Stop Shaming The "Other Woman" When A Man Cheats

Em Unravelling

Photo by Remy_Loz on Unsplash

When, several years ago, I called a halt to my extramarital affair and decided to put effort and energy into reclaiming myself and doing whatever work was necessary to repair both my own self-esteem and my relationships with people I had hurt, one of the steps I took was to deliberately surround myself with uplifting content.

I had therapy, of course, but along with that I ordered and read lots of empowering, enlightening books. I downloaded and listened to podcasts and audiobooks about self-care, female psychology, and self-esteem. And I made a point of following lots of accounts on Instagram by feminist self-help bloggers and authors.

You know the sort of thing I mean. Their content is, predominantly, composed of catchy one-liners. Things like “Sis, your intuition said what she said. Believe her.” It’s very corny, I know, but having those cheerily encouraging squares pop up periodically in my feed felt really helpful at an otherwise very low and miserable time in my life.

One of the accounts I followed was a British one, relatively new back then but already rapidly gaining traction. It is run by a social worker who describes herself as a “Relationships Educator”. She writes pithy dismissals and put-downs for the “wastemen” and “f*ckboys” who prowl the dating scene, particularly online. She runs a free weekly service offering an analysis of dating-app texts from these men, with suggested replies.

She’s no-nonsense, amusing, and bluntly direct. And I feel that some of her messages are absolutely vital. She does fantastic work with things like promoting sexual empowerment in young women, reducing shame around bodily issues like body hair, and raising awareness of the insidiousness of domestic abuse in its earliest stages. Her advice is primarily tailored to younger women than me, but I can see that overall it’s an excellent resource.

However, one of the drums she bangs loudly and repeatedly is the one of “don’t be a f*ckboy enabler”. Basically, she believes very strongly that no woman should ever become involved with a man who is already in a relationship; or that any woman, once she discovers that her man has a wife or girlfriend, should remain in any kind of contact with him.

She is scathingly dismissive of any woman who doesn’t follow this rule, writing them off as “unsisterly”. She posts about it regularly, holding the “other woman” almost as firmly to account as the cheating man.

So regularly does she post about this topic that it is quite clear she has been cheated on in the past, and that she harbors a lot of resentment still toward the woman with whom her partner cheated. This is all valid, and her feelings should of course not be denied. She also speaks a lot of sense within her justifications for her bluntness. Because it is wrong to be romantically involved with someone who is involved with another woman, without that woman’s knowledge.

But to be so cut-and-dried, so black-and-white about this particular issue makes me uncomfortable and it is, I think, quite dangerous. We must not forget that life is lived in shades of grey.

If I had found that particular content during the time that my affair was a secret shame burning at the center of my life, I would not have felt chastened and ended the affair. I would not have felt eternally grateful to Instagram for protecting my lover’s wife from risking further pain at the hands of her “f*ckboy” husband.

I’d have simply felt a deep, coruscating additional shame at what I already knew was bad behavior, and I would have felt even less impetus to dig my way out of the hole I was in because I would have sensed the widespread hatred out there for women like me. How could my sisters support me, now I had been so horribly unsisterly?

Most of the women who are currently dating married, engaged, or coupled-up men did not in any way set out to be “homewreckers”. Many of them were gaslit, lied to, and manipulated to the point that their already-attached lover seems to be the only person who is truly on their side. A lot of women know that they’re doing wrong but feel they’re in too deep to get out easily. A lot of women are very desperate.

There are things about which it is easy to be swiftly scathing and reductive in one snappy Instagram paragraph. A man refusing to wear a condom, for example. Ditch the b*stard. A man texting at 2am to say “u up?”. He only wants sex, don’t reply to the b*stard. A man claiming he’s too busy to text back regularly? He’s not that into you. Forget him. This is all good advice and it fits easily into a square. It protects and serves women and it’s a valuable service.

But dismissing as “f*ckboy enablers” every single woman who is, for whatever reason, in a relationship with a man who isn’t “free” — that doesn’t protect and serve women. It merely shames them. And shaming women who are already feeling second best and stupid? It doesn’t help. It also doesn’t work.

These women know they’ve made mistakes. They know that they are second best, that they’re being lied to every day, that they’re not their lover’s priority, and that they are the ones who will be hurt in the end. Some of them are probably trying every day to rebuild their self-esteem to the point that they can bring an end to a relationship that they are only too aware is only going to be detrimental in the long term.

No, they shouldn’t be in the relationships they are in. No, they won’t be happy with those men. Yes, their men are treating them badly and they’re permitting that to happen. Yes, they’re also colluding in the bad treatment of the other woman in their man’s life. No, it’s not sisterly to remain with a man who is simultaneously committed to and lying to another woman.

But the thing is that they know this already.

Throwing out another blunt soundbite to tell them what they’re telling themselves anyway — that they’ve made mistakes, that they’re stupid, that they’re not good women and they have let down their sex as a whole — it won’t help. It’ll just drive them deeper into the toxic relationship they’re already in. (Trust me on this).

And that’s why Instagram feminism can only go so far. To provide the kindness, the subtle support, and the understanding that some women in some of these situations need — that takes a lot more than a square, and I think it’s time some of the creators of this content developed some sensitivity to that.

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A lover of horizons, hills, and words. Likes to write about uncomfortable things because too many people steer round those parts of life.


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