Finding Out You’re The Other Woman: The Real Reasons Why It Hurts
Or, cutting into a birthday cake to find a severed heart.
‘There’s something I should probably tell you. I’ve got a girlfriend.’ Reading this phrase shaped my face into an expression of pain and shock, illuminated in the dark of my bedroom by the screen that bore the bad news. Like a park sculpture lit up for passersby at night. A vignette of human heartbreak and epiphany, aghast. I wasn’t, however, as voiceless as marble. ‘Oh my god, oh no, oh no, god no,’ reverberated ceaselessly through the corridor and into the confused ears of my housemates.
Replace ‘girlfriend’ with ‘wife’ or ‘fiancée’ or ‘partner’, and this phrase might be what brought you here — that is, if you were (un)lucky enough to discover it from the source. Perhaps he didn’t inform you. Perhaps you snooped and had your fears confirmed or unexpectedly stumbled across the evidence and had your illusions shattered.
But why does finding out that you’re the other woman feel like the end of the, or at least a, world? Why can’t we shrug off the beautiful liar with the ease suggested by Beyoncé and Shakira and shake our hips into the sunset?
Either way, your heart is pounding, your thoughts are racing, and you’re in pain — potentially physically, but emotionally it’s a given. In fact, I’d probably place the experience right up there with breaking your ankle (something I’ve managed to do an impressive three times as a professional stumbler). Your legs give way, something snaps, and you’re suddenly a hypervigilant, pulsing, urgent mess yet tethered by the weight of the shock to the floor. But why does finding out that you’re the other woman feel like the end of the, or at least a, world? Why can’t we shrug off the beautiful liar with the ease suggested by Beyoncé and Shakira and shake our hips into the sunset?
Why, you wonder, does it suck (read: hurt) so very damn much? Well, I broke my brain introspecting so you don’t have to:
1. Grieving the Un-Existent Dream Lover
Un-existent? What kind of a non-word is that? The short answer is: a useful one. The still-short-but-slightly-less-so answer is: the perfect one to explain the most obvious source of mourning when one finds out that their dream partner has been a nightmare all long.
You see, when I found out that I was the other woman, the man behind this admission was suddenly split into two: the man who would never find himself having to confess to such a thing, and the man who just did. The former was the man who had reached out to me online five months prior with no way of knowing what I looked like or even what my name was, solely over shared philosophical and political convictions, only for us to discover that this profound bond was backed by the most incredible chemistry, banter, and understanding.
He was the man who had been flirting with me for the duration, the one who had been sending me love songs I actually liked, the one who expressed genuine curiosity about the tragedies of my home country while his suffered a similar fate, the one who used his few hours of electricity each day to watch a documentary I recommended, his few minutes of phone battery to make me smile with pictures of his cat, the man who shared my passion for music and my dark, absurd humour. He was, moreover, the man to whom I had just confessed feeling a connection that only happens a couple of times in one’s lifetime, if one is lucky, and who had expressed that he felt the same and was willing to cross the Mediterranean to meet me.
To me, however, this man had been rendered more dead than a ghost — he became the man I loved that never existed.
In the minds of my housemates, who were yet to hear the bad news, this first man briefly lived on. To me, however, this man had been rendered more dead than a ghost — he became the man I loved that never existed. I could never love a man who would elect to betray the woman he claimed to love for me, and I could never love a man who would deceptively entertain me as a fun substitute to his love for another woman. I had loved someone, though — the illusory someone that the flesh-and-bone cheater had portrayed, the ideal partner that he could have been and would’ve liked me to believe he was.
This is the unique pain of the un-existence of our dream lover. The non-existence of a dream lover is enough — when we can’t seem to find love, the abstract sense of something transcendental missing hurts profoundly. The longing is fluid, however, as the hole in our heart is fuzzy, soft around the vagueness of its edges, and easier to fill with transitory fluff and promises that the right stuff will materialise. The crisp outline of the un-existent dream lover we thought we knew intimately, however, provokes an articulated longing for something so palpable and yet impossibly gone forever. Every time we look upon the cheater, we relive the death of the version of them we loved and lost — we are reminded of the un-existent lover who we will never really meet.
This special recurring grief is the first reason why it just sucks so very damn much to be the other woman.
2. Involuntary Manslaughter by Birthday-Cake Cutting, Or Accidental Heartbreaking-by-Proxy
When I’ve spoken to friends about the 3 reasons being the other woman freaking sucks, this one has been by far the most confusing component to explain, probably because of the frankly bizarre analogy that I insist on using. It also confused the hell out of the cheater in my particular story when I tried to explain how badly he’d messed up using it. I enjoyed his confusion, and I enjoyed his eventual complete comprehension even more because the analogy is not only mystifying but, I am convinced, ultimately illuminating.
That is, falling in love with, and deeply loving, someone who is horrifically betraying their lover by being involved with you is like receiving the most beautifully-decorated and bountiful birthday cake, making a wish, and eagerly slicing right into it to find that there was a beating heart inside and you’ve just severed it.
As the other woman, our delight and giddy excitement is instantaneously converted into the disgust, shock, and guilt of someone who was misled into committing involuntary manslaughter when we discover the true contents of our romance: someone else’s deception and heartbreak.
The cake, as I explained to the cheater moments after his confession, typing through my tears, is the experience of love that you seem to have found, that you’ve received just in time, at a moment when you’re overdue for a celebration. The act of cutting signifies diving deeper into romantic dealings with your ostensible dream partner, and the severed heart belongs to their long-term partner — in my case, his girlfriend of four years who I unwittingly, profoundly, and irreparably hurt by acting in good faith according to my feelings for him and what he had led me to believe. As the other woman, our delight and giddy excitement is instantaneously converted into the disgust, shock, and guilt of someone who was misled into committing involuntary manslaughter when we discover the true contents of our romance: someone else’s deception and heartbreak.
Being forced into the story of the dissolution of someone’s relationship, being accidentally involved in the plot twist that ruined someone’s ability to trust, that killed someone’s romantic vision, by a cheater, is not spoken about as often as the other traumas they cause. Being made to feel dirty, being made into a component of my cheater’s girlfriend’s worst memory, having to reveal to her that her longstanding love was a lie — these things went unspoken and were among the most underrated in terms of the emotional toll of the whole garbage fire that occurred that night.
The very last thing I needed at that point in my life was to message a beautiful, seemingly soulful woman I imagine that I would otherwise love to be friends with, at 3AM to tell her, as a stranger from halfway across the world, that her boyfriend had betrayed her in his dealings with me. And yet, that is exactly what he forced me to do.
My concern for her and my anger and repulsion at the role I was pushed into in her life by the cheater were, in fact, the emotions that made being the other woman hurt so damn much for the better part of the week that followed the event, and, if you can’t figure out why you feel quite so sucky, I’m willing to bet the cake analogy can account for some of it.
3. Information-Ravenous Disillusionment (Forgiveness Confusion)
Having accepted that you played an incidental role in someone else’s romantic disaster and having blocked and banished the cheater along with your un-existent lover (all of which is a long process in itself), you are still left with one more reason why having been the other woman sucks so very damn much. I call this phase information-ravenous disillusionment or forgiveness confusion.
It’s the phase you enter once you realise that many, if not most, human beings around you are involved in adultery at some point and are therefore willing to subject other humans to the pains we’ve spoken about simply to serve their egos, expand their options, or otherwise stimulate their nether regions. The main side effect is, of course, disillusionment with romance and people altogether. Not only must you find someone who corresponds to your quirks and eccentricities next time you’re in the dating game, but you must now consciously filter the candidates for someone who is faithful — a trait that you may have previously taken for granted or at least as being more obvious and common.
But life is not so simple that this is true of all cheaters, and life is not so simple that a clear binary between cheaters and non-cheaters could even be constructed. Who should we forgive and consider loving, and who should we condemn?
With the intersection of ‘hot’, ‘compatible’, and ‘loyal’ yielding a tiny pool of people, many of whom are already involved or living thousands of kilometres away, we find ourselves endlessly introspecting on which traits we should compromise on and on what exactly is forgivable. In an effort to understand my options, I dove down a psychological rabbit hole. My browser history was chock full of silly questions like, ‘If someone cheats once, will they always cheat again?’ and, ‘Is cheating a personality trait?’ and, ‘Why do people cheat?’. The truth I feared confronting was nevertheless unavoidable: there are no rules and there are no foolproof answers. Most cheaters, especially serial cheaters, blatantly place their own thrills above the mental health and wellbeing of others and can be condemned as prospective partners, if not people. But life is not so simple that this is true of all cheaters, and life is not so simple that a clear binary between cheaters and non-cheaters could even be constructed. Who should we forgive and consider loving, and who should we condemn?
When my cheater’s girlfriend took him back a few days after thanking me for letting her know about his betrayal, I was tempted to think of her as a fool and conclude that they deserved their predicament from there onwards. The more distance I get from my feelings, though, the more I realise that her subpar partnership and my complete isolation might not be so readily ranked by some objective romantic wisdom.
Ignorance is bliss, cynicism is peaceful, but calculated risk requires constant calorie-burning, and that’s where we’re left when our trust is proven fallible.
If we swear we’ll never date a cheater, do we inadvertently swear we’ll never date at all in the process? Where do we draw the line? Can we remain friends with our friends when they cheat on their partners? How does adultery rank next to other offences? These questions remain unanswered and subjective, and yet they are so integral to our future romantic happiness that we cannot ignore them. Ignorance is bliss, cynicism is peaceful, but calculated risk requires constant calorie-burning, and that’s where we’re left when our trust is proven fallible. Pretty sucky and hurtful, no?
When all is said and done, hurt is easier to explain than to do away with, especially when it comes to romantic endeavours, but understanding is the first step to any meaningful change. Most crucially, we should understand that the pain of being the person someone is cheated on with does not stem, as the cheater might egotistically believe, from our fear of losing them or our desire to be their one chosen partner, but from their having murdered our naive visions of love and rendered us an unwitting accomplice in the same crime against their partner.
So, go forth and articulate your pain, crazy cake analogies or not, and figure out your own forgiveness yardstick. I’m erring on the side of cautious solitude for now. Peace of mind and self-respect simply can’t be bested in my book, and I’d strongly recommend them as a daily supplement.