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Years ago, I was a cliche — I was the Other Woman.

I was in my 20s and working with someone whom I liked as a coworker and whom I found attractive. I don’t recall how the conversation started, but somehow he convinced me that he and his wife were only staying together until their daughter went off to college — she was about 14, 15, at the time — and then after that, they planned to divorce.  Other Woman

I wasn’t coupled at the time but I was actively dating; still, I had no illusions of the two of us being romantic partners or spouses one day or even the desire for that. I wasn’t in love with him. I just wanted to have fun with him, and so that’s what we did. Every Wednesday we’d get together to, well, do whatever married men and Other Women do. We did that for a few months until I met the man who became my second husband.

“He played you,” my now former husband said at the time.

“No he didn’t. He and his wife had an agreement,” I insisted with a huff.


It was only recently when I did a Google search and discovered he and his wife are still married — their daughter must be in her 30s by now — and, presumably, do not have an open marriage.

OK, so I most likely was played. I suppose I should have felt foolish, deceived and hurt. Maybe because I wasn’t in love with him and didn’t have any desire to be a couple, I didn’t. Maybe I should have felt bad for his wife, but who knows what she knew. And also it’s decades later — I’m long past obsessing over my youthful indiscretions. So I was intrigued when I stumbled upon a study on how some Other Women feel empowered by being a mistress. This is not a narrative we often hear.

Who has power?

Adulterous men (and, yes, we all know there are adulterous women — almost as many as men), benefit in several ways by having a woman or two or three on the side. The mistresses and deceived girlfriend or wife typically do not, assistant professor Ebony A. Utley says:

In addition to deception as a form of interpersonal power, a man engaged in relationships with multiple women is empowered by male privilege. He is celebrated for his masculine virility, while Other Women are demonized as narcissist or sadomasochist and deviant others, and wives are pitied, blamed, or shamed. tweet

Except that Utley discovers in her research that the majority of the 35 Other Women she interviewed saw the experience as empowering, even the women had no idea their partners were married or in committed relationships. They saw their affair partner as helping them “recognize and meet unmet emotional and sexual needs.”

Sometimes, the affair was described as an addiction. Few of us might consider that a good thing, but as Utley writes, “An all-consuming desire for sexual pleasure is so foreign to many women that there are few familiar words other than addiction to describe their craving for sexual satisfaction.”

Wives, as usual, were seen somehow at fault: “Wives were disregarded because they never initiated a confrontation, seemed not to care, or were too stupid to notice their man’s attention was divided. Sometimes wives were dismissed because they were trashy, untrustworthy, failed to make their husbands happy, or were suspected of having their own affairs.” This alleviated any feelings of guilt.

Which is why I’m quite intrigued by Maggie’s Plan, a new comedy by director Rebecca Miller in which a man leaves his wife to be with his affair partner who slowly realizes that was all a mistake and she hatches a plan to reconnect him with his wife.

Learning of the plan, the jilted wife (Julianne Moore) tells the mistress-turned wife Maggie (Greta Gerwig): “Have the decency to leave him and face the fact that you poisoned my life and my children’s life and probably John’s life, with your own selfishness. That’s your burden. You earned it.”

To which Maggie responds: “Wait a minute. If you had such a perfect marriage, why was John miserable? You neglected him and you used him, and you didn’t believe in his talents.”

Which is why there isn’t a sisterhood between Other Women and wives!

Forming self-identity

Although, Utley notes, many of the Other Women felt “stupid, empty, foolish, dumb and ruined” by the experience, their regrets spurred them to action — choosing to end the relationship and seeing it as a learning experience. Ultimately, she writes, “Other Women exemplified personal growth by describing who they were before the affair, defining who they were during the affair, and determining who they intended to be post-affair. Identity construction through self-narration is empowering.”

In Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman, author Elizabeth Abbott discovers a similar empowerment. As Bookslut notes in her review:

Abbott does justice to the many lexicographical variants of the term “mistress,” which according to the Oxford American Dictionary, connotes domination, learnedness, authority, and, of course, being beloved. She probes the antic recklessness and wanton secrecy endemic to love affairs, breathing life into mistresses who evince the agency, autonomy, self-direction, and order of this definition — attributes far removed from the type of lasciviousness once meriting containment by legal statute and exile in imperial Rome — as well as to those who, by choice or circumstance, fell prey to their lovers’ manipulation. tweet

Why does this matter — if it even matters? Utley says the experiences of Other Women may be applicable to other relational power differentials between women and men, particularly relationships where there is exploitation or emotional, psychological, physical, sexual, social and/or financial abuse.” If some women can find empowerment even in painful situations they willingly put themselves into — aka affairs — perhaps they can find the same in relationships that don’t start that way but become painful nonetheless.

I don’t doubt that may indeed be true. But I have to wonder if being involved with a married man is the only — and/or best way — for women to gain personal power.

Don’t want to cheat on your spouse but still want to have sex with others? Learn how by ordering “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels” on Amazon, and  follow The New I Do on Twitter and Facebook.

2 Responses to “Is being the Other Woman empowering?”

  1. Nancy King says:

    Women prove themselves, over and over again, to be lacking in self-esteem, self-worth but plentiful in idiotic tendencies. If you are the “other woman” you are likely in the company of many “other women” with that man. If you are the wife of a serial cheater, you have diminished yourself into a deluded co-dependent. I contend there is no empowerment in either scenario having experienced and observed both first hand.

    There are plenty of single men to have sex with. Nudging yourself into a three-some with a married dirt-bag and his wife is not only sick, but creepy. And a wife that denies all those suspicions and feelings of turmoil, but keeps listening to a liar tell her it’s all in her imagination will eventually hate herself. The destruction is enormous.

  2. Bayside Wife says:

    The mistress of my soon to be ex was and still is very delusional about her place in the whole debacle that shattered my marriage. She attempted to play the victim, claimed that she didn’t know that he was married and claimed that he played her for the 6 months of their entanglement. This wasn’t the case. Her goal all along was purely financial and to escape from where she lived. There were ultimatums and threats of contacting me. This isn’t the behaviour of an empowered woman. I will take some responsibility for the failure of my marriage but, it is difficult for a marriage to survive when one partner is unable to communicate, take resonsibilty for his failings or even help raise his children. As for allowing this to happen? He was and still is a compulsive liar who covered his tracks. I confronted him from the beginning of the affair. I could “smell” another in our lives. He was also questioned numerous times. He was only found out when confronted by telephone records. He came home to his prized golf clubs in the pool, his clothes in garbage bags on the porch and his man cave television on the porch with its screen shattered- where a hammer had gone through it. No debate. No discussion. No argument.
    That is empowerment. It wasn’t the affair. It was the constant lies. It was him standing before me and swearing on our children that nothing was happening. That sealed his fate.

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