When Being the ‘Other Woman’ Is Empowering

Some find being a mistress allows for personal growth — is that a bad thing?

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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.

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.

“Uh-huh.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

Written by

Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women

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