Who is the “Other Woman?” Does she work with your man? Or is she just like you, your girlfriend or neighbor? Find out how they end up in these short-end-of-the-stick relationships. In my younger, more gullible days when I worked for a newspaper, the star reporter invited me out for lunch. Over sandwiches, he shared that his wife had recently left him and taken their little girl.
Poor guy! My heart went out to him. And after a few more outings that week, we ended up back at his place, where I attempted to assuage his abandoned, uh… ego. Later, I learned his wife had indeed left him. On vacation. She was expected home soon. Needless to say, I was out the door and gone for good.
Who Signs Up for This?
Apart from, maybe, professional courtesans, no one is raised to become the Other Woman. Sure, in the thick of it, an affair with a married man can be many things: intriguing, thrilling, seductive, passionate, a perpetual honeymoon. But it’s also guaranteed to be ego-bruising, disappointing and heartbreaking. There’s the stigma. (“I’m a home-wrecker!”) The guilt. (“But he has kids.”) The lies. (“He promised he was leaving his wife.”) Do we even need to mention the loneliness from being sidelined on every major holiday? (“You’re spending Christmas with her… again?”) Sure, every relationship has disappointments and heartache. But when you’re dating one-on-one, at least you have a shot at Happily Ever After.
So why would a woman even consider stepping out with a married guy when the odds of getting a Mrs. or even a Girlfriend title are about as likely as you scoring a date with Bradley Cooper? Is it possible that being the Other Woman has some perks, however fleeting they may be?
An Unusual Balance
“For some women, this is a conscious choice,” explains life coach Lauren Mackler, author of Sole-Mate: Master The Art of Aloneness and Transform Your Life (Hay House) and host of Life Keys With Lauren Mackler on Hay House Radio. “They don’t want a different relationship because they have the best of both worlds,” she says; someone in their lives, plus freedom and independence. Indeed, Olivia, 56, a marketing director in Austin, Texas, finds lots to like about being the Other Woman. (She and other mistresses who spoke to Lifescript requested that their names be changed to avoid embarrassing their partners and family members.) Now in the middle of an amicable divorce, Olivia enjoys the connection she has with her married paramour, who she says is in a “classic marriage of convenience.” She also likes not having the obligations a full-time relationship brings. After 27 years of marriage, she needs a breather. “He’s everything I’m looking for, but I’m not ready to be in a Totally-Committed-for-the-Rest-of-My-Life relationship,” she confesses. “But I’m enjoying all the things of new love that I haven’t had since my 30s.” She also likes being able to go home and not have him there all the time.
Let’s not forget the hot sex. Illicit passion can be as intoxicating as 180-proof alcohol. Lee, 34, didn’t particularly like the philandering Cassanova at work – until she and her co-workers went to happy hour and he walked her back to her car. “He just grabbed me and kissed me. From that one kiss, I understood why everyone slept with him,” says the Orlando, Fla. talent scout, even 10 years later. “It was the kind of sex people don’t think exists. I’d physically ache for him when we were apart.” There’s a reason for that, relationship experts say. Beyond the intrigue and excitement that makes secret sex hard to resist, orgasm releases hormones that bond a couple more forcefully than Super Glue. “You’re dealing with this oxytocin rush and before you know it, you’re imagining yourself walking down the aisle with this guy who’s already walked down the aisle with someone else,” says Gilda Carle, Ph.D. (aka Dr. Gilda), an advice columnist for Match.com and author of He’s Not All That (Collins).
“The thought’s always there: He may leave her for me,” Carle says. “Most women say, ‘I don’t need… I don’t need… I don’t need,’ ”she says. “Then all of a sudden they do.” You may start out playing Angelina Jolie to his Brad Pitt, but most women end up as bit players in a parade of extracurricular-lovers, relationship experts say. “Watch out because you might get what you wish for,” warns Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Little White Lies, Deep Dark Secrets: The Truth About Why Women Lie (St. Martin’s Press). “When you get him, it might dawn on you that he cheated on his wife for you – and he could cheat on you too.” In interviews with thousands of women for her books, about 30% of the guys who have one extramarital affair have more. “I think it’s higher, but that’s what women report,” Barash says. “From the women I’ve spoken to, when the man leaves his wife for his mistress, he usually ends up having another affair.”
Emily, 36, a Minneapolis marketing and public relations representative, was content as the Other Woman in a “fun and easy relationship” in graduate school. When college ended, she wanted something more… but not from him. “I wasn’t going to end up with him because I could never trust him,” she says. Her instincts were spot on. Initially, he’d lied to her about being married. Then, as she broke it off, “I found out he was seeing several other women!”
Life on the Sidelines
Even if you don’t fantasize about becoming the next Mrs. So-and-So, other frustrations come with this territory. “It always bothered me that his wife got the public relationship,” says Robin, 48, of El Paso, Texas, who dated a married guy on and off for years. “We went to a mutual friend’s wedding, and he and his wife danced the whole night together, and I was just there, the single guest.” Even Olivia acknowledges that her relationship has built-in (and frequently disappointing) limitations. “I never see him on a weekend because of family commitments,” she says. “We can’t wake up together on Sunday morning and read the paper and drink coffee. He doesn’t come over to watch TV or cook a meal together or sit out on my deck to watch the birds.”
Secrets and Lies
Then there are fibs and rationalizations that come up with extramarital relationships: The lies he tells his wife and you. The lies you tell your close friends and family, even yourself. Barash points out that anyone who has ever taken a spin in the sidecar of someone else’s marriage has heard (or told themselves) some variation on the following:
He doesn’t really love his wife.
He’s going to leave her anyway. He’s only staying for the kids.
He’d be miserable in his marriage without me. I give him what he doesn’t get from her.
If his marriage was so wonderful, he wouldn’t be with me.
“It’s as if you’re pardoning yourself and making excuses for his behavior and your own,” Barash says. Indeed, Lee psyched herself into thinking there was no wife. (If I don’t see his wife, she doesn’t exist.) Then her guy’s wife tracked them down at a local hotel when he was supposed to be away on business. “I didn’t feel guilty for the entire year we were together, then that night I saw her face to face,” Lee remembers. “She was pleading with him to come home. That’s when it got me,” she says. “And I ended it.”
Who willingly signs on to be Other Woman?
The busy exec. She has such a packed life she doesn’t need a full-time man. She exists, but she’s rare, relationship experts say.
The gal with poor self-esteem. “That woman never really believes she deserves the whole enchilada,” Dr. Gilda says.
The daddy seeker. She spends her adult life chasing after the father who was never there. Growing up like that, Mackler says, you get the message that men are unavailable. As much angst as that creates throughout your adult life, it still offers some comfort because it feels familiar, Mackler explains.
Indeed, after doing some soul searching, Ann, a writer in San Diego, Calif. realized that’s what was fueling her crazy years-long affair with a married man. “I had a lot of unresolved issues around my father,” she says. “He had this pattern of promising to show up and not appearing. I was replaying all of that.”
The good girl. Mackler has another intriguing theory, which might explain why smart women can make such foolish choices: The woman who grows up as Good Girl – who always does the right, responsible thing and puts everyone’s needs ahead of her own – may take a romp on the wild side out of an unconscious need to rebel.
“We have parts of ourselves that get angry, want adventure and can be mischievous,” Mackler says. “And if you’re not balanced in yourself, you’ll subconsciously find balance by hooking up with a bad boy or becoming someone’s mistress.”
The unwitting woman. She doesn’t even realize she’s been cast as the Other Woman… until she’s confronted by the Aggrieved Wife.
For five months, Catherine, 32, a Washington, D.C., attorney, had been in a long-distance relationship with a man she met on vacation. She was expecting him to take her to a friend’s wedding one weekend when she got an email – from his wife. “I was extremely freaked out,” she recalls. “I thought it was a joke. I forwarded the email to him and asked ‘What’s going on?’” Boyfriend denied it, but “what he was saying didn’t match what he’d told me before,” Catherine says. Some Internet sleuthing through public records and phone and property listings quickly revealed that he was, in fact, not as divorced as he had claimed.
“I felt horrible,” Catherine says, who actually spent phone time with his wife trying to sort out how she’d been so duped. Even now, Catherine still can’t believe she was taken in. He visited on weekends. He was available over holidays. “There was never a time I couldn’t get him on the phone or that he didn’t return my calls,” she says. “It was absolutely as though he was completely single.” What rankles her even now? Had she known, she never would have given him the time of day. “I’d been tricked into doing something wrong,” she says.
But the story isn’t without a righteous ending: The wife divorced the cheater and Catherine ended up bonding with his ex. “If we’d met in other circumstances, we’d have been friends,” she says. “We were so clearly on the same page.”
In fact, they both had the same reaction – they booted that guy right out of their lives.