What People Don’t Get About Being “The Other Woman”

TBH, as someone who has been “the other woman”, I often feel myself getting annoyed at the lack of honest and thoughtful representation in mainstream Australian media. As recently as last week, I was listening to one of my favourite local podcasts. It was an episode where they were discussing the decision process of getting involved with someone who is already in a relationship, and their lack of understanding truly disheartened me. These women — the hosts of this podcast — are supposed to represent me, as women of my age and demographic living in Australia and working in the media, but instead of representation, I felt a true lack of understanding.

Not only did they not have any empathy for “the other woman”, they seemed to have no desire to understand her. They saw her scenario as something they’d never get involved in themselves and therefore, they didn’t have anything to add or know the right questions to ask. Their response was simply “ew”.

We might be getting louder when it comes to having conversations around infidelity, but we’re definitely not comfortable with the concept of “the other woman”. We don’t offer her any sympathy or empathy. If anything, we question her motives; for getting involved with someone who is already in a relationship with someone else.

Just think of the recent cheating scandal surrounding Adam Levine. Instagram model Sumner Stroh, posted a TikTok video exposing Adam Levine for not only cheating on his wife with her repeatedly, but also for asking if he could name their future baby after her.

There wasn’t a single mainstream media publication that didn’t pick this up. And, while the general narrative was quick to criticise Levine’s behaviour, there was also a lot of criticism on Stroh, for posting the video without reaching out to Behati Prinsloo (Levine’s wife) first, accusing her of posting for attention, followers and klout.

While in this case, it seems reasonable for both parties to be duly criticised; due to the nature of how it was handled as well as the behaviour in itself; the criticism fell mainly on Stroh. Social media uses and publications alike, labelled her as “greedy” and “disgusting”. Shockingly, there was also qutie a lot of criticism surrounding Prinsloo, for not speaking out about the scandal and seemingly sticking by her husband (of which she has every right to do).

As someone who has been the other woman, I found this to be quite jarring. It was a realisation that the concept of “the other woman” is still looked down upon in society today. Why would someone make that decision? People ask, as though it’s a total anomaly; as though we’re completely unaware that 70% of all marriages experience an affair (according to Sexual Health Australia). Why would a woman want to engage in a relationship where is second best? Where she’s hurting someone’s family? Where she’s part of a lie?

“The third party in an affair is too often brushed aside,” says psychotherapist and relationship expert Esther Perel, in her book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, “if not outright ignored, by therapists, counsellors, and other experts, while the world at large calls her names and writes her off as, at best, a selfish and calculating caricature, rather than a person with complex motives, desires, and emotions of her own.”

She may have written this novel back in 2016, but Perel’s words ring as true now as they always have, throughout history.

Because people haven’t just started engaging in affairs outside of their relationships in recent years. The other woman has been woven into the fabric of the patriarchy since the literal dawn of human existence. Their role, as such, isn’t a simple black and white one. People don’t cheat on their partners for one clear reason, or because they’re looking for something specific, or because they’re just a totally disrespectful asshole (most of the time); and it’s time we started to unpack that.

Back during the 1600s, the European monarchy was practically full of royal mistresses. There was Agnès SorelDiane de PoitiersBarbara VilliersNell Gwyn and Madame de Pompadour, just to name a few of the most widely-known, who were all being “kept” by powerful members of the monarchy. Back then, keeping a mistress was super common and actually not at all confined to royalty and nobility. Basically any man that could afford a mistress, had one.

“We didn’t used to marry for love,” Perel says in Abbie Chatfield’s latest podcast episode. “We used to have an affair for love.”

I’ve often thought about how affairs were considered throughout history, and how we’ve portrayed those stories in pop culture in more recent years. The film Marie Antoinette, for example, which was written directed by Sofia Coppola and released in 2006, portrays Madame du Barry — King Louis XV of France’s last mistress before his death — as an overtly sexual and controversial figure within the court. She wears darker make up than the other ladies, is constantly dressed in rich reds and purples, dripping in excessive jewels, her breasts pushed up that extra little bit and is almost comically sexual. Having come from the lower ranks of society and worked as a sex worker among the “commoners” before catching the King’s eye, the other ladies of the court are shown to merely put up with her. Behind closed doors, and even within earshot; they call her names like “whore” and show disdain for her ability to get whatever she wants because she’s having sex with the king.

While it may have been historically accurate that Madame du Barry was a controversial character within Versailles, her presence was not uncommon. In fact, it would be unusual for a male member of the court to not have a mistress, an “other woman” or someone that they engaged in a sexual relationship with outside of their marriage. These female figures were seen as an outlet for pleasure, for true sexuality and desire and intimacy and kink and maybe even love — to be expressed freely. They had true value and purpose. However, du Barry’s 2006 depiction in Marie Antoinette, embodies how we still see “the other woman” today; as a woman who is greedy, who has no care for the feelings of others, who overtly uses her sexuality to get what she wants and who is worth no more than her body.

But she is so much more than that.

Most of us want to feel sexually desired and fulfilled in our lives. And, when we can’t or aren’t getting that in a relationship, the statistics show that we’re pretty damn likely to cheat. A study from dating website Ashley Madison, has shown that the majority of women (57%) would actually rather receive orgasmic sex than extravagant gifts, which is unsurprising, given that 18% of women say they climax with their partner when they have sex, while 43% of men believe they are fulfilling their partner every time. According to this research, women are more likely to cheat due to a lack of sexual gratification, while men are more likely to cheat to fill a void of emotional connection they don’t feel they’re getting from their partner.

I’ve actually been “the other woman” more than once. It’s not something I ever intended to do, but I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t anything appealing about the sexy danger of it all. I went into these situations in my very early twenties, with the mentality that someone else’s relationship was not my responsibility. I’ve always been understanding of our need to feel desired and I’ve never been judgemental or morally strict about how people choose to explore their boundaries and desires — so long as they’re honest about them.

Through these relationships, I learnt the power of sexual connection and the undeniable urge of desire. It opened my eyes to just how many people aren’t satisfied living within the confines of monogamy, and how ill-equipped we are to deal with these desires when it comes to communicating them with our partner. We’d rather look elsewhere to find the thing that we’re looking for, or feel as though we need from someone else. It’s as though we don’t want to reveal ourselves or be too vulnerable with our partners about what we need; in case they don’t want to give it to us and we end up alone.

I felt as though my role in these relationships, had real purpose. It was almost as though I was helping to teach them about themselves, opening something up in them that they’d been afraid to talk about with their partners. I also had real feelings for these people (there were two of them), which is what had drawn us together in the first place.

And while I definitely felt the value in being “the other woman”, I had an issue with the lying aspect of their infidelity. Lying is an unethical and disrespectful behaviour, that should definitely not be tolerated; especially in a romantic and/or sexual relationship. However, it’s worth understanding the nuance of infidelity and the role of “the other woman”, so that we can begin to open the conversation. Because if we do that, if we make her an accessible character instead of a sexually promiscuous villain, we’re going to have a better shot at honesty overall.

There are so many differences between being the other woman in the 1600s vs now. Back then, marriage was an economic institution and had very little to do with love. Now, we get married for love. We spend much longer being single, feeling out the world and being sexual nomads so if we do get married; it’s a symbolic decision; that after all that searching and trying things out, that we’ve found “the one” for us. In short, we get married for love. This means that infidelity is much more painful now, than it may have been centuries ago, because it’s a sign that there’s something wrong with the love, that the love is broken, says Perel.

Therefore, we can’t project is old idea of “the other woman” onto modern infidelity. The woman in the busty corset, with the dark red lipstick, the low drawling voice and the undeniable sex appeal, who is voluptuous and irresistible to every man that ever comes in contact with her, who is money hungry and utilises her sexuality to get where she wants to be… she’s not every woman who engages in an affair.

And to be honest, we should be less judgemental on women who utilise their sexuality to their advantage. While I do think that engaging in an affair purely to boost your financial, business or any other prospect is morally questionable, I definitely think that we’re too hard on women that are shameless about their sex appeal.

It’s also important that we talk about the dynamics between men and women in this whole concept of “the other woman”. What about “the other man”? Where is he!? While men have been able to engage in affairs for literal centuries, without really any consequences at all, women have been bound monogamy, due to our historical childbearing role in a relationship, as well as the generally imbalanced societal expectations of women. While yes, there have been some famous female monarchs and women in powerful positions who very much kept male lovers — these arrangements have always been far less common.

The narrative of “the other woman” follows one of continued gendered inequality. The married man is still often less villianised than “the other woman”, even though he is the one that is putting his relationship on the line and he is the one that is being dishonest. It’s as though women are expected to uphold the values, to keep everyone in check, to simply say no and deny themselves a sexual connection or desire they may have, so as to protect someone else’s relationship and to help the man make the “right” decision.

But babes, that is not on us.

Since my own experience as “the other woman”, my opinions have definitely evolved. The lying became an unattractive quality to me, as something that represents cowardice, which is truly one of the least attractive qualities anyone could possess. So, while I refuse to engage with someone who isn’t willing to be honest to those they love, I still have a vast amount of understanding, empathy and compassion for “the other woman”, as well as the person who is doing the cheating.

And I’m not going to lie to you, sometimes, being in the middle of a scandalous affair, is actually pretty horny. For someone to desire you so much that they sneak around to see you, used to get my younger self flustered AF. But again, we’re taught that infidelity is sexy and that it’s pretty acceptable and common for men to look outside their relationships for desire.

There was a part of me that wanted to be the woman with the red lipstick and the busty corset in Versailles, allowing a sexual openness in my presence that hadn’t been experienced before. I’ve always felt this desire to give to people sexually, to make them feel comfortable and to teach them the art form that is truly understanding someone in a physical way. If I imagine what it would’ve been like to be a woman in the 1600s, I imagine myself as a mistress, a high-class escort who walks around with priceless jewels and the in possession of the hearts of powerful men.

It’s kind of a fantasy to me. And, if I unpack it further, it’s probably got something to do with control. Being brought up as a woman in a traditional Catholic family, I was taught that having sex before marriage made me less valuable. I was taught that I was not the one in control. I was completely unaware of the intoxicating empowerment of being sexually free and the level of in-control I would feel in scenarios where I embraced my sexual power. I thought that I would only be powerful with a man by my side, but those experiences of being at the centre of infidelity, taught me that we are actually the most powerful when we’re on our own.

But cheating and infidelity usually happen for a reason. Often, the person doing the cheating doesn’t actually know what the problem is, they just know that they’re unhappy or dissatisfied, which leads them to make selfish and cowardly decisions. This isn’t an excuse for infidelity, for lying to your partner, but it is certainly a good reason to address any problems you may have in your relationship, or sexual feelings and desires you may have for someone else. Not only is it very possible and totally okay to be attracted and even in love with someone outside your relationship, it’s also super common.

So, instead of villianising the person who is at the centre of someone’s infidelity, we should seek to understand them; so that we can better understand our partners.In order to do that, however, we need to understand “the other woman” and not be so quick to judge her, or those who get involved with her.

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