Don’t Be ‘the Other Woman’
“Hello, may I speak to Barbara?
Barbara, this is Shirley.
You might not know who I am,
But the reason I am calling you is because
I was going through my old man’s pockets this morning
And I just happened to find your name and number…”
In 1974, soul singer Shirley Brown released the cult classic song “Woman to Woman” in which she confronts the woman with whom her man has been having an affair. It’s a passionate plea to the woman, Barbara, to leave the man alone because she has no intention of letting go of the man she loves and the relationship has invested her time and energy into building.
The song resonated with a lot of women because so many had been dealing with infidelity in silence, largely because men cheating has been seen as just something they do. And because divorce was a huge taboo until the mid-to-late ’70s, many women accepted cheating as something that came with being married.
What we don’t talk enough about is what it’s like to be the person on the side who finds out the love of their life is actually fully engaged in a relationship with someone else.
We haven’t always been a society that turned exposing cheaters into lucrative TV deals or tell-all books. We didn’t always have social media platforms where scorned people exposed private photos and messages of sordid affairs. Even with these cultural shifts, being honest about your partner’s infidelity remains a shameful taboo most women chose to keep to themselves. What we don’t talk enough about is what it’s like to be the person on the side who finds out the love of their life is actually fully engaged in a relationship with someone else. While some people are willing participants in these illicit trysts, a good number of people have no idea that the person they’re dating (and in some cases, preparing to marry) lied to them about being single and is living a double life. That discovery can be incredibly painful and have a serious impact on one’s self-esteem. How do you get past this type of deception and not succumb to the discouraging emotions and fears?
In my twenties, I received too many calls, emails, and instant messages from women telling me that they found my contact information somehow and realized their men were cheating on them. The conversations ranged from women threatening my life if I didn’t leave their men alone to women weeping with sadness, lamenting the impact of the affair on their children’s lives. This was a time when social media like BlackPlanet, MySpace, and AOL chats were really popular, so people were “meeting” folks from other states and even other countries. The world was opening up and it created even more opportunities for people to hookup and find romance. It also opened up a world of nefarious possibilities and made cheating that much easier for those looking to do so.
In my naivete, I wondered why anyone would lie about being married or in a relationship on online forums for the whole world to see, but I learned early on that it was extremely common and that trusting people to be who they say they are isn’t easy. Every call, every message, every email left me feeling disrespected and like I was just being used and meant nothing. I felt cheap and dirty, and I began to harden myself and find ways to gain control of my circumstances and dating predicaments. I tried not to care or I tried to play it off like the woman had the wrong number. Sometimes I’d lie and say I’d never met the man. But some of the more elaborate schemes left me angry and vengeful, so I spilled all of the tea. I became smarter about reading clues and figuring out as much of the truth as possible before getting too deeply involved. If I later found out he was lying, I learned better coping mechanisms so I wouldn’t carry the shame and burden of his behaviors with me, even if the woman confronting me made me feel like I was the one majorly to blame.
One red flag is never being invited to their home. Back then, it wasn’t as common for post-graduate adults to have roommates as it is today, so if people didn’t live with their parents or partners, they likely lived alone. Even with roommate situations today, though, if someone you’re dating never invites you over to their place, that may be a sign they’re not single or may even be living with a partner. I had one situation in which a guy maintained two apartments — one for his wife and kids and one for his side-chicks so the “I’ve never been to your house” clue was ruled out. I only went on three dates with him, but the third was at his apartment and I checked around for signs that a woman lived there. Just when I thought all was good, I got the dreaded phone call.
Another man was pretty well-off and had several properties spread around. I hooked up with him several times over two years, never once thinking he was married. It actually wasn’t until after I cut things off that I found out he had a whole wife and another child in addition to the one I had known about (and met). This one actually hurt a lot because I was going through my divorce and didn’t want to get into anything serious, but I liked him. We had a great connection and he seemed to really affirm me, respect my intelligence, and more. We kept it light and I cut it off because, ironically, he seemed to want more commitment from me and I wasn’t ready for it. Finding out he was married, even after the fact, really made me question myself and why I kept being duped by men who were already involved. It’s really hard not to think something is wrong with you when it happens repeatedly and I began to internalize it in rather negative ways. Therapy helped me accept that there are a lot of ain’t-shit people out there and I’m not some lightning rod or magnet for them — they’re just messed up people.
Another clue is in the communication style. In the texting age, when people can reach out and respond to messages when it’s convenient, it is trickier to tell if something shady is going on. People will text you while on the couch with their partners, so there’s no surefire way to know if they’re being completely honest about being single. If you get a text from their number and it is someone saying their partner is cheating on them, don’t respond at all. Don’t compromise your integrity. Just block the number and leave the situation behind with your dignity intact. You don’t need an explanation and you don’t need to try to somehow come out on top. It is never, ever worth it.
A more difficult situation to navigate and one that is likely to cause more problems now that we are becoming more accepting of open relationships and polyamorous connections is one in which someone lies about their partner being aware of their involvement with you when they really aren’t. You may meet someone who says they’re in an open relationship and their lover is totally fine with them seeing other people. They may even say they have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which is one approach to these partnerships. Or maybe they tell you their partner knows about you, has seen your picture or even read your conversations, so it’s all good when the truth is that you’re just a regular old side-piece. How can you tell the difference?
One clue is how they talk about their partner. Are they singing their praises or making subtle complaints and comparisons to you? Does it start out complimentary but slowly turn into griping? They may not be telling you the whole truth. Another is if you ask to meet their partner or speak to them for confirmation that everything is out in the open and they vehemently deny the request like you asked them to jump into a volcano — something might be murky in the water.
One of the most devastating breakups I’ve experienced involved me learning that my partner was seeing someone else for two years while we were together and had convinced her that I was aware of her being in his life the whole time, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. I seriously had no idea and I found myself feeling bad for her because she’d been presented with a narrative that was completely deceptive, but one that, if it was true, she would have accepted. We connected and shared stories and I ended up learning things I wish I’d never known, as I’m sure she did too. We agreed he was the problem, not us, and it was best to just move on. It’s hard to erase that dark spot from your life and you’re left with lingering trust issues — how can you believe the next person isn’t lying in the same way, especially when someone maintained a facade for years?
Finding out you’re the person on the side can be a brutal discovery that can rock you to your core. It can make you question everything you think you know about yourself and believe you’re willing to put up with. You can end up internalizing their own demons when it has nothing to do with you. Can we all stand to be more inquisitive and more upfront with our questions? Sure. Does this mean that we’re going to get the truth every time? Of course not. You can’t blame yourself for someone else’s poor treatment of you and you can’t allow yourself to turn into someone you aren’t proud or comfortable being. You owe it to yourself to be stronger and know better than what someone else projects onto you.