NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, January 9, 2010

Leading a Double Life as the Other Woman or Other Man in an Affair

In prior posts, I've discussed affairs from the point of view of the people in the primary relationship, where one of the people in the relationship was having an affair, and how psychotherapy and couples/marriage counseling could help in these situations. In this post, I'd like to focus on the person who is the "other woman" or "other man" in the affair, some of the possible emotional effects of leading a double life in an affair, and how individual psychotherapy can help in these situations.

Leading a Double Life as the Other Woman or Other Man

Most People Begin Psychotherapy When the Affair and Leading a Double Life Becomes Too Painful:
As a psychotherapist in NYC, over the years, I've worked with many individuals who were leading double lives, having affairs with people who were in primary relationships with someone else.

Being the "Other Man" in an Affair

Usually, clients who are the "other woman" or the "other man" begin psychotherapy with me when they've come to a point where they're either trying to decide whether or not to end the affair or being in the love triangle and leading a double life has become too painful for them to endure, but they feel "stuck."

The Emotional Effects of Being the "Other Woman" or "Other Man" and Leading a Double Life in an Affair:
Being involved in a love triangle, from the perspective of the "other woman" or the "other man," can be very lonely. Often, the person who is in this situation feels too ashamed to talk to friends or family members about it because he or she fears their judgment or condemnation. So, very often, the affair is kept a secret and this person endures the emotional pain, including self condemnation, by him or herself. This is a difficult and lonely place to be.

Whereas the beginning of the affair might have started out as being mostly sexual and fun, if romantic feelings develop and you begin to feel attached to someone who is in a primary relationship with someone else, the feelings often turn to ones of hurt, longing, fear, anger, resentment and shame.

Expectations Change:
At the beginning of the affair, from the point of view of the "other woman" or "other man," there might not have been any expectations, but once a more serious attachment forms, this often changes. The longing and loneliness for the other person, especially on certain days, like weekends, holidays and birthdays, when the person in the primary relationship is not around, can be intense. It can feel overwhelming to deal with this by yourself.

The following vignette is a composite of various clients who were involved in affairs with someone who was in a primary relationship with someone else. All identifying information has been changed to protect confidentiality:

When Mary came to see me for individual psychotherapy, she had been involved in an affair with her graduate school professor, Dan, for almost two years. She was leading a double life, and she was feeling very lonely, sad, ashamed, angry with herself, angry with him, and resentful.

She knew he was married when she first got involved with him but, at the time, she felt swept away by his good looks, charismatic personality, intelligence, and all the attention that he was giving her. He made her feel "special." She had no prior history of getting involved in affairs, and she felt confused about the situation, confused about herself, and confused about Dan.

The affair began while she was helping Dan with a research project and they were spending many hours alone together after class. At first, Mary was satisfied just to spend time with him working on the research project, often going back to her place for hours of passionate sex, and allowing him to go back to his wife and children in the evenings. During that stage of the affair, she felt special, beautiful and sexy, and she was flattered by his attention.

But, as time went by, they both developed strong romantic feelings for each other, and then things changed. Mary began to resent that he left her for his wife after they made love. She wanted him to stay, but he didn't want his wife to suspect that he was having an affair, and he definitely didn't want to leave his wife and children.

At that point, what was once a fun affair for Mary turned lonely and sad. She began to resent being "the other woman" in his life and she wanted him to leave his wife to be with her. But time after time when Mary demanded more of his time and attention, although he said he loved her very much, he told Mary that he had no intention of leaving his wife.

Mary couldn't understand why, if he loved her (and she felt sure that he did), he wouldn't leave his wife to be with her. Before she began psychotherapy, she had a big "blind spot" about the fact that this man also really loved his wife and the life that he had with her, even though he was cheating on her.

Prior to therapy, Mary ruminated about this constantly and couldn't come up with any answers for herself, and Dan seemed just as confused. At that point, she was leading this secret double life, and she had no one to talk to about it because she felt too ashamed about it. So she continued to live a double life, kept the secret of the affair and her feelings about it to herself, which made it even more emotionally painful.

At the point when Mary began psychotherapy, she was considering giving Dan an ultimatum: "Either leave your wife and be with me or let's end this affair." But she had a lot of mixed feelings about this, and she couldn't make up her mind about it.

On the one hand, she felt she couldn't endure the feelings of sadness, loneliness, anger, fear and shame any more. It was beginning to feel too overwhelming for her, and it was taking up a lot of her time and emotional energy. Leading this double life, she was starting to isolate from friends and family because of the affair and her feelings about being involved in a love triangle. And it was also hard for her to concentrate on her studies.

Worst of all, Mary was feeling very bad about herself. She was plagued by self doubt, anger and humiliation. And, whereas initially, she felt special, attractive and sexy when she was with Dan, now she felt that she wasn't "good enough" because he wouldn't leave his wife.

This also triggered many old emotional wounds of not feeling "good enough" with her parents when she was a child. Her constant thought was, "If I were good enough, Dan would leave his wife for me, but I'm not. There must be something wrong with me. "

On the other hand, Mary felt that life without Dan at all would be unbearable. She thought, "Maybe I should just try harder to enjoy the time we have together and make him see that he really loves me more." But, at this stage, their times together were not so enjoyable. Mary and Dan were spending a lot of time arguing and crying together. He told her that he didn't want to hurt, he didn't want to hurt his wife, and he didn't want to lose either one of them--he wanted them both. He also didn't know what to do.

Initially, our work focused on helping Mary to develop better coping skills and to increase her support network. Her sleep and appetite were poor and she often felt angry, sad and irritable. As therapy progressed, she began to spend more time engaging in self care, taking yoga classes, learning to meditate, and going to the gym. Her sleep and appetite improved. Also, she began talking to her friends about what was going on.

Although, at first, she feared that her friends might judge her harshly, when we talked about it in our psychotherapy sessions together and she thought about it more realistically, she realized that her friends cared about her a lot and wouldn't judge her. And this turned out to be true.

Her friends were surprised, but they were compassionate and empathetic towards Mary. They told Mary that they wished she had come to them before.  They also helped Mary to remember "who she was" before Mary felt sad and ashamed about the affair. Mary's friends saw what I also saw: An intelligent, vibrant, outgoing, attractive woman who had a lot going for her.

Talking about the affair in our psychotherapy sessions, letting her friends know about the affair and getting so much emotional support took some of the pressure off of Mary. She still felt all of her difficult feelings, but she wasn't alone with these feelings any more, and she didn't feel she was leading such a double life any more.

After several psychotherapy sessions, Mary decided that the pain of being the "other woman" was more than she could stand and worse than being without Dan.

She began to understand that it's possible for someone (like Dan) to love two people at the same time, and this was probably what Dan was feeling. Increasingly, she also allowed herself to feel what it might be like to be Dan's wife under these circumstances. She wondered, even if he left his wife and married her, if he would be unfaithful to her as well. Whereas before she would push down any feelings of compassion for Dan's wife, she now felt more than just guilty--she felt remorse. She felt that the situation was unfair to everyone involved, including Dan's wife and his children.

Mary was also at a point where she was feeling better able to cope with the loss of the relationship with Dan. She knew it would be very painful, but she also knew that she had the support of our psychotherapy sessions as well as the love and support of her best friend. So, when they saw each other again, instead of slipping into their usual routine of going back to her apartment to make love, she told Dan that, as much as she loved him and she knew that he loved her, she thought it was best for them to end their affair. They both cried about ending their relationship, but Dan agreed that it would be for the best.

Even though she felt resolved to end their relationship, Mary was surprised that, when she did it, there was still a part of her that hoped Dan would tell her that he loved her too much to leave her. But he didn't. He said he also felt that it was too hard for him to go on hurting Mary and too hard to continue to cheat on his wife and risk hurting her. So, since the research project was over and Mary was about to graduate, they decided to end all contact.

The following weeks and months were difficult. Mary was tempted to call Dan many times and tell him that she missed him and wanted to see him, but she didn't. She continued to come to her psychotherapy sessions with me, talk to her best friend and, even though many times she didn't feel like, she began seeing old friends again and making new ones. The thought of never seeing Dan again was very hard for her so, through our work together, she learned to take it "one day at a time." Thinking about not seeing Dan for a day was a lot easier than thinking about never seeing him again. It was a process.

But, as it turned out, Mary did see Dan again--but not in the way that she would have ever liked to see him: She was leaving the university one day when she saw Dan waving to a woman who was in a car with two small children. Dan didn't see Mary, but Mary watched from the sidelines, feeling sad and bitter, as Dan kissed and hugged his wife and greeted his children. Dan looked so happy. Before seeing Dan on that day, Mary knew that he loved his wife and children, but seeing it made Mary realize it on a much deeper level: This was Dan's life, and Mary would never be a part of it. It hit home in a way that it never had before.

Mary went home and cried but, afterwards, she felt that something had lifted. The last vestiges of any hope that she might have had that, somehow or some way, maybe she and Dan would get back together again in the future were gone. She was sad, but she also felt free. Mary and I continued to work on the emotional aftermath of the affair. Rather than condemning herself, she began to understand, on a deep emotional level, the dynamics involved and the feelings that had been triggered in this affair from her family history.

Several months later, Mary began dating another man, and she fell in love. She realized then that having someone who was available and who cared about her exclusively was so much more satisfying than leading a double life in an affair. A couple of years later, they got married. They shared a life together with friends and both of their families, and Mary was happy.

Not all affairs for the "other woman" or "other man" end this well. Some people are involved in love triangles, leading double lives, for years, and they find it too difficult to extricate themselves from these relationships. After years have gone by and they regret the time that they have lost and possible missed opportunities to be happy with other romantic partners who are actually available, they have many regrets and often wish they had chosen more emotionally fulfilling lives for themselves.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you find yourself involved in a love triangle where you are the "other woman" or "other man," leading a double life, you could benefit from seeking the help and support of psychotherapy with a licensed mental health professional.

Get Help in Therapy

Most psychotherapists won't give you advice about what to do--that's not their job. But a licensed mental health professional can help you to figure out what you want to do if you are in this type of untenable situation. You might feel that you can never leave your current situation and, at the same time, it feels too hard to stay. But many other people, who were faced with your situation, have been able to resolve their problems in psychotherapy with a qualified therapist.

About Me
I am a licensed psychotherapist in NYC who works with individuals and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my web site: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.