I used to take a certain amount of solace in announcing that my ex-boyfriend had cheated on me. Something about publicly owning my role as the injured party helped restore a tiny sense of power and confidence that his actions had initially left me without. It was a simple answer to "why did you two break up?" that installed me as wounded yet righteous, him as deceitful and undeserving, and the girl I caught him with as pathetic.
It's never been enough to blame the cheating man. If it were, we wouldn't have all been split into Team Jen and Team Angelina camps for the better part of a decade instead of just Team Never Brad. I not only needed my friends to tell me how terrible my ex was, I drew comfort in their iterations that I was most assuredly prettier, funnier, smarter than the other girl we saw him out with the night that precipitated our next day break-up. And I welcomed any disparaging remarks about a person I knew nothing about.
"Only trash goes out with someone else's boyfriend," one of my friends said on the regular, and I agreed. Underneath my indignant stance I knew that this other woman wasn't truly to blame for his actions. She didn't even know me. But disliking her in conjunction with him made it hurt a tiny bit less.
Years later I was getting flak from friends and co-workers about my self preservation method of never googling an ex, in particular that one. I laughingly gave in to the peer pressure thinking it was harmless to engage in a little digital drive-by stalking. But what I found was that his deception and lying, as well as this other woman's involvement in his life went back much further than the night I had witnessed it firsthand.
What I found made her seem like she had been his girlfriend. But in the exact time frame that I had been.
There were videos of them clearly on a couple's getaway vacation to Aruba during a time that he had told me had a work trip. (Yes, obviously there is no such thing as an Aruba work trip, I should have known that). I saw photos of them with his parents that were identical to ones that I had if you swapped her out for me. He called her his valentine the same year he had called me his. And all of this during the time where I was with him daily, sleeping with him on the regular, falling asleep most nights either next to him or talking on the phone. But the more I saw of their digital imprint as a couple the more I doubted my originally adamant side of the story. Where had she fit in in between all the time he had spent with me?! My brain shrieked that no person could have possibly committed to two of us in the same way for so long without either of us noticing. But the proof that she had been there all along was directly in front of my face. Glaring time stamps with the kind of affection and dedication I believed had only been reserved for me.
I wanted to be angry about it. I wanted to despise him all over again. But instead I couldn't stop thinking about her. When I had seen them out together that night so many years ago, I couldn't breathe. I raced to a bathroom and vomited, that's how intense my reaction was to his betrayal. And even after his confession the next day, followed by months of him attempting to reconcile, he had (according to my Facebook findings) never stopped seeing her.
I denounced him, but I also denounced her. I referred to her as a home-wrecking (technically an apartment sublet-wrecking) slut, and made derogatory comments on her looks and lack of style. I fixated on her because I had seen her face and the adoring way she looked at him that night, and I had felt incapable of knowing how to react in that moment. Instead, afterwards for far longer than I cared to admit, I looked for any excuse to relive the night with my friends. "Remember how greasy that girl's hair was," I'd say to instigate a round robin of disparaging remarks. We criticized her moon-shaped face, her crooked part, how her tattoo wasn't even cute, that she was probably bad in bed. Any little detail that took shots at her alleviated the impotent contempt I felt towards her simply for existing. I was full of resentment that just finding out about her had the power to hurt me so badly, and I was desperate to reclaim a sense of my former confident self. And instead of blaming the man who was two-timing us, I told myself she ruined a relationship.
These momentary boosts in confidence from commiserating with my friends weren't worth what they turned me into. As broken and hurt as I was, he was to blame for my heartbreak and my temporary panicked unknown STI status. It shouldn't have mattered whether she was a one-night stand or my unknowing sister-wife. I should have been above tearing down another woman for something that a man I trusted did to me.
Blaming the Other Woman is a behavior ingrained and celebrated in our culture and perpetuated in entertainment from all angles. In Fatal Attraction, regardless of Michael Douglas's flagrant disregard for his marriage one weekend, the audience is supposed to excuse his indiscretion because lol Glenn Close is one crazy bitch right? He just made a mistake. On Sex and the City, after Carrie is caught with Mr. Big, she's convinced her status as "the other woman" has given her bad karma and continuously seeks to make amends with his wife Natasha to assuage the guilt. And Natasha of course, true to the scorned wife trope, refuses to accept her apology. And there was of course the frenzy to uncover "Becky with the good hair" after Lemonade premiered so the Beyhive could make her pay for the sins she committed at the altar of the almighty Beyonce, while Jay-Z is praised for admitting he did wrong on 4:44.
We have this virulent hatred for the other woman, even internalized and directed towards ourselves as depicted in Sex and the City. Womanhood and feminism are supposed to mean women support each other, and we don't do that by fucking another woman's boyfriend or husband. Even if you did so unintentionally, you're an awful person, undeserving of respect until the end of time. Whereas philandering men are "discovering themselves" and "making mistakes" and then go on to redemption. We forgive Michael Douglas, we forgive Mr. Big, we forgive Jay-Z because they have (supposedly) had an awakening from their misdeeds. But we side-eye the women for being a party to their wild ways. Women don't get the benefit of the doubt. We don't get the redemption storyline.
I don't forgive the man who cheated on me. And I have no idea if that other woman knew anything about his relationship with me, whether she knew the same guy she claimed as her own used to tell me he loved me more than anyone else he'd ever known. If he used excuses she believed blindly when he was bringing me to his family functions and introduced me to his family as his girlfriend. I just know how terrible it felt for me to find out about her. And whether or not she ever knew about me, I hope that she too learned that she deserves so much better.
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Danielle Sepulveres is a NY-based freelance writer contributing to The Washington Post, NY Mag, NBC News THINK, SELF, InStyle and other publications.
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