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Forgiving Your Cheating Ex-Husband Is Hard: What About the Other Woman?

05/28/2013 11:45 am ET | Updated Oct 08, 2014
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Last week I discovered that somehow I seem to have mysteriously forgiven my ex-husband. Believe you me -- this was a shock. I never saw it coming, and I would have laughed in your face had you told me that one day I would reach this point, this good, healing spot. I've heard from a lot of women, women so much like me, who aren't ready yet. I can feel the pain in their words, the anger and the sadness is tangible and heartbreaking. I know what that feels like. My advice to them is this: Don't rush it. Don't feel guilty or ashamed that you are not ready to forgive. Don't let anyone tell you what you should be feeling, or that what you're feeling is wrong or vindictive or bad. When you're ready, it will happen.

One comment I received on my blog has been stuck in my mind, playing over and over like a Maroon 5 song (sorry if "Payphone" is playing in your head now). It was from an anonymous reader, and it went like this:

And another follow-up question, Jenny. What about Secretary? Do you find forgiveness for her? I have nothing but anger and outrage for my ex's OW. Even more anger fueled by the fact that she herself was divorced from her cheating first husband. So, I am not anywhere near forgiveness, or even pity for her. Do you think the need for forgiveness extends beyond the person you thought you built your life with? Thanks again for you and your writing!

To be honest, I hadn't given my very own personal Other Woman, known here as Secretary, much thought. Oh, don't get me wrong: I feel some hatred for her. I don't toss the "hate" word around very much, but there's no question about it this time. I hate what she did to my family, I hate the fact that she's in my children's lives, I hate how she went from co-worker to secret girlfriend to second wife. I hate that she gets to call my former in-laws "family" and I have to call them "former." I hate that she sleeps soundly, and most likely doesn't wake up at 3 in the morning fraught with worry over her future or the future of her child. I hate that my heart hitches in my chest, still, when I see a car like hers in the parking lot of the grocery store, or when I say her name (unfortunately Secretary has a very common name, and it took me a couple of years before I could say it out loud -- students at my school who have that name were addressed as "Sweetie" or "Hey girl!" for a long time).

So yeah. I guess when discussing forgiveness, it's only natural that the Other Woman comes up.

The issue I'll address here is this question posed by Anonymous:

Do you think the need for forgiveness extends beyond the person you thought you built your life with?

Short and simple answer: Nope. The only person I think you truly need to forgive is your ex. You need to forgive him for one simple reason, and that is for you. Your mental health, your physical health, your very life depends upon that one. You need to forgive him, no matter how huge of an asshole he is, no matter how many ways and in how many different positions he screwed you over. And as I've said before, when you do finally forgive Mr. Wonderful, it's not for him. Honestly, he most likely doesn't care, because that's the kind of guy he is. He's moved on, emotionally, so long ago and so far away that even the best CSI team couldn't find traces of him anymore. No, my dears, you forgive him because it helps you. That's why you need to forgive him.

Her? The Other Woman? That homewrecking trollop? She doesn't need your forgiveness any more than she needs a conscience. She's achieved so much already without either one of those things. Does she want your forgiveness? I don't know that either, but I'm guessing not. She, like your ex, has moved on. Any pangs of guilt or shame have obviously been stifled. She took what she needed from you, and most likely didn't even send a thank you note.

So, no -- you don't need to forgive her. I told Anonymous that in my case, I don't think enough of Secretary to care. I believe I used the words "She is beneath my contempt." Obviously, given the paragraph I just wrote about hating, that's not entirely true. But the hatred I feel for her is so different from that initial hatred I felt towards my ex-husband. It's not a painful hatred, intertwined with messy memories and goopy sentiment. It's cold and impersonal.

In fact, now that I'm thinking on this one, I would like to replace the word "hate" with "disdain." To hate someone implies that there was, at one time, love. Love, or some other form of familiarity -- that there was once a connection of some kind. For this woman -- this stranger who happened into my life -- there was never any love. We had one thing in common, and that happened to be that we both liked my husband.

However, underneath that disdain I feel, there is something else. I don't know that I can call it pity, or sympathy -- but it kind of feels like both of those.

To quote Mr. T, "I pity the fool." I feel badly for her sometimes. Only because since my divorce, I've seen the seamy underbelly of marriage. Not only my diseased marriage, but others as well. I've been on the receiving end of tipsy texts from married men, listened to them complain about their sexless lives and their child-centered wives. Heard about how they "aren't getting what they need" and that they're only staying married for the kids.

I can see just how easy it would be to slip into the role of the Other Woman. I'm not defending the women who do go on and become her, I'm just saying: I kind of get it. I understand how it would be so simple, you are a young (or not so young), gullible woman, most likely with some issues of your own, and here is this guy in front of you, this great guy. He's so sad about his life, and golly, he says just talking to you helps him feel better. I mean, really -- you're actually helping someone in need when you decide to sleep with this poor fella. Because the picture he paints of his marriage, of his wife and his home life, it ain't pretty.

So yeah. I have a tiny inkling of how a woman can become the Other Woman. Married men who stray can talk a good game, a fun game, an exciting game. That nameless, faceless wife of his, and his anonymous gaggle of children -- they actually kind of deserve to feel a little pain. After all, they've been taking this wonderful husband and father for granted.

What I don't understand, and hope to God that I'll never understand, is how the Other Woman can stick around after the wife and kids aren't so anonymous. I'll never forget the first time a married guy put the moves on me post-divorce (you can read all about Handsy here). Yes, there was a momentary tingle, a little bit of "Oh my God, someone thinks of me in that way again!" But man -- after that feeling came the images of his wife and child. That sick, guilty feeling (even though I had done nothing wrong) washed over me and common sense kicked in.

That's where my understanding, and my empathizing, ends. And that's also why I don't think forgiving the Other Woman is necessary. Some of you may do it eventually, some of you probably already have.

Me? Forgiving my ex-husband took almost seven years. I figure this one might take a while.