We have a lot of names for her. The other woman in a man’s life. Mistress. Homewrecker. Side piece. Slut. None of the names are complimentary. None of the names are good. She’s the woman we love to hate, and oh, how we hate her.
The science of why is simple. Remember when the Angelina-Brad scandal broke? Suddenly, Jennifer Aniston was being photographed weeping in all the national magazines, while the public turned on Angelina Jolie with a vengeance. It was every woman’s worst fear made flesh: the thought of some slinky siren seducing a good man away from his wife. Women wore TEAM JOLIE or TEAM ANISTON t-shirts to declare their allegiance.
The one person nobody talked about very much was Brad. It was almost as if he didn’t matter.
Bring up the subject of the other woman during a girls’ brunch, and watch as every girl present gets vitriolic about the time her boyfriend was cheating on her with some slut called Ashlee who wore zebra-print dresses to the club. Even when it’s a theoretical discussion, it’s a subject that even the mildest of women feels strongly about. How dare women take other women’s men? After all, this is the very first chapter and verse of Girl Code. As a woman, you just don’t do that to other women. (Even women you don’t know.) You’re betraying the sisterhood. It’s like, the rules of feminism.
Recently, I was talking to a friend who had made the terrible discovery that a man she’d gone on a few dates with had a serious girlfriend.
“I feel so guilty,” she said.
“You couldn’t have known,” I said reasonably.
“I should have known, though. I should have done my due diligence. Checked his Facebook photos or his Instagram. I keep thinking what if that was me? The poor girl!”
I found this fascinating, that she referred to it as “due diligence.” It wasn’t enough to be ignorant of the girlfriend. No, we were expected as women to actively do research. To not trust men. To look out for a woman we didn’t even know existed. That’s part of our obligation as women. Why? When did we sign a contract to put so many obligations on women and none on men? When did we collectively agree to blame and shame the other woman so much more than the man?
I’ve been the other woman. It’s not a happy place to be. You see, Brad Pitt actually leaving Jennifer for Angelina (the other woman) is the exception. Not the rule. The rule is that men don’t leave their wives, their fiancées, their serious girlfriends, for you, the other woman. You are usually nothing more than a temporary distraction. You are a symptom of their unhappiness. You will never have them the way you want them. What you will have is the furtive text message at 2 AM (while they angle their phone away from their sleeping partner). What you will get is the hurried rendezvous in a hotel room. Afterward, you will stare at his side of the bed, now empty. You will wrestle with your feelings. You have guilt now – hot, wrenching guilt – to add to those feelings.
In the 1960 movie The Apartment, there’s a great line: “When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara.” You will discover the truth of this maxim for yourself.
The worst part — aside from all the other worst parts — is that there’s very little you can do about it if you’re the other woman. Of course, you can end the affair. That’s the Right Thing To Do. Telling the girlfriend, which is also the Right Thing To Do. Unfortunately, it’s rarely the wise thing to do. The girlfriend usually yells at you, asks for proof, yells at you some more, and then stays with her boyfriend anyway. As strategies go, telling the girlfriend is high-risk, low-reward. The other woman is often forced into silence (a fact that the cheater knows and takes full advantage of).
I’m not suggesting that the other woman’s feelings are more important than the girlfriend’s, or that she deserves more sympathy. I’m merely saying that perhaps she deserves more sympathy than we commonly give her. Perhaps she deserves less blame. After all, how could she wreck a home she wasn’t invited into?
Popular culture would have it that she is a sexy, predatory figure: dressed in garter belts and stockings, constantly looking for men to seduce and lives to ruin. It’s so far from the truth of my girlfriend calling me in floods of tears because she’d been made a fool of by a guy she really liked. She’s a victim too, isn’t she?
I’ve been cheated on, I’ve been the cheater, and I’ve been the other woman. Here’s what I know: cheating is complicated. Monogamy is difficult. People cheat for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, when they cheat, it’s because they planned to. It’s hard to reckon with the truth about the men we love. That they didn’t cheat because a cruel Fate just so happened to place a slinky siren in his path. No, they cheated because they were looking for the nearest slinky siren.
When I was cheated on, it took me a long time to grasp this truth. I was so consumed in hating this mysterious other woman – searching for photos of her, trying to discern what made her better than me – that I didn’t realize that my hatred was directed against the wrong person. If it hadn’t been her, it would have been someone else. He would have cheated with somebody else.
When I figured that out, I found it hard to hold on to any anger against her. It was like trying to hold water in your hand. You cup your palms, but before you know it, it’s slipped through your fingers. It’s gone.