For years I’ve gone back and forth about whether I should write this post, but every time I thought to put this story on paper, I changed my mind. As a writer, it’s tempting to share the shiny side, those stories where my faith, level-headedness and good-decision making skills prevail. But if I’m going to share the glowing stories about myself, I have to do the hard work of sharing the other side.
Years ago, when I was 21, in college, and fresh out of a relationship I had been in since 9th grade, I met and dated a married man. I wasn’t deceived. I knew he was married with children. Even though the affair only lasted for a few months, it took years for me to own my part without making excuses and to understand why I settled for being the side chick.
I had no idea what marriage meant. To me, marriage was just boyfriend/girlfriend on a pedestal. I knew that it was wrong because I knew that adultery was a sin. But I had no grasp of the impact of inserting myself into the life that this couple had built. And I wasn’t alone in my opinion. I remember confessing about the relationship to a friend who responded: “Well, it’s not your fault. He’s the one who chose to get married young.” Over time, that justification transformed into the one so often used to defend taking on the role of a home-wrecker. I’m not the one breaking marriage vows so I’m not wrong.
I had no intention of trying to take his wife’s place. I didn’t want to be his wife. I didn’t have any desire for him to leave her. I thought I wasn’t like those women they always talk about, sitting around pining away for the day that he would choose me. He didn’t feed me stories about how they were having problems or getting separated. I knew exactly where I stood with him and had no questions about our future. I felt like I had found the most honest relationship possible by living a lie.
I felt like I had the upper hand. There’s this idea that the husband turns to the woman on the side because she will do all of the things that his wife won’t. For me, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. I never felt like I was doing all the things that his wife wouldn’t do. I believed that she was doing all of the things that I didn’t have to do. Watching my parents’ own tumultuous relationship, I knew what it was like to watch a wife be devastated by infidelity. One of the easiest ways to avoid that devastation was by being the woman on the side. I wasn’t the one at home crying, wondering where he was. I was the one who knew. I got the dates, the gifts, the attention, while she was doing laundry, paying bills and taking care of babies—I got all of the perks with none of the responsibility.
And then one day his wife called me. I never talked to her. I only knew because of the frantic voicemail her husband left. It was the first time I had ever thought about the fact that there were real consequences to this game. It was the first time that I thought of his wife as a real person, and began to acknowledge that I was causing pain in the life of a woman I had never met.
I wish I could say that was the catalyst for ending the relationship, but in truth I think that like so many things at that age, once it stopped being fun I just lost interest and walked away, consequence free.
Or so I thought. Until I got married.
Almost a decade later, after I had grown up and settled down, the past turned around and confronted me face to face. My actions from years earlier (when I watched a husband, a good father, and a good provider, say “I love you” to his wife while sitting next to me) caused me to second-guess everything my husband said when the tables were turned. I knew how freely her husband could lie about going away on business or having a night out with the boys, so why wouldn’t mine?
I spent the first part of my marriage terrified. I couldn’t trust my own husband because of my relationship with hers.
I’m sharing this now, not because of what shows like Being Mary Jane portray, but by the real-life conversations that have been sparked because of them. Many of those conversations center on the complexities of marriage relationships that make room for the woman on the side, often in one way or another letting the other woman off the hook.
Through my own experience, from being both a woman on the side and a wife, I’ve learned although relationships may be complex, the marriage vows are not. Marriage is too big for there to be room for someone else on the sidelines. By being the “side chick” I was putting myself front and center in the middle of someone else’s pain and setting myself up to play a starring role in my own.
BMWK – have you ever settled for being a side chick and what did you learn from that process? Do you think shows like Being Mary Jane are sending the wrong message about the impact that an affair can have on a marriage and on the ‘side chick’?