I’m A Reformed Other Woman — Here’s What Changed

Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault in a way that may be distressing to some readers. 
Being the other woman was something I began to identify with in my early twenties
Although I didn’t necessarily go out looking for men who were taken, I didn’t discourage them either. They seemed to find me, and I’ve always been partial to a little bit of forbidden romance. 
Once it happened a few times — first with a chef at my cocktail bar job and again with a man visiting from New York — I decided where I stood. I didn’t feel like someone else’s relationship was my responsibility to protect or consider. How people wanted to behave outside of their relationships with me, was completely on them. 
I liked how it felt, to be someone’s escape. The whole thing intrigued me. I was extremely curious about how people operated in general, but especially in love. At the time, I was questioning my views on monogamy and sexuality. My entire existence felt like a bunch of question marks.
“When it comes to engaging in infidelity, it’s not cut and dry,” says Amber Rules, a clinical psychotherapist and director of Rough Patch Counselling
“There’s merit in the idea that a relationship like that was offering you something. Perhaps it was a sense of power that you weren’t feeling in other aspects of your life. Perhaps it was the thrill of getting caught or simply doing something you’re not supposed to," Rules explains. "It’s also pretty normal for us to challenge ideas and beliefs our culture holds as a way of rebelling, and to understand where we fit within it.”
This strikes a chord with me. In my early twenties, I felt as though I was rebelling against not only what society wanted me to believe, but also what I had experienced thus far.
All my ideas surrounding love, sex, and romance were destroyed pretty early on. The first boy who told me he loved me did so over instant messenger, and although that wasn’t overly romantic, I could handle it. We were living in a world of evolving technology, after all. What I couldn’t get past was that he’d told a girl at a different school that he loved her too — the day after he told me. I also couldn't get over when immediately after our first kiss, he punched my boobs because he said they looked like “punching bags” and he “liked it.” 
I remember running home and crying on the floor of my bedroom because my boobs hurt and I had believed him when he told me that he loved me. I felt foolish and like I wasn't good enough. I also knew that I wanted to be loved so badly, that despite it all, I’d still meet up with him again if he texted me. Because what if he was the only boy who would ever love me?
As young women, we’re taught that a man being in love with us, and seeing us as beautiful and worthy of love gives us a sense of value — it's everything. All the cool girls at school had boys that loved them, and I wanted one too.

There was something about them already being committed to someone else that took the pressure off me.

Laura Roscioli
The first time I had sex, it was non-consensual. My friend’s boyfriend spiked my drink and led me into a bedroom at a party and closed the door behind us. No one believed me when I told them what happened, and my friend didn’t talk to me for a while after that. They continued to date, and I didn’t want anyone to touch me for years but didn’t understand why. I couldn’t believe that someone could do that to me without asking and just carry on with their lives. I couldn’t fathom that no one believed me but everyone believed him. It made me subconsciously cynical, and firmly imprinted the idea that men are in control and women just have to play the best hand with the cards they’re dealt.
Even when I did eventually fall in love and have connected sex with my first boyfriend that made me feel alive and empowered — it turned out he was simultaneously in love with someone else, who he eventually left me for. 
So, by the time I moved cities and was engaging in relationships with men who were technically unavailable, I had developed a pretty strong case to rebel against. I was sick of waiting for respectful romance. I was sick of feeling confused. I was sick of all the confines of love and romance and monogamy and finding the one because it didn’t seem to be working out for me. I wanted to understand people, to feel powerful, to make sense of a world that seemed to have no issue gobbling up my soft hopeful heart and spitting it back out.
“There’s so much to unpack around traditional relationships and heteronormative activity,” says Rules, adding that “the way we often unpack things, especially as young adults, is through experience.”
I found power in my position with men in relationships. I never got involved if I had feelings for them and I knew the only thing I had control over was myself. And, I didn’t want any messy emotions about what it meant to be the other woman. I didn’t want to have feelings for someone who wasn’t committed to me. I didn’t want to work hard to be vulnerable only to be taken advantage of. 
As I reflect on it now, I think that’s the reason those relationships appealed to me. There was something about them already being committed to someone else that took the pressure away from me. I could experiment, get vulnerable in sex, have really honest conversations, and understand men a little better.  
What I learned was pretty remarkable. 
Through these relationships, it became abundantly clear that most men don’t talk about their feelings to anyone except their romantic or sexual partner. Unlike women, who have incredible intimate friendships and close relationships with women family members, men often don’t have those opportunities naturally. Most weren’t taught to talk about how they feel — with other men, or really anyone. Except for their romantic partner.

But over time, I began to grow impatient with the dishonesty. It felt cowardly. 

Laura Roscioli
“Women and femmes have more robust friendships and emotional connections that men don’t allow themselves to have,” says Rules. “Therefore, it’s no coincidence that men look for emotional support within intimacy and sex. It’s the one place that forces them to be vulnerable.
“Through my work, I’ve observed that women appear to be interested in understanding themselves better and becoming better people, but I haven’t observed that as much in men. Men show more fear around getting to know themselves.”
Back in 2021, extramarital dating site Ashley Madison collaborated with Dr. Alicia Walker from Missouri State University on research detailing men versus women cheating habits. The research showed that men largely turn to infidelity for emotional validation, while women do so for sexual satisfaction.
This rings true with my own experience. While the relationships were quite sexual to me, I felt sexually attracted to unavailable men, and I found that men in relationships were passionate lovers — they felt more emotionally fueled. While yes, they wanted to try new things with me, live out sexual fantasies, and exist outside of our societally agreed moral boundaries, they also really wanted to explore complex emotions and feel nourished and heard.
“We should never underestimate how powerful it is for people when they feel listened to and cared for; it’s really compelling.” says Rules.
Often, the men would cry to me. They’d get honest about things they’d been afraid to tell anyone about. I actually spent far more time laying on the couch with men telling me their troubles than I did having raunchy extra-marital sex. 
At first, I quite liked it. It surprised me to see men in this vulnerable way because I never had before. It made them seem sensitive and unsure of themselves in a way that felt relatable to me because don’t we all feel like that sometimes? It was refreshing to know that they were human too. But it was also a little sad that they didn’t feel comfortable expressing this part of themselves openly. 
But over time, I began to grow impatient with the dishonesty. It felt cowardly. 
There was a man I was involved with for a few months who was engaged to someone else. He told me he wanted to leave her, that he wanted to be with me. I told him he probably needed to spend some time on his own, exploring who he is and what he’s passionate about. I also told him that I wasn’t going to get into a relationship with someone who couldn’t be honest. 

I realized, in a crushing avalanche of self-awareness, that I was enabling these men to escape dealing with their vulnerabilities to the women who had invested in them.

Laura Roscioli
He said she’d be upset if he was honest and he didn’t want to upset her. "So, you’d rather be unhappy and just say nothing?" I asked. "Yeah," he replied, "it’s easier." 
At that moment, I saw the lack of respect he had for himself and the relationship he was in and the laziness of the whole thing gave me the ick. I realized, in a crushing avalanche of self-awareness, that I was enabling these men to escape dealing with their vulnerabilities to the women who had invested in them. Those women deserved to know and the men deserved to share their truth and feel seen. 
I didn’t dislike them for what they had done. I certainly understood it. Sometimes, looking outside of your everyday routine and the people closest to you can really highlight things that you might be lacking or feeling. But we should be honest with those around us. For ourselves and them.
Now, as a 27-year-old who has had a long-term monogamous relationship that didn’t work out and a bunch of past experiences, I’m back dating again and I’m noticing some changes.
I'm no longer into situations that would normally appeal to me due to their complications — whether it be another relationship or emotional unavailability. In my early twenties, I would’ve gone for the man who wouldn’t reply to my texts, but now, I’m not putting up with men who don’t make an effort. 
“We don’t fully develop until we’re 26,” Rules says. “Up until then, it’s normal to romanticize complications. The teenage brain — which we essentially have until 26 — is primed for learning and thrill-seeking. We learn by experiencing. This shift in what you find attractive speaks to your growth. It shows a move towards being self-esteemed versus being other-esteemed.”
Basically, being other-esteemed is when we rely on the validation of others and what others think of us to make our decisions. It’s really appealing, but it runs out. We get bored easily and constantly need to be topping up.
“I suspect that as you’ve gotten older, you’ve become able to self-esteem yourself. The complexity of an affair, or a complex romantic situation, isn’t as appealing because you understand the nuances. Which means that the experience doesn’t really serve you, anymore.”
Rules also says that we’re less likely to slip into roles that we may have had the capacity for previously. While we might’ve had sympathy, patience, and curiosity to help someone through a tough moment in their relationship in the past, we might be more cautious of being in a caretaker role as we get older. 
“If you’ve been in that role before, you know what it entails. You might decide it’s not something you want to do, to take on someone else’s problem, to help them through it,” Rules says.
And she’s right. I don’t want to be someone’s crutch anymore, I don’t find that sexy or flattering. If anything, it’s kind of a turn-off.
I’ve never felt more clear about what I want out of a relationship than I do now. I want a teammate. I want someone who’s going to support and help me make my dreams come true, and I want to do the same for them. I don’t want to be in competition, I want to be on the same side. I want to feel loved and cared for, and I don’t want to feel as though we’re measuring each other’s every move. I want to live independently alongside someone and I want us to grow together. I want someone to make an effort for me. I want to be someone’s first choice.
I also feel totally okay with being alone until that person comes around. I think that, for the first time ever, I’m actually okay with being by myself. That idea of ultimate success and value coming from someone else loving me doesn’t have a hold on me anymore. 
I’m not sure I would’ve arrived here if it wasn’t for my relationships with taken men. They taught me valuable lessons about the difference between men and women in relationships and life and emotions, and they taught me a lot about myself and what I value.
I’m not saying that everyone can learn something from infidelity. I know that it’s still a very controversial topic and that’s to be expected when it comes to things like dishonesty in love. But I do think it’s important to talk about.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

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