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When the Movies Are Your Therapy

No one talks about what it’s like to be the other woman; what it’s really like. The other woman has been morphed into a caricature of evil—the worst kind of person who selfishly tears apart the lives of others to get what she wants. Maybe it’s not surprising how critically the woman is viewed in an affair compared to a man. We live in a society in which women even look at each other through the male gaze, constantly comparing ourselves to one another, viewing other women as both competition and the benchmarks of beauty and standards. This nearly inescapable notion creates a world in which women empowering women must become a hashtag in order to encourage us to abandon such a dismantling view of the other.

The other woman is a person too, a feeling person who has accepted less, trying to fill a need in an increasingly isolating world. We are all familiar with the other woman who is aware that there is a wife or girlfriend in the picture, but little attention is paid to the other woman who didn’t know there was anyone else to be an other to. I know there is little written about this other woman because when I found myself in that position, I did what any good Aquarius does and tried to intellectualize my feelings and turned to the internet in hopes of reading accounts of other other women who had found themselves in my circumstance. I needed help dealing with the reality that the love I thought I had found—the deep connection, like none I had ever before experienced with another person—was never really what I thought it was. I needed help processing the 11 months of deceit; the realization that all of the dreams and plans that this person and I had together were all a lie; the pain of having my heart ripped out of my chest and knowing that I was unknowingly responsible for someone else feeling the same way; the realization that I was being used as a distraction the entire time I thought I had found my soulmate. Worst of all, I needed help processing that the reason “my” boyfriend had wanted me to abort the baby I was four-months pregnant with so badly was so that he could return to the life he had lived with his girlfriend in the city.

I don’t know what possessed me to go through his phone that day. I had never looked in anyone’s phone before in my life but when he called me from his office at the university in which we met, telling me he left his phone on the car—I used his passcode and found the text message thread that destroyed me. Imagine finding out that the guy that you made fresh-squeezed orange juice to soothe his scratchy throat (after rushing out to buy a juicer and a 5 lb bag of tangerines) called someone else “pookie” followed by the kissing face emoji, hours before taking the juice you made and giving you a kiss followed by a “love you” as you dropped him off at work. All the physical reactions you read about happened to me that morning. My knees weakened, I became increasingly clammy, my heart started palpitating, and I felt like I had gotten the wind knocked out of me from a punch so deep to my chest I thought I may never recover.

These feelings I experienced as I finished the drive to take him his phone as tears fell on my pregnant belly are ones I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. I had never felt so low in my life, and I had already endured moments with him where I didn’t think I could feel any lower. He lashed out at me and was hot and cold; he would suddenly cancel plans. I spent 6 months thinking there was a problem with me as my anxiety and depression took me to the lowest depths I’ve ever been. He blamed all of his mood swings on being a Cancer and a Ph.D. student finishing a dissertation, which all seemed pretty logical to me. Little did I know that many of the times I picked him up from the train station after “presenting more of his research to his committee” he brought to me the coded stresses and negative feelings from his other relationship. All of the nights I talked him through the stress and aggravation of finishing his dissertation and feeling alone in a new city and his feelings of inadequacy navigating academia as a diversity hire ended with him telling someone else that he loved them, and making sense of that was more than I could handle on my own. But to my dismay, no matter how many tear-soaked nights I spent navigating the backlog of Buzzfeed articles, I couldn’t find very many accounts of the other woman that didn’t know she was the other woman; of the ones that I did find, no one seemed to feel like I did or have enough in common with my experience to help me through the emotional crisis that upended that morning.

I was pregnant, so I couldn’t cut the guy off and never see him again like many of the women who found out they were the other woman felt like doing, nor did I really want to. I was in love, and the recognition that the love I thought I had found was a sham took much longer to reach my heart than it did my brain. I had put in almost a year of giving myself to him, absorbing all of his energy, trying to help him through every trial that came his way, making plans, taking him to work, putting together furniture, cooking meals together, sharing stories, which all led to me believing in something that I had never really given much credence before: true love. I didn’t want to see him, but I didn’t want to be abandoned, I couldn’t be with him once I found out that he had another girlfriend because of the immense guilt I felt at being a party to her future pain, but yet, I didn’t want to think about finishing my pregnancy alone either. As I drove away from his apartment after telling him I would have no further contact with him until he told his girlfriend and then we would talk about how to move forward with the baby, I knew there was only one place for me to turn: to movies.

That moment when George Clooney thought he found love with Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air

The Up in the Air Redistribution of Your Former Life

It’s amazing how many movies you see in an entirely new light once something reminiscent of what you see onscreen happens to you. I had always known I was George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air before I became “the other woman”. My life was just like his: perfectly ordered and regimented. I too had a system for packing a suitcase, set my clothes out the night before I wore them, had a million tiny routines that helped my day go along smoothly and efficiently. I cared about my film writing as much as Clooney’s character cared about reaching ten million miles. I thought I had my life so figured out on my own that I could forgo the security of a marriage, constant support and someone to lean on, in favor of being the solo pilot of the airplane of my life. What I had never experienced in my previous viewings of Up in the Air is the way George Clooney’s character was perfectly content in his life and then when he least expected it met the one person that could completely release the grip you had on your life and up-end all of the expectations you had for your future—making you see the value in living a different way—only to find out that they were lying the whole time, living a life outside of you. When the stunned Vera Farmiga looks at a shocked Clooney who has come to her apartment to profess his love to her, a swift departure from their usual meeting at hotels while the two were constantly on business travels and says to him “you were an escape” I immediately started balling into my pineapple coconut Haagen Dazs.

I was essentially told the same thing, that I was “a distraction” while “my” boyfriend worked through a low period of his life in which he felt increasingly bad about himself professionally and personally. He reacted the same way Farmiga’s character did; somehow, it was my fault for becoming invested. Both the Clooney character and I were lied to, we were both sold dreams and made plans and believed we had found something truly remarkable in another person—so remarkable in fact, that we had both decided that the love we had sworn against would be a worthwhile addition to our lives. Once the truth was revealed, however, it was us that should have known that those were lies never meant to come to fruition. But much like a piece of luggage that has already disappeared on the baggage carousel at the airport, your life cannot simply go back to the way it was before you’ve experienced what you never thought was possible. Those memories are impossible to forget and suddenly writing about movies or reaching 10 million miles just doesn’t carry the weight in your life they once did. I’ve never been more disappointed in my life to have so much in common with George Clooney.

The band of other women in John Tucker Must Die

The John Tucker Must Die Other Woman

The common assumption is that once you’ve found out you’ve been cheated on, you’ll immediately turn into the girls from John Tucker Must Die. When you have fallen prey to the good-looking, great built, smooth-talking guy and find out you’re just one of a handful of women, you assume you’ll reach out to those other girls and immediately hatch a plan that will take the womanizer down. An elaborate scheme will simply manifest itself inside of you and you’ll want nothing more than to relish in watching the man that put you through the ringer drop to his knees after feeling what it’s like to be used and manipulated. What I wasn’t prepared for, was not wanting to do any of that. I had no desire to meet the woman with whom I was unknowingly sharing a boyfriend. In fact, the day that Facebook recommended her as a friend to me, my heart sank and I began crying at my desk at work, guilty and devastated over what had happened. Perhaps worse yet, I didn’t want to hurt him—I loved him, and this is how much. I actually went over to his apartment the day he told his girlfriend he had been cheating with someone who was now pregnant with his baby, and comforted him through that breakup. I know what you’re thinking and I wholeheartedly agree with you—I’m a complete idiot. The second I did that, I knew I owed a letter of apology to every person I had ever told that love was a weakness that would never get the best of me.

The Band of Women…and the Others

Or maybe, one might think, you’ll want to be like the fierce group of women in The First Wives Club, and set out to execute a long-range plan to get back at your philandering man. After all, there are few things more gut-wrenching than being there for the man in your life through their lowest moments, then watching them choose someone else. Immediately after finding out I was “the other woman” my every moment was defined by my pain, sense of worthlessness, and abandonment. The attention of men is such a divisive entity. It turns women against each other and constantly has us comparing ourselves to others down an endless pursuit of one-upwomanship. Life is hard enough if you have self-esteem issues anyway (I did) but they are all the more emphasized and all-consuming once you realize someone has been cheating on you.

The comradery of women in The First Wives Club

The most resonating quality I found in The First Wives Club was no matter what it appeared to be on the surface, they weren’t satisfied with forming a club with the sole purpose of hurting and bringing down the men they love/d, but rather they took solace in their shared experience and the coming together helped them feel less alone. There is an all-consuming wave of loneliness once you find you’ve been cheated on. Once you find out you are the other woman, that loneliness comes along with guilt, shame, and hopelessness. To learn that the person you have shared your most intimate moments with, have told things that no one else knows, have given all of your effort and remained faithful to, treated you like a side that you could take or leave (like those limp salads that accompany something that they never pair right with, like pancakes, at your Grandpa’s favorite diner) cuts deep. It’s not that you think you’re the only person that has ever gone through it; of course you know you’re not, yet still having someone to share that experience with in your weakest darkest moments is enough to carry you through the day sometimes.

The lesson that The First Wives Club offers that was extremely helpful to me as I was going through my hardship post-discovery was that no matter what your power, whether you had the strength of Annie, the beauty of Elise, or the humor of Brenda, sometimes you still aren’t “picked” by the man you love—and this is not your fault. I spent countless days in the aftermath of reading those text messages wondering what was so wrong with me that someone would do this to me and treat me this way. No matter how many times my mom or my best friend or my therapist would tell me that it had nothing to do with me, that is a tough thing to believe when it’s happening to you. Your entire sense of self-worth is crushed when that solid thing that you thought you had, that respite from the world where you felt most safe, is unceremoniously ripped out from underneath you.
Perhaps the film that best got at my experience of being “the other woman” was the Mike Nichols directed, Nora Ephron penned 1986 film Heartburn.

Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson in happier times before Heartburn

The Heartburn of the Other Woman

Meryl Streep was, just as I was, pregnant at the time she found out about her husband’s infidelity. It’s hard to crown a winner in the ever-competitive “worst part” of finding out you’ve been cheated on game but being pregnant with that person’s child is hard to beat. At the moment when you are feeling least attractive, the time in which you are sick and exhausted most of the time, when you can’t even bend down to pick things up for yourself, when you are subjected to the leering gaze of others simply because the proof of life creation is on display so no one thinks of it as a private experience—when it’s that moment in which you find out that the person who made you that way is having an ongoing relationship with another woman, all internal hell breaks loose. Like Meryl’s character in the film, I too had longstanding reservations before entering romantic relationships. I’m one of those Destiny’s Child independent women-types so I always put a lot of thought before entering a relationship if I am willing to give that independence up and form a union. But when you found the right person, or just thought you did, it’s often enough to obliterate those reservations and embrace the dopamine release of a new relationship.

It’s so hard to find someone like Streep’s character thought she had, a guy that can be so loving and doting only to find out that he will be like that to every woman he ever meets if he sinks the shot he takes. That’s what really caught me by surprise in my own “the other woman situation” The guy I found wasn’t the Jack Nicholson (Heartburn) or John Tucker (John Tucker Must Die) types, he was reserved and soft-spoken and took a long time to warm up enough to really have conversations about himself—we initially bonded over philosophy and pizza crust recipes—so I never anticipated that someone with his, what I call, slow build-up game would be using it to romance every other woman he crossed paths with. Perhaps I haven’t yet mentioned, this guy not only had a whole other girlfriend but also several other friends with benefits that I found out about when I wondered through his phone that fateful June day. Anyway, that personal connection to the film really helped me navigate the trying times I was going through.

Not only that, but I connected intensely to Rachel’s (Streep) push-pull feelings regarding communicating with (Jack.) She left their home to stay with her father after she found out about Jack’s infidelity, and some days she was eager to return to see if he had called while other days she loathed even the idea that he may reach out to her. It’s wild to be so slighted and to still have those days where you catch yourself thinking “I hope he calls.” That was one of the many aspects of my situation that no one I spoke to about it could relate to. They all told me to block his number and never speak to him again—and somedays I agreed with that sentiment while other days I would keep his text message thread open just to see if those three little dots would appear signaling a message was on the way. Yet another way in which I identified with Rachel was in the attempted salvaging of the relationship that I had. I was expecting a baby with this man, his first, so I couldn’t find it in myself to block his number and go on like I never knew that he existed, I tried to forgive him and attempted a legitimate and honest relationship with him.

Meryl Streep moving past her Heartburn over Jack Nicholson

Like Rachel, however, I also realized that once a relationship is soiled with infidelity, it is a betrayal that is difficult to rebound from. Once you know you weren’t the only one, it becomes nearly impossible to stop that thought train, to stop wondering where he is or who he’s communicating with constantly, to question if the compliments he pays you are yours alone or just another in a string of lines he’s delivered to countless other women, as well. It is when this experience becomes your reality that the uncertainty in being alone is better than the insecurity experienced on a day-to-day basis inside a stained relationship. Rachel also candidly talks about what it’s like to not know your husband is being unfaithful in what is probably the most relatable line I think I’ve ever heard in a film. At a dinner in which her duplicitous friend is suggesting that it’s not possible for a wife not to know that her husband is having an affair—something Rachel blamed herself for after realizing her husband was cheating—she finally confronts this and many other feelings she has been experiencing before making the decision to end her marriage:

“It is possible to love someone so much or want to love them so much that you just don’t even see anything. You know, you decide to love him, and you decide to trust him. And you’re in the day-to-dayness and you sort of notice that things aren’t the way were but it’s a distant bell. And then when things do turn out to have been wrong, it’s not that you knew all along, it was just that you were somewhere else.”
“…and then the dream dies, and the dream breaks into a million tiny little pieces which leaves you with a choice. You can either stick with it which is unbearable, or you can just go off and dream another dream.”

It’s those million tiny little pieces that Rachel talks about that often prove too much to live with and too hard to put back together into some recognizable semblance of what your life used to look like in staying with the person that broke you more than you thought you could ever be broken. I suppose, too, that it’s those million pieces that make the aftermath of realization so difficult to overcome. It’s the unique glimmer that each piece catches in the light that makes you feel a wide spectrum of feelings many of which you never knew existed. It’s one piece that reminds you of the perfectly regimented life you once had but can never have again (George Clooney—Up in the Air) another piece that fills you with contempt that could make you feel like exacting revenge (John Tucker Must Die) yet another piece that drives you to share what’s happening to you with a group of women who have experienced the same thing (The First Wives Club) or that little sliver that gives you hope and makes you believe that you can find happiness with that person once again despite knowing that they crushed your heart (Heartburn).

What I had to find out for myself was that it was ok to feel any or none of these feelings, and to realize that like grief, such a realization is a nonlinear process. Just when you think you’re past a feeling, it comes rushing back and sends you into the same carton of Ben and Jerry’s non-dairy ice cream. I also had to come to terms with the fact that it is a lot of work to even gather those pieces let alone put them back together. There are a lot of days spent texting with your best friends and crying in your therapist’s office on the way to healing. All of the times I swore that would never happen to me and all of the times I just knew what I would do if it did sail right out the window when you find yourself actually in the position. I also learned that no one in your life may feel exactly like you did when you found out, and that’s ok too because there’s probably a movie, or four, that you can turn to.

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Written by Ashley Harris

Ashley Harris works for a senator by day, and writes for 25YL Site by night. When she is not writing about the human experience or her most recent world cinema favorite, Ashley enjoys fawning over François Truffaut, reading Immanuel Kant, or drinking coffee black as midnight on a moonless night.

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