“I didn’t think of myself as the type of person who’d be the ‘other woman.’ I wouldn’t cheat, either. It was a point of pride for me.”
Samantha (not her real name, for reasons that will become obvious) was 26 years old, and her life was on the right track. She was living in a small St. Louis apartment, she had a decent job, and she regularly hung out with the same small group of friends. On paper, everything in her life was going well.
Then, something changed.
“I didn’t expect it or plan it, but yeah, it happened,” she recalls. “The worst thing I’ve ever done, no question.”
After a party, Samantha slept with a friend’s husband. A week later, she did it again. Soon, she was part of an affair; she was “the other woman.”
Her story certainly isn’t uncommon.
While it’s hard to find trustworthy statistics about cheating—surveys rely on self-reporting, and many cheaters don’t admit to their affairs—some research indicates that it’s remarkably common. The Washington Post referenced the work of researcher Shere Hite, who found that 70 percent of married women and 72 percent of married men admitted to cheating on their spouses. Other studies put the number much lower, but even going by conservative statistics, we can safely say that infidelity isn’t unusual.
However, people don’t usually talk about their role in an affair—not without the cover of a nice, anonymous nickname. There’s an obvious reason for that: It’s not a fun conversation.
“When you asked me to talk about it, I kind of wanted to punch you,” Samantha tells us.
We’ve known Samantha for a while; it’s not a serious threat. We, uh, think.
“But another part of me wanted to talk about it. So, yeah, let’s talk about it.”
First, we want to make this clear: Generally speaking, Samantha is not a woman of poor character (and no, she didn’t ask us to say that). The point she wants to get across in telling her story is that romance is complicated, people aren’t always predictable, and—most importantly—cheating sucks for pretty much everyone involved.
“I’ve moved on, but it’s still something I think about from time to time,” she says. “I’m not proud of myself. And everyone seems to know about it—[screw] you for bringing it up, by the way.”
We asked Samantha to tell us about the night the affair started.
[Editorial note: With her consent, we’re changing the details of Samantha’s story significantly to ensure her anonymity.]
She was hanging out with friends—including the married man, who we’ll call Paul—at her own apartment. Paul’s wife, Laura, wasn’t there.
“She was a friend of mine from high school,” Samantha says. “I wouldn’t say a really close friend, but I saw her, like, more than a couple times a month.”
She didn’t know Paul nearly as well.
“I didn’t even invite him, and I certainly wasn’t planning on [anything happening],” she says. “I wasn’t really into him. He was cute, but I was at their wedding, so he wasn’t on my radar.”
The rest of the scene played out like something from a terrible movie. One at a time, Samantha’s friends left. Eventually, she was alone with Paul, and he asked to stay over.
“He said he wasn’t okay to drive, and I’ve always had an open-couch policy,” she says. “I really don’t think he was planning on anything. He had his issues, but he, uh, wasn’t capable of thinking that far ahead. That’s the nice way of putting it. …But we kept talking, and we connected, I guess.”
The next day, the reality of the situation started to set in. She had betrayed the trust of one of her friends—and it wouldn’t be the last time. For the next two months, the affair continued.
As for why it started, Samantha doesn’t know.
“I’ve read stories online where women said they were empowered by being the ‘other woman,’ or that it taught them about who they were,” Samantha says. “That wasn’t my experience. After the first night, everything got worse, every single day.”
“I felt okay when I was with him, because it was someone I could share this messed-up experience with. That seemed like love to me, I guess.”
She still felt drawn to Paul, and while they were together, she felt almost normal.
“He said he was still in love with her, and I believed him—he had no reason to just say that,” she says. “But I thought that I was in love, too.”
Today, she says she was just confused.
“I felt okay when I was with him, because it was someone I could share this messed-up experience with,” she says. “That seemed like love to me, I guess. Or maybe it didn’t seem like I was doing something bad if I could say, ‘Well, I’m in love, so it’s okay.’”
That’s a common sentiment among cheaters, and while Samantha isn’t technically a cheater, per se, her impulse is understandable. A 2013 psychological study found that unfaithful people tend to trivialize their actions to minimize feelings of guilt. However, Samantha says that cognitive dissonance didn’t help her much in the long run.
“I knew it was wrong the whole time,” she says. “I’m not a dramatic person, I don’t go looking for big, dramatic blowouts, but I wanted one to happen. I couldn’t sleep, and I had serious stomach issues. I wanted it all to end, even when I didn’t.”
Things came to a head, appropriately, after another long night of partying.
“I wasn’t completely in my right mind, and I called Laura,” Samantha says. “I was honest. I was way too honest. I don’t know what I expected, or if I even expected anything, but she told me she knew, and she said a few things that broke my heart.”
Over the next several weeks, Samantha dealt with the fallout.
That meant hearing from friends. Some didn’t want to hear from Samantha; others gave her honest feedback.
“People blame you. I didn’t hear words like ‘homewrecker’ outside my own head, but I know people were thinking it. It decimated my group of friends, and honestly, that’s what needed to happen.”
Confronted with her actions, Samantha made some changes. She quit her job, moved to her parents’ house for a while, and took time to reflect on her choices. She also lost a few friends—and she notes that Paul didn’t seem to get the same treatment.
“I do feel like Paul got more sympathy from our friends,” she says. “I don’t know if it was because he was a [man], or if it was just that ‘homewrecker’ trope, but people treated him differently.”
At first, she said it didn’t bother her; later in our interview, she admitted that it was a big deal.
“Really, that hurt more than almost anything,” she says. “He barely knew some of our friends. We made the same exact mistake—the same thing, except I didn’t break a f****** vow—and they were able to forgive him, but not me. But maybe there are other reasons, I don’t know. I don’t really blame anyone.”
That’s not to say Paul got off scot-free. After seeking counseling, his wife asked for a divorce. Samantha says she lost touch with him after that.
“Once everything was out in the open, I had no interest in continuing it,” she says. “It was like a spell was broken. I realized that I wasn’t really ready to be in a relationship with anybody, let alone a relationship that complicated.”
We had to ask: Does she want forgiveness from Laura?
“Well, yeah,” she says, “but it’s not coming. And that’s just how it is. Maybe if she wasn’t married … but, no, I can’t start looking for ways to justify it. Even this [interview] is a little too much. I don’t want her finding out about this.”
“I thought at the time it was going somewhere or I’d learn something about myself or the guilt would eventually go away. It doesn’t.”
It’s been five years since the affair, and Samantha’s in a good place. She volunteers for charitable causes, she has new friends, and she’s more comfortable with herself as a person. We ask whether the affair helped with that process in some way.
“I don’t want to give a mistake that much credit,” she says. “I mean, we’re made from our mistakes, but I can’t say, ‘Oh, that was a great idea since I learned so much,’ or whatever. That would be stupid. It wasn’t a trip to a [psychiatrist], it was a series of bad decisions. No bueno.”
We asked Samantha whether she has any advice for women (or men, for that matter) who find themselves in the same situation.
“I guess just be on your guard,” she says. “What I know now—I thought at the time it was going somewhere or I’d learn something about myself or the guilt would eventually go away. It doesn’t. And if I’d known that it was something I was capable of, I would have been on my guard. I would have made sure that I didn’t do something that stupid.”
Granted, some “other women” have their affairs and go on with their lives without feeling a shred of guilt; others are more like Samantha. Every story is different, but they all start with the same type of betrayal.
“The fact that you’re calling it ‘cheating,’ that you used that word, that [implies] a broken trust,” she says. “I don’t think it’s ever really something positive. Even if it feels right at the time.”