Relationship Matters: Let's talk about the other woman
September 5, 2004
Offra Gerstein

In discussions about marital infidelity, it is interesting to explore the perceptions, motivations and conduct of the "other woman." Why would a woman agree to this secondary status? What is she thinking? What keeps her available to a partial relationship?

Women who were involved with married men answered my curiosity about this question in several ways. I classified them by their self-perceptions and stated motivations. Though there are many more categories, I will discuss four common styles: The "nondeserving woman," the "naive woman," the "competitive woman" and the "kept woman."

Nondeserving woman
The nondeserving woman commonly has a long history of feeling insecure, unloved, undesired or rejected. She may have had an abusive early upbringing, bad experiences with men in early adulthood or other traumatic events that led her to view herself as not meriting the love and full attention of a man.

Less commonly, this woman may not be aware of the connection between her deep emotional wounds and their damage to her esteem.

In her self-disdain, the nondeserving woman is receptive to any attention and is willing to settle for "stolen moments" with a man who is committing adultery. She is so hungry for validation that she allows herself to rationalize that "If he met me first, we would have had a perfect relationship," or, "He truly loves me, but can not leave his marriage."

This woman is fully aware of violating a moral commandment but is so starved for attention that she violates others by "stealing" that which is not hers and coveting her neighbor's husband.

Naive woman
The naive woman is often young, impressionable and easily influenced. She falls for the charm and persuasive words of the married man. She accepts his lines of not being understood or loved by his wife, having a celibate marriage, being tormented at home but staying for the sake of the children.

This trusting woman not only buys the lies, but also reorganizes her reality to admire him for his loyalty to his children and his willingness to sacrifice his happiness for their well-being.

This naive woman also sees herself as being a helpful person who supports a man in need. She delights in all the promises of trips, happy times and a future together, as she sits alone on weekends and holidays, nursing her yearnings.

Some of the women in this category eventually realize, or are helped to see, the empty promises for what they are and can be encouraged to honor their right to be with a truly available man.

It is also true that some men do leave their wives for other women and that serves as an additional incentive for a woman to wait and hope. Often the clues come with time as the repeated excuses and explanations fail to preserve her trust.

Competitive woman
The competitive woman is an individual who may have suffered a split allegiance of the primary man in her early life. She may have been in competition with her sister, mother, or her father's other interests, for his attention. She often felt defeated in getting the love she desired. In adulthood, and often without her awareness, she is still competing with another dominant figure for the man's attention. Should she succeed in having him leave his wife and marry her, she would gain the ultimate sense of feeling lovable.

The need to conquer this man's primary attention and "win" the competition with a wife, whom she may have never met, is so compelling that no moral considerations are helpful in changing her conduct. What this woman needs is help in understanding the psychological dynamics involved in her destructive and self-abusive pattern.

Kept woman
There are also kept women who, for a variety of reasons (often byproducts of severe early psychological and/or physical abuse), are not interested in a committed relationship. Finding a wealthy, generous suitor supplies them with their material needs and partial companionship.

These women do not feel badly about their behavior since their agenda is not to lure the man away from his family. They are the concubines who are well compensated for their companionship. Nor do they see themselves as prostitutes, since they may be in a very long-term connection with each married man and do not sell their bodies for each encounter. They view themselves as the interesting, beautiful and exciting companion of the married man. They feel harmless since they are not invested in a change in the man's marital status and have a clearly defined and agreed upon contract with him.

There are other scenarios and motivations for women who become "the other woman." None of them are emotionally healthy. What they have in common is a low self-esteem, probable early abuse, behavior that further reinforces self-loathing (in most cases), denial of the harm that is done to them and to the family of the unfaithful man. Often this pattern is hard to break without deep introspection and professional help.

If you are a woman who is involved with a married man:


  • Ask yourself the hard question of why you are not in a relationship with an available man? Is the answer reasonable?
  • Be aware that none of the repeated stories and promises you hear are honest; they are mere manipulations to keep you involved.
  • If you believed that nothing would change on his part, would you just keep this up forever?
  • What will it take for your self-esteem to be activated to help you change your conduct?
  • Ask yourself if you are truly happy most of the time? Is the ratio of loneliness to joy acceptable? For how long?
  • Would you feel OK if he did leave his wife and children to be with you? If the answer is yes, question your moral stance.
  • Get professional help to assist you with your very troublesome choices.
  • You deserve to be in a full, loving and committed relationship, and you can find it.

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Cruz for the past 25 years and an Internet talk show host at www.voiceamerica.com, airinf Mondays from 9 to 10 a.m.