves to One Special Boy.

  7. Great post. And I totally agree on the cheating aspect thing. If half the examples you mentionned were Real Life that shizz would not fly with the cheated or the cheatee or the friends of the cheater or...anyone really. And I do love when a spade is called a spade and cheating is called out for what it is in fiction. In fact, two more books that handle the whole cheating/love triangle with a lot of respect for the sheer complexity of the situation that come to mind are E. Lockhart's "The Boyfriend List" and Stephenie Perkins' "Anna and the French Kiss". Though, now that I think about it, in both those cases the love triangle is two girls one boy instead of the one you mentionned above.

    Thinking about it I I reckon the idea behind the Love Triangle reinforcing true love is that (in theory) it adds the dimension of choice for the Heroine. After all, by the very definition of the genre YA characters are Young, and while there can be a certain charm in the idea of marrying your High School sweetheart there is often that lingering prejudice underneath that you're basically just settling for the first person that came along. The love triangle at least gives the semblance of choice, and by giving the heroine the option to stray to temptation and then snap back to the true love more certain in her decision. An active decision means it's not settling.

    Also, when done well I think what a love triangle can do is just amp up the EPICNESS of a relationship. I mean when you think about it love is just an incredibly imporbable endeavour, it kind of boggles the mind. The idea of two people meeting at the right time, connecting, and both being single and bothcoming ot the simultaneous decision to be together, it just defies all odds. Which is why we root for characters in love who overcome these odds. And one of the greatest odds can be third and fourth parties standing in the way. Half the reason I was left bursting for joy at the end of Sarah Dessen's "The Truth about Forever" is because it seems almost miraculous that after everything Macy and Wes would both turn away from other people to be together.

    Just my rambling two cents :) Loved this post. Also I doubt Will or Grayson would have her. They'd be better off together ;)

  8. As a semi-fan of E. Lockhart, I love the way she calls out Ruby out her flaws, and still keeps her likable. And while The Truth About Forever isn't my favorite Dessen book, I was rooting for Macy and Wes the entire way. A well done love triangle definitely amps up a relationship, but done poorly it does nothing but make me dislike your heroine.

  9. For the record: I'm insanely, neurotically anti-cheating. I've ditched friends who cheated on their SOs, and never cheated, myself.

    In fact, I've been in a monogamous relationship with my husband (third person I ever kissed, first person I slept with) for almost ten years now, since I was eighteen.

    I still say that Bella didn't cheat. Seriously, read New Moon again--dude left her, dumping her by using phrasing that was completely unequivocal. In any situation but the paranormal (paternalistic, old fashioned and unhealthy) one we were presented with, people would have been telling a depressed high school girl who had been dumped months before to find someone new. It's not the kind of situation that necessitates an apology, or guilt, or even particular angst. I think the fact that it's seen that way is a reflection of the unfair pressures toward both monogamy and purity (because if you're going to even kiss someone, it should only be one person, the person you're paired with for life) in our society.

    (Not rude at all; healthy debate. But . . . I do think you should read the rest of the Hunger Games series, because the "resolution" of the "love triangle" is interesting, and really relevant to what you're talking about.)

  10. Or, what Inveraity said. ;)

  11. I'm definitely for playing the field--if it's implied. But if the characters are in a relationship, it's different. None of the examples I listed were anything but committed relationships.

    I'm for more books like the Ruby Oliver series, see comment above yours, where the girl isn't tied down, but she isn't hurting anyone's feelings. I find the, because we kissed or had sex we're married, trope a little disturbing.

  12. You've convinced me. I'm Team Jacob through and through, so that may be a part of though :D

    I will finish reading the Hunger Games, probably after I finish Wither. Galley Grab is just so awesome.

  13. Actually, Bella didn't kiss Jacob in New Moon. They were about to kiss, but Edward's phone call interrupted them. She did kiss him in Eclipse. After she realized she loved him. While she was engaged to Edward. Yeah.

  14. I've only seen the movie of Eclipse (though I've read the rest of them; long story), but do you mean this kiss? Because I wouldn't really say having a guy force himself on you, then punching him in the face, counts as cheating. So, yeah.

  15. Do you realize that almost all the books you praised were contemporary YA fiction, while all the ones you trashed were paranormal YAs? I'm seeing this dichotomy more and more these days. I can think of several more contemporary YAs where the love triangle is handled very well, like Elizabeth Scott's Bloom, for example; or Meg Cabot's Pants on Fire. On the other hand, I could count all the PNRs with actual, believable love triangles on one hand, and still have five fingers left over!

  16. In my opinion cheating is wrong because you are telling a lie. You are being dishonest to a person who has trusted you with their feelings. If there is no lie, then there in no cheating. I don't think anything is wrong with having multiple partners. You just have to be honest with each of them and communicate the situation properly, without "failing to mention" any important details. If they are perfectly fine with that, then by all means go ahead. If they aren't, then don't. It's as simple as that.

  17. I'm not really sure I'd say 'an apology' is the only right way to handle the situation. It kind of depends on what's being apologized for. For example, I'm not sure the following apologies are situations to be encouraged:

    * I'm sorry you thought we were in a committed relationship without ever discussing it with me.
    * I'm sorry somebody forced a kiss on me.
    * I'm sorry I think about kissing other people sometimes
    * I'm sorry I kissed a dying man while you were watching

    Adultery and cheating really are about breaking explicit promises, I feel.

    That said, it is certainly true that paranormal YA is NOT about exploring deep characterization and the true consequences of screwing up, because of course they rarely screw up. It's about VAMPIRE LOVE!

  18. I'm referring specifically to 'everlasting' relationships like those in Evermore, House of Night, and Fallen where the girl is committed to one guy--actually committed because they discuss being in love almost constantly--then when another hot guys comes onto the screen, they can't help but make-out with him too.

    That being said, right now, most YA isn't mature enough to deal with those issues in the proper way. I wish it was. In the situations I referenced, a simple apology would suffice.

    Other than that, you're dealing with an actual three dimensional character with acknowledged flaws.

  19. No, in the books, when they're about to go fight the vampire army, Jacob intimates that he is going to let himself be killed by them because she chose Edward (he is lying). So then Bella kisses him and tells him to come back to her, implying that there is still a chance for them. Though, I don't really like arguing about romance in Twilight because it is so messed up and lame at the same time.

  20. You mention Meg Cabot's Pants on Fire, and that's actually one of the books in which I thought the love triangle (quadrangle, actually) was very badly handled. Heroine Katie is dating Seth the football player - exclusively to his knowledge - and making out with Eric the drama guy and then lusting after Tommy when he comes back to town. Normally, I love Cabot's books, but I didn't like this one because Katie came off as a total jerk. Anything else she did was irrelevant because she was a liar and a cheater, IMO.

    Nothing wrong in YA for the characters to have conflicted feelings and multiple love interests. Heck, when else in your life are you supposed to indulge in discovering what works for you? But if the character is in a stated relationship, it's hard to sympathize with him or her if they cheat.

    For the record, I found Bella to be a first class tease. She led both of those guys on and it wasn't charming. That's why the series took a nosedive after Twilight.

  21. Everyone should know Darth Vader doesn't agree. I also agree with Aly. i liked it at first but it spiraled out of control. I sort of even liked the first part of the 4th book and then it just went past the Point of No Return. The Cheating cycle in today's YA is something I've noticed as well with extreme disgust. I mean I understand Bella kissing Jacob was considered adultery but at least she was doing it to keep him safe which is credited to her lack of intelligence so it makes viable sense to me. But everywhere else there's girls kissing guys with the intent of a shopaholic. "I'll try this for now" or "Never mind, I guess I like this one better". It is quite, quite disturbing.
    Also a HUGE thumbs up for the Whisper of the Heart reference. It is one of my favorite movies and one that is vastly underrated.

  22. They changed things from the books (for example, by adding the aforementioned face punch). In Eclipse-book version Jacob does force himself on Bella, but she doesn't protest, moreover - she realises that she loves him back. And it is absolutely of no consequence to her engagement to Edward. Bella doesn't say anything along the lines: "You know, maybe it isn't such a good idea to get married so soon, because I'm seem to be really confused in the love department."