What’s it like being the other lover in a cheating scenario?

Article by Claire Bracken and Nat Tencic /
ABC Triple J /
September 28, 2018  /
Click here to view original /

We all know that it takes two to tango but it usually takes three to cheat.

Of course, what constitutes infidelity in any given relationship depends on the agreements made between the people involved. But generally speaking, when there’s a third person involved in a monogamous relationship, the monogamy is well and truly void. And while it’s its own kind of shit to be the cheater, and the cheated, what’s it like to be the ‘other’ lover?

First up, why do people do it?

Why do people enter these relationships with all the sneaking around and the guilt, knowing that it’s likely hurting someone? That’s the million-dollar question, says psychologist Amelia Twiss. “Relationships are very intoxicating and that sense of being in love, or having a strong connection with someone that feels like it’s really special and something more powerful than ourselves, can get us hooked into these trios without realising what’s really happening.”

The Hook Up heard from numerous people who had unknowingly become the third person in a relationship. For some, as soon as they realised what was happening, they noped out of there. But for others, the fling continued.

And sometimes it really is just about doing what feels good. We heard from Dr Lauren Rosewarne, the author of Cheating on the Sisterhood: Infidelity and Feminism, who spoke about the ways people justify being involved with someone who’s already involved. “In theory you should be loyal to other women [or men] but the heart wants what the heart wants and we’ve become very individualistic and have any number of ways to rationalise our actions to make it seem okay to ourselves and others.”

Jess called in to speak about a relationship she’s been having for years, with a guy who already has a girlfriend. She says it’s gotten to the point where she resents his partner: “I don’t’ like her,” said Jess. “She’s actually never done anything to me but after all this has gone on, I’ve managed to build up this hate towards her. But I think really it’s more of a jealousy thing. She has the person that I want and as much as he says he loves me, he’s with her.”

Does it ever end well?

Mark from Newcastle got in touch to talk about his experience being ‘the other lover’. He’s actually been in the same situation twice, with two different women, and he found that both relationships followed a very similar trajectory. “They both had about three months there where it was a lot of fun, and exciting and then there was a couple of months where it was a lot harder to make contact with her. It started to put a lot of strain on myself and [the women involved],” remembers Mark. “And then the last month was pretty much just straight hell because, I guess, it had run its course.”

The fantasy in his head was that it would all be worth it, and that he would eventually be in a monogamous relationship. “It sounds silly but I never saw the downside to it, whenever I’d string it out in my mind it’s like, ‘yes, she’ll leave him and come and live with me and it’ll all work out in the end and we’ll all be happy in a year or so’. But in reality it’s a lot more complicated. I was just seeing it from my point of view, where there was this woman that I’m in love with and I didn’t have any of the baggage on my end.”

“The thought of that would make me feel better but then there would be the times when I wouldn’t be able to speak to her because she’d be with her husband and that’s when reality would sink in.”

After both relationships ended (and both women stayed with their partners) Mark said he was “emotionally damaged and left quite lonely in the end.” So we put it to psychologist Amelia Twiss, does it ever end well? “This is what we often see, that the other lover is hoping that the person is going to leave their partner but more often than not they don’t. Of course, sometimes it does happen [where they’ll actually end up together] and everyone’s probably got stories of situations where it has worked out, but a lot of the time the person does stay with their original partner.”

For the most part, ‘the other lover’ either loses their relationship or the partner breaks their current relationship to be with them. And it can be a bittersweet victory in the case of the latter. As they say: once a cheater, always a cheater.But can we make that assumption about people? “A lot of the time we can, yes,” says Amelia. “The research indicates that certain types of people are much more likely to cheat. And if somebody has a history of cheating, chances that they will cheat again are pretty high.”

Okay, so why do people keep doing it…

Being in this kind of relationship can also hold you back from getting into your own healthy monogamous relationship, (if that’s what you’re wanting), says Amelia. “If we’re looking a little deeper, each person might take a look at themselves and ask why they are staying in this relationship, when they know that from a moral perspective it may not be the right thing for them.” Also, from an emotional perspective, does what the cheaters are getting from the liaison balance out the judgement from other people for doing quote, unquote, ‘the wrong thing’?

For people who do enter into a relationship in which they know they’ll never be the primary partner, “It kind of comes back to what we call our ‘core wound’,” says Amelia. Psychology Today says, “Core wounds tend to be things like a sense of not being enough, of being unlovable to a parent, of feeling stupid, dirty, unwanted, or ugly.” This is obviously a generalisation, and as Dr Lauren Rosewarne said, whilst playing the Devil’s advocate, there are people who are truly satisfied in their relationship as ‘the other lover’. But many of us never actually consider our ‘core wound’, or the many fun ways our upbringing has f*cked us up, says Amelia, “so we can’t even see how it’s running the whole show for us and controlling all our decision making.”

“What I’m essentially saying is, that being in this sort of a relationship is actually, on some level, validating those deep down beliefs that we have about ourselves.”

Because even if there are reassurances to ‘the other lover’ that they are important and their relationship is meaningful, and even if the fantasy persists that it will all work out in the end, Dr Lauren says that as long as the relationship goes on, the person cheating on their partner has already made their choice. Whether they’ve been given an ultimatum or not, by refusing to choose just one of the two people they’re with, they’ve chosen neither. Rather than prioritise either relationship, they have elected to maintain the current state of affairs.