real life

'My 8-year relationship started as an affair. I wasn't the problem.'

Caroline* first met Dave* on an overseas tour.

Travelling in a close-knit group for weeks on end, the pair developed a close friendship that became quickly accompanied by romantic desires.

Dave confided in Caroline that he was in a long-term relationship – but assured her that things weren't going so well. He didn't want to break up with his partner before he went overseas because he was worried about how he would be perceived but he was also developing strong feelings for Caroline.

"We just started getting closer and closer," Caroline tells Mamamia. "We had a few conversations saying we had feelings for each other and we probably shouldn't act on them and then, before the trip ended, we hooked up."

Watch: The Mamamia team on the difference between physical and emotional affair. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

Caroline says she was mortified by her behaviour. She says she feels limited guilt about the hurt caused to Dave's partner, as he had explained that their relationship was not in a stable place, but she still looked down on cheating and felt shame for participating in it.

After returning home, Dave quickly broke it off with his partner and pursued a relationship with Caroline – a relationship that they both remain happily committed to today, eight years later. But Caroline admits that the way that their relationship began came with a lot of complicated feelings and deep-seated discomfort.


"Growing up, you're just told that cheating is the worst thing you can do, you can't forgive anyone who cheats and now I just know that it's not that black and white… I think I've come to accept that relationships are really complex and these things do happen."

She says that even now, all these years later, she finds herself in uncomfortable conversations where people will talk about cheating and she has to bite her tongue, knowing that she has participated in something that most people would consider abhorrent.

It's not something that she and her now-husband are particularly keen to talk about openly but Caroline says that she recognises she was the 'other woman' when their relationship began.

The 'other woman' generally refers to the woman who is having a sexual or emotional relationship with a heterosexual man who is either married or in a long-term relationship. Other women are mostly despised and broadly dismissed in popular dialogue, as they are inherently associated with the pain and selfishness that we commonly associate with infidelity. 

The other woman is not so much a failure of monogamy, she is detested for actively attacking its foundation: less somebody who accidentally cracks a priceless vase, more somebody who throws that vase at a wall.

And yet, there has increasingly been a trend of reassessing these women and the responsibility that they bear for the breakdown of relationships.


So, is the 'other woman' really the problem?

Much like affairs and infidelity in general, the concept of the other woman has long been a fixture of cultural fascination and there are numerous works of fiction that have focused on this figure, whether malicious (think Fatal Attraction), unknowing (think the widely panned 2014 movie The Other Woman) or plainly representing a threat to a relationship because of her qualities (think Dolly Parton's song Jolene).

Numerous 'other women' have also been exposed and leapt upon by frenzied tabloid media after celebrity affairs have come to light. Marilyn Monroe's alleged affair with John F. Kennedy has become both a subject of historical fascination and the centre of multiple conspiracy theories. Now Queen consort of the UK, Camilla-Parker Bowles was the woman whom King Charles conducted a long-term affair with and famously said he wanted to live in the trousers during his marriage to Princess Diana. And, broadening the British lens, actress Helena Bonham Carter's affair with Kenneth Branagh led to the breakdown of his six-year marriage to Emma Thompson.

While people's sexual lives are generally considered off-limits for reporting, when it comes to affairs, the details often become fair game and other women can be demonised. Monica Lewinsky is perhaps the most famous 'other woman' who has been seized upon by the media to devastating consequences. Lewinsky was 22 years old when she said that she "fell in love" with her boss, that is, the former President of the United States, Bill Clinton. 

While Lewinsky claims that they never had sexual intercourse, Clinton and Lewinsky engaged in a sexual relationship over two years. The story of their affair broke in January of 1998 and the media storm that followed the scandal of the 'other woman' became one of the biggest in history.


Lewinsky remarked in a 2015 Ted Talk in which she discussed the 'price of shame' and what happened to her after the story of her affair with Clinton broke, she explained that she went from being a "completely private figure" to a "publicly humiliated one, worldwide". Lewinsky says that she was branded as a "tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and of course 'that woman'".

"It was easy to forget that 'that woman' was dimensional, had a soul."

Through tears, Lewinsky says that in the months after the story broke, her mother would make her shower with the bathroom door open because she was so scared that Lewinsky would be "humiliated to death, literally". 

However, over the past decade, Lewinsky's work as a social activist and writer who has addressed the media storm has led to a broad reassessment of the way that she was so mercilessly criticised by the world. After speaking out about the trauma of how she was scrutinised following the breaking of the Clinton affair story, Lewinsky has spent years campaigning to end cyberbullying and drawing attention to rabid shaming culture. 

And there are other 'other women' who are also now starting to express themselves and push back against the stigma. 

Rebecca Loos is a name known around the world largely because of scandalous newspaper headlines. Loos was Beckham's 27-year-old personal assistant and claims to have had a four-month affair with the football player in 2003, while he was living in Spain and playing for Real Madrid. The claims about the affair have been repeatedly refuted by the Beckhams in the years since although they never legally challenged Loos' version of events. In the weeks and months following the first exposure of the cheating allegations, Loos' name was published internationally, and she was smeared in the tabloid media as the "sleazy señorita". 


In early October of this year, Netflix published the immensely successful Beckham documentary, which looked at the football player's life and reputation. The show briefly addressed the turbulence in their marriage following the Loos affair claims. While there were no explicit details or admissions included in the series and Loos was never mentioned by name, the couple described the immense pressure that their relationship was placed under and Victorica Beckham stated that it was the "hardest period" of her life.

Following the release of the Beckham documentary, Loos spoke out in an interview with The Daily Mail, saying that Beckham was "making himself look like a victim" and her, a liar. Loos also asserted that Beckham needed to "take responsibility" for what had allegedly happened between the two of them. 

Since the publication of the Beckham documentary, there have been several articles willing audiences to reassess the way that Loos was treated by the press and the notoriety she gained for being the other woman.

Beyond celebrity culture, the reassessment of the other woman is happening in the world of fiction.

Earlier this year, Madeleine Gray, author of the Green Dot, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that the "evil mistress trop is tired" and that she empathises with the other woman.


Gray reflected on the reaction to other women by asking why so much hate is directed at them when a man cheats in a monogamous relationship (behaviour that is unquestionably ethically wrong). She asks "Why is it that whenever a man cheats on his female partner with another female – even if that other female is otherwise unattached – the ire is so often directed solely at her?"

The Green Dot follows the story of Hera, a woman in her mid-20s who falls in love – and pursues a long-term relationship – with a married man. Gray says that she was keen to explore how unglamorous and demoralising it is to be the other woman, waiting in hotel rooms, coming at least second on the list of priorities at all times, and never introducing your partner to your friends.

Listen to the Sealed Section where Chantelle answers three anonymous questions from listeners, who are cheating, or being cheated on. Post continues after podcast.

Speaking to Mamamia, Gray notes that she has seen a lot of strong, negative reactions to the affair that she describes in the Green Dot, particularly as it unfolds from the perspective of the other woman. However, she maintains that she has a lot of empathy for people caught in affairs, despite the error of their judgment. 

"Sometimes life just pulls you in directions that aren't comfortable. I think a lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction to [affairs] because it breaks a really old, simple kind of societal contract, at least in Western culture."


We have also started to witness strong reactions against stereotypes of other women. When the Fatal Attraction TV show was first announced, it promised a reimagining of the infamous 'bunny boiler' narrative (in the original film, Glen Close's other woman character, Alex Forrest acts out increasingly after being spurned by the man that she's having an affair with, leading to the rabbit's grisly demise). However, when it transpired that little had changed about the plot's moral outlook, it simply rang as an outdated story to some reviewers. 

Critic Jo Ellison wrote in the Financial Times that while betrayal is harmful, "at least we're grappling with the idea that the scarlet woman is neither psychopathic [n]or insane". Ellison went on to point out that, after the show's release, Britons would soon watch the coronation of Queen Camilla.

"Alex Forrest may have served some urgent moral imperative in the 1980s. But she can't compete with the modern, more appealing version, where the mistress wears the crown."

While infidelity does undeniable harm and can have far-reaching consequences for relationships and family units, there is a growing movement to inspect the role of the other woman within that dynamic and the responsibility that she may (or may not) bear.

The other woman is no longer voiceless, easily cast off as 'insane', nor an empirically 'bad person' and the desire for that nuance is becoming more and more obvious.

*Names have been changed due to privacy.

Feature Image: Getty.