Being The 'Other Woman' ... Even When You're Not
In my twenties, after a series of serious relationships that didn’t work out, I wrote out a meticulous list of the qualities I would need in a partner. I told myself I would not enter another relationship unless the person met every single one of the qualifications on the list. Some examples:
-He is intellectual and enjoys a lively, intense conversation
-He enjoys the art of argument and debate
-Side-splitting laughter is a must!
The list banned smokers, anyone who didn’t like my pug, any guy from my capoeira group — I was into the Brazilian martial art and wanted it to be “my thing,” uncomplicated by romantic entanglements — and ones who were involved with anyone, aka “the woman code.” I never wanted to be the other woman.
When I first met Jason, who was assigned to be one of my housemates on a capoeira retreat in Upstate New York, all I knew was he was a capoeira guy with a girlfriend. Seeing him as a romantic possibility was precluded by my list. We were part of the same capoeira group, though he lived across the country from my Brooklyn home, in Santa Cruz, California (the group having several outposts).
We sat next to each other at lunch. He’d studied Ottoman history in Turkey and my best friend was Turkish, so we started talking about that, and soon were talking about everything. We both shamelessly belted the '90s rock songs that played from the radio in the car from the house to capoeira class and restaurants. By the end of the weekend I thought of him as my Nice New Friend From California.
We’d also talked about his girlfriend, who he had been with for five years. They started dating in their mid-twenties. She was an artist. They met the same way he and I met — being part of the capoeira group. She moved in with him, but four years later needed to supplement her income with something more stable than her art, so she applied to graduate schools and got into one a few hours away. They traded weekend visits.
When he and I became Facebook friends after the retreat, his recently posted pictures were of the two of them on a camping trip. They were smiling. They looked happy. I’d been single for a while and seeing their photos renewed my hope that I, too, could be part of a happy couple one day. I wasn’t feeling desperate about finding someone. I just liked the idea of running into the proverbial “One” somehow, somewhere, someday.
Jason came back to Brooklyn in the fall for another capoeira event. I planned an outing for visitors to see the High Line. It was supposed to be a group, but everyone was tired or hungover and he was the only one who showed up. We talked nonstop about everything, relationships included. He told me a story about traveling in Brazil and the cultural differences about the idea of commitment. He had to explain to the Brazilian girls that he was not just in a relationship but fiel — faithful. In Brazil, apparently, these are two different things. So I knew he had never cheated on his girlfriend, despite some humorous Brazilian opportunities.
After spending the day with him, I told a friend, “I’m glad to know a guy like him exists. He gives me hope that there are good ones out there.”
That was Thursday. On Saturday, in another conversation, I asked if he had a proposal plan yet, expecting to hear what I was sure would be a romantic proposal plan that would inspire me even more about all the good guys who were walking the earth, and that one day I would come across one of them who would be a lot like Jason, but single.
He hesitated. “A lot would have to change for that to happen,” he said.
I was taken aback. Trouble in paradise? I wondered if I had idealized their partnership from the Facebook pictures and our conversations.
On the last night, there was a party to celebrate the weeklong event. Jason and I were drawn together again, only this time, we ended up kissing. We left the club to go for a walk and talk things out. I’d broken the woman code and my “no capoeira guys” rule with one kiss. But as anyone who watched "Dexter" knows, to live by a code is to see it get broken. It’s impossible to place such firm rules and boundaries on an unpredictable, organic thing.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel guilty. Quite the opposite.
We talked about where he was with his relationship. Though he wanted marriage, he’d always doubted whether she was “the one.” Still, he’d never kissed anyone else, and it confirmed he was going to end it. “I’m not leaving her for you,” he said. It was just the last straw that showed him what he feared for a long time was true. “I mean, you should feel free to date other people,” he said.
“Yeah, you too,” I said, not letting on that, as unrealistic as it was, I was slightly disappointed. But what did I expect, for him to turn around and marry me?
One month later, I moved to Santa Cruz. Two days after that, he proposed.
It felt surreal at the time: now it was our pictures on Facebook — something he was on the receiving end of some vitriol for posting so soon after his breakup. I couldn’t have imagined, the first time I saw his “happy couple” photos and wished that for myself, that in the not-too-far future I would be half of a happy couple, with this very person. Not only was capoeira now cohabitating with love, but on some level I felt responsible for how sudden his breakup was, how much more his ex was hurt.
My guilt stemmed from having broken the woman code, especially in this way (a man leaving his girlfriend and suddenly marrying somebody else). I already had a name for this phenomenon: SMS — Sudden Marriage Syndrome. I’d seen it before, even been on the other side of it. A helicopter pilot I’d fallen for suddenly broke it off with me and married a single mom from New Jersey, moving to Las Vegas with her. A writer I met who said he never planned to get married left his girlfriend of eight years after meeting a French girl while on a sojourn in Paris. She left Paris, moved in with him, and they got married.
Why does SMS happen? And, when faced with becoming a “sudden wife” myself, why did I so easily break the woman code? Do we stay in the wrong relationships for years, hoping things will “get better?” Are we secretly holding out for the right person, knowing the current one isn’t it, but it’s all we have right now?
When I interviewed my husband about his ex, it turned out the thing that made him doubt the relationship — that she seemed to need his help with basic life activities like buying groceries and paying rent — was also the thing that kept him in the relationship. He felt that if he left her, she wouldn’t be able to make ends meet on her own.
During my early days in Santa Cruz, some of their once-mutual friends posted angry comments on his Facebook page about how terrible he was. Her friend emailed me that I was a home-wrecker. When I showed up at the capoeira academy, I realized I’d brought relationship drama into the one thing I did “just for me” — but Jason was worth going through anything for and with. My old rules mattered less than he did.
His ex sent me an email, too, but I didn’t open the message for another month while on a trip to New Orleans with girlfriends. They were incredulous that I had never read it. Wasn’t I at least curious about its contents? Nothing positive could come of it, so what was the point? I countered. At their urging, and a couple of Hurricanes in, I read it. To my surprise, it wasn’t anger at me — it was more of a woman-to-woman thing: “this is not fair. And even though I don't know you, you don't deserve this either. Just know, that if you entertain his advances, this is what you are getting yourself into. Had this been handled differently, I would have had my due closure, and perhaps you both would have had legitimate beginnings.”
She made good sense. In an ideal world, there would not have been the overlap of that pre-breakup kiss, or I would have followed the woman code and not let anything happen until there had been some distance. As fast as it was, though, our relationship only really began after they broke up.
Eight months later, we got married.
Eventually, two of the women in the capoeira group told me, separately, that though they had been prepared to dislike me, they now understood. “You two are right for each other,” they said.
Though I knew this and was relieved not to be judged an awful human being, I still took the occasional glance at those old pictures on Facebook, trying to figure out when they had been happy, and if at some point the cracks began to show. I even checked her page seeking proof of my hope that she was doing okay, as if knowing would somehow comfort me. This went on until she blocked me — Facebook had taken to “friend suggesting” us, probably because I’d looked her up, its computer-brain made the assumption.
There’s not much you can tell from a picture. So why did I secretly obsess? In one sense, it was that I was a party in something that left another woman hurt. In another, it reminded me of something JR Moehringer wrote in his memoir, The Tender Bar: “…I fear that we’re drawn to what abandons us, and to what seems most likely to abandon us.” Just know this is what you are getting yourself into.
Still, the possibility of being abandoned somewhere down the line concerned me less than my role in the woman-code-breaking situation. Under different circumstances, his ex and I might have been friends. I’ll never be okay with that brief overlap between us, and I have to learn to be okay with that.
I still believe in the woman code. I don’t think it’s right to kiss someone else’s boyfriend, but the scenario of a relationship’s beginnings won’t always be ideal. To hope for perfect circumstances is wishful thinking. There wasn’t really time for me to be the other woman, though. The closure for me is in that it was clear to us both what we were; we changed our lives as quickly as we could to create a new one together. Now that I understand SMS from the other side of it, I do believe some people are just meant to be together.
Liza Monroy's book "The Marriage Act" goes on sale this week from Soft Skull Press.