The Other Woman In Me

the other woman
Photo by Mahir Uysal

I am in my mid-20s and single.

Happily so, most days at least. Not only because my time is purely mine and I don’t owe anyone anything, but rather because I stopped believing in that fairytale we call “monogamy.”

Don’t get me wrong. I would love to have that—a man who loves and wants only me. And I do think that can be the case. Unfortunately, though, I have come to realize that it is the exception rather than the rule. And, yes, sure, we all fantasize about other people even when in a relationship. And whether or not that is okay is something you have to discuss with your partner. I, for one, don’t mind a little fantasizing. But the reality is that it rarely just remains a fantasy.

I do believe people can be faithful, but not often in their 20s. Call me cynical; I think I’m realistic.

One of my closest friends (we’ll call her Jackie) and I spend everyday texting. I know every detail of her life, and she mine. Although we approach some things, dating and love in particular, very differently, we can agree on one thing: no one in their 20s is truly faithful. Or, if you want it put a little less pessimistically, everyone in their 20s is capable of cheating, and many do. Let me rephrase that: specifically, men in their 20s do.

Jackie and I have gotten into all sorts of trouble together, and we have a lot of things in common. The morally grayest of them all? Our inconvenient affinity with getting involved with men who are decidedly not single. We don’t plan for it; seriously, we don’t, and it isn’t our only version of sex or dating. But it does happen.

The way I see it, there are three categories.

The first is the guys who conveniently forget to mention that they are in a relationship at all.

The second are those men we share a history with. Maybe we dated in the past or, more likely, we used to be friends with benefits, or perhaps it was always the wrong time, right person and feelings were as far as it ever got. Either way, they get a girlfriend, and we remain platonic. At least it starts that way. But eventually, the months spent not hooking up, not feeling more than friendly love, all melt away. Sooner or later, a few drinks in, their tongue is in your mouth, their hands roaming your body once again.

And then there is the third category. It’s the men you have no history with, but you get involved with anyway. They have a girlfriend, sure, but that’s just a fact, along with where they work, that they have a sibling, what food they are allergic to.

Let me clarify: neither Jackie nor I have ever had an affair with a taken man. And most definitely not with anyone who was engaged, married, or has a child. Even with men who ‘only’ have girlfriends, no ‘I love yous’ were exchanged, no dates, no secret weekend getaways. It’s physical. So, when I say that men in their 20s cheat, I don’t mean emotionally, necessarily. I mean sexually, either physically or virtually.

Some argue that monogamy goes against nature. Biologically, men are predisposed to want to “sow their seed” with as many women as possible to ensure the survival of the species. I do think there might be some truth to that, even more so when alcohol is involved. Booze strips us all of our inhibitions.

So maybe drink by drink; not only our inhibitions get chipped away, but so does our societal brain. Our primal instincts take over, and our biology is in charge. That is not to say that men will go after every woman in their vicinity; I like to think as a species, we are, for the most part, evolved beyond that. But if it’s someone you had a connection with, someone you want with your whole being, but shove it down any other day… well, blame biology.

I could write a whole piece about the evolution of monogamy. How open relationships are becoming more of a norm, and how many will nevertheless deny that that is what they truly crave. An article about how maybe women are perpetuating this cycle by forgiving guys like that and how, undoubtedly, I’m a part of the problem too.

But that isn’t going to make anyone feel better, is it?

Because the truth is that maybe he does love you. Or perhaps that is just what he tells himself because he wants to have it all. Because that’s what lets him sleep at night. Or maybe he doesn’t know what he wants; honestly, that’s kind of what I believe. He knows he doesn’t want to lose her, but he doesn’t want to not have me either.

Do I think it’s the right move, his silence as a symbol of his love?

No, I don’t. Being betrayed by someone you love can leave scars on your heart that may never entirely heal. I am all for honesty, for transparency. But I need to believe what I do because I want to sleep at night too.

I may be a hopeless romantic at times, but I am not a fool. I know these guys don’t love me. They want me, they desire me, they connect with me. Some of them have feelings for me; I don’t doubt that, but I don’t think they are necessarily romantic. As strange as this may sound, I am happy for them and their partner. I wouldn’t want to break them up. This other woman, the girlfriend, makes them happy. I assume they love each other. Why would I ever want to cause them pain?

So why am I getting involved with them? That’s what you’re thinking. I wonder that too.

So far, I may have been telling you about how men in their mid-20s don’t take monogamy so seriously, but I don’t think women necessarily do either. It’s just different. From what I have seen, from the conversations I’ve had with friends, men are more likely to be the ones to step outside of their relationship quite lightly, but women are the ones who are on the other side of that. I know far fewer women who have cheated on a partner than men, but I know more single ladies involved with taken men. Of course, there are exceptions.

I have a sort of moral code when it comes to getting involved with men in relationships. For anything physical, I never make the first move. And I live by this religiously. I may hug them, kiss them on the cheek, compliment them, and look cute around them. But I never, not once, kiss them first, run my hand up their leg, take off my clothes. I never push it further than they are taking it. My hands don’t wander south until he encourages it.

What makes us single women get involved with men who have a girlfriend?

Is it insecurity? Is it a thirst for power or reassurance? There certainly is something thrilling about a man wanting you who shouldn’t be wanting anyone else. Picking up a random single guy at a bar is easy enough; it is almost boring. A man who shouldn’t want anyone besides his girlfriend wanting you, risking his relationship to have you? That’s exciting, it’s thrilling. But if, for me, it was just about power or insecurity, wouldn’t I be actively pursuing them? Wouldn’t I want to get it all over with as fast as possible before they remember their girlfriends and how they shouldn’t be here with me?

So, I think it is more than that.

Growing up, Jackie didn’t have the greatest relationship with her older brother. It was messy and complicated and had impacts on her family life beyond just sibling strife. She was never in control of that relationship. Now she can get guys with girlfriends to want her, to be willing to risk their relationship just to have her. It’s not about power as much as it is about control. Brother issues, anyone?

And as for me?

The guys I get with are usually in category two—ones I have a history with. I have been in therapy long enough to know that, despite what I like to tell myself, my father not being a constant in my life since a very young age has left its marks on the way I approach relationships. I have issues with being rejected but, more so, with letting go.

If I know an ending is coming—with an apartment I have lived in for a few years, a vacation, a relationship, anything really—I feel this deep, stressful need for the perfect goodbye. But when planning for something to be perfect, it rarely happens. So, the process of letting go drags on and on until it turns into holding on rather than releasing.

And although I don’t actively pursue those category two men, I don’t want to lose them from my life. It feels like I physically can’t bear it. And when you share a history with someone—especially when you know how good they can feel and how wonderful it can be together—moments happen. Slip-ups happen. I’m willing to bet they feel it too. If I were so easy to let go of, wouldn’t they have already? Holding on to something you know, to something comfortable, well, that’s pretty human after all.

Jackie and I both felt invisible a little too often when we were younger. We didn’t see ourselves as pretty as the other girls. Our laugh maybe wasn’t the cute giggle that they had. We felt ignored and overlooked.

Are we now taking revenge on women by sleeping with their boyfriends?

No, not at all. Neither of us has ever gotten with a guy whose girlfriend we knew. Because it isn’t about them, honestly, it is barely about the guy either.

It’s about us. Those little girls who felt so overlooked, so forgettable, now feel the eyes on them, feel the power that being a woman has over men.

If all of this sounds like an excuse for our behavior, it is not. We know it is a morally gray area; we know it is not one of our best traits. And yes, I would hate it if someone went after my boyfriend. But that is my point: we do not go after anyone’s partner. Things just happen. Things escalate.

And why should this be on us when all we are doing is experiencing pleasure? The guys are the ones who are cheating, the ones who have something to lose, the ones who are risking something that is supposedly so important to them. We are not forcing anyone to do anything.

But are the guys at fault?

Is it biology? Unhappiness in their relationship they won’t admit to or don’t have the courage to voice? Craving something they don’t get from their girlfriends?

I don’t know the answer, and it probably differs from case to case. What I know, though, is in our 20s, monogamy is taken more lightly than we want to admit. I also think technology plays a big part in it. To a lot of people, sexting does not feel like cheating, not really. Not when they are the ones doing it, at least. Because, in some ways, what’s the difference between sexting and porn? It is looking at another woman’s body on a screen. Is that so bad? It doesn’t necessarily mean he loves you any less.

Are you judging Jackie and me right now?

Probably.

Do you believe me when I say we are far from the only ones?

Possibly.

Do you think of us as bad people because of it?

I can only guess.

But if you do, have a look at yourself.

Do you never crave that attention?

Do you think it’s fair to judge us on something like this and forgive men over and over?

Because I have seen it happen a lot too that women who swear would never forgive a cheating partner suddenly bend their principles once it happens. And that is okay too.

In the end, the world is not black and white, and neither are people and intentions. We all have something in our childhood that messed us up, it’s just a fact, and we all have course corrections to do in one way or another. It’s okay to forgive yourself. It is okay to admit that you see where Jackie and I are coming from, that some of it may be in you too.

Do I believe all relationships are doomed, and men will always have that desire and capability to cheat, and single women will always crave the control their attention gives them?

No, not necessarily.

Everyone always tells you that your 20s are for figuring yourself out, for having fun, for finding your path. Maybe this is just part of it.

For men, it is a way to realize that, ultimately, it is not as satisfying as building a life with the woman they love. For women, like Jackie and I, it is a stepping-stone of coming into our own, realizing that although women have a hold over a man’s attention, we don’t need to wield it for it to exist. We don’t need to wield it to be visible, to be seen, to be remembered.

Am I proud of my behavior?

I wouldn’t say proud, but I am not ashamed.

Am I working on it?

Yes, definitely.

But you know what I am working on more than that?

Forgiving myself.

Because your 20s are hard enough.

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