The Other Woman: A misogynist trope, or the home wrecking villain?
(This is a true story, but I have changed the names and the places in order to keep the identity of all participants confidential. I have had permission from the woman in question to write this as long as she is kept anonymous.)
In my short 21 years, spent in middle class, middle England suburbia, I have become well acquainted with the gossip and scandals of second wives, secretaries and salacious business trips to Amsterdam.
People are often surprised by my laissez faire attitude to all things adulterous, but considering I grew up seeing Sarah’s daddy grope the au pair (or finding out that Annabel’s papa had her senseless over the AGA) I think that attitude is fairly explainable. The PTA mothers would stiffen at their husband’s names, hiding Harry’s latest extra marital liaison behind a perfect battenburg and low fat scone.
Everything was blissfully saccharine and utterly iced over, never mentioned other than in snide comments about that little hussy in the London office. For me, even as a nosey ten year old, the offstage women of adultery were flimsy paper dolls, empty headed, silly little creatures with smoother skin and shorter skirts than the wine devouring Mummies at home.
They didn’t love, feel or think, just stole what wasn’t theirs in the lure of youth. I’m finishing up with my degree now, tidying bits of paper before starting my dissertation. My world is bigger than Cambridge parties and sleepovers at Claudia’s, messier and with a lot less battenburg.
I found a notebook from last October, with a stupid research diary I had kept for a module. I had recorded a summary of every conversation with every friend for 9 weeks. It was 18k when I handed it in, with some silly passing drama and one very sad story.
I’ll tell you it now.
Helen (not her real name) and I are not close. Well, we weren’t, but I have a reputation for being an agony aunt so I suppose I was a free therapist. She is a bit younger than me — 19, 20, and fiercely clever. She burns you up in conversation. She is everything the au pairs of 2006 weren’t; educated, plain, skinny, small and interesting. I sound mean but Helen deserves an honest account. She’s the kind of girl who always has a cup of tea and a book. Silent until you have something worth saying.
So Helen messages me- we do some drama together but she’s studying art history- and makes me swear not to tell but she needs to confess something. This is a very Catholic thing to do but I decide she clearly needs someone to talk to, and agree to listen. We meet up at The Bloomsbury Cafe in late autumn, and she tells me everything over a coffee she never finishes or begins.
Helen- smart, educated, principled- is in a sexual relationship with a married man. Its not about his money, she says fiercely, although he is wealthy. She hates that he is married, and has tried to break it off. But she loves him. Not a crush, or some teenage drama, but heart in throat, agonising, body burning love. The kind of love that feels like a fist around your throat; all consuming, exhilarating and terrifying.
He’s not handsome, he’s 54, he isn’t powerful. She hesitates. Well maybe he used to be. Now he’s gained weight and isn’t so high up in his work. Maybe that’s why he likes her, she thinks aloud, eyes glinting with tears. She’s flattering to him. I sit there, trying to work out what he does, but she doesn’t give anything away. He’s married, long term, has kids, she knows their names. He’s honest about that with her. They make love in cheap hotels and read books together in Regents Park. He says he loves her. She thinks he likes the flattery.
I ask her, tongue racing from mind “Why, Helen? Why do you want to be with him?” She looks at me and thinks. “Love, I guess. I want to make him happy. I make him happy.”
I give the usual speech on how it won’t work out and to think of his wife, but Helen has shaken the image of The Other Woman from my mind. Three months later, the husband will confess everything to Sophie (his wife). She demands a divorce, and a settlement that would strip him. Bitter, he casts off Helen.
Helen drinks now. A lot.
So who is to blame? Love is a tangle, a mess, a knot of self restraint, lust, adoration and identity. Helen is no monster, neither is his wife. It’s a tragedy, but one perhaps without an obvious villain. Perhaps we need to rethink adultery, and the way we percieve the third party.