The Histrionics of the ‘Other Woman’ and the Changing Dynamics of the ‘Family’

The ‘Other Woman’ is an uncomfortable topic of discussion, today, as always. She is viewed as a ‘taboo’ in herself, someone that a woman should abstain from being or becoming. She is after all obscure, in most aspects of her life, perhaps apart from her relationship with ‘the man’, who does not wholly belong to her. In fact, in most cases, her existence fades away with time. But yet, she manages to live, like no one else, loathed as she is, by most people. She, after all, intrudes into someone else’s space, and is ‘destined to be doomed’ morally.

The idea of the ‘other Woman’ is however not peculiar to modern times. She has always existed, but perhaps more ‘openly’ today than yesterday. She always represents a deviation from the ideal structure of a family. In a British survey undertaken in the 1980s, the proportion of single parent families was shown to be increasing each day, as also the number of children born outside the institution of marriage. Temporary sexual relationships started to gain more ground with the dawn of the ‘modern age’ even if they had existed forever. What was probably practiced ‘secretly’ once has become more common today. This comes also from a BBC Reith lecture of 1990, where Dr. Jonathan Sacks speaks about the changing dynamics of the ‘family’, in modern times, in which the norms and codes of social behavior are gradually being replaced by new ways of thinking and living. Living together without the sanction of marriage has increasingly become the new practice if not ‘norm’, along with the idea of ‘bed, before wed’, if not bed, rather than wed. 

The lecture talks about the evolution of familial structures and the position of women in ‘unhappy’ yet interminable marriages, with divorce rates being extremely low, to a position where women have started to make their own decisions defying the taboos attached to divorce, single motherhood and ‘illegitimate’ affairs. In stable, yet unhappy marital relationships, the idea of permanence overshadows anything and everything else, especially with regard to women who are in a constant position of subordination. This is totally in opposition to the Other Woman, who is beyond morality and moral confines of the family, of sacrifice and of loss. She encounters and lives a different dimension of loss, where she loses herself, at some point or the other, probably fighting for her identity, her being. 

In She Came to Stay, Simone de Beauvoir writes about the relationship Francois and Pierre shared with each other and the Other Woman, Xaviere. Beauvoir there, explores the notions of love and relationships, bringing forth existential concepts, harnessing the idea of an open relationship and the consequences thereafter, with human emotions of love, hatred and jealousy. Xaviere is however not the quintessential Other Woman. She is as much with Francoise as with Pierre. The quintessential Other Woman on the other hand is with the man, who ‘belongs’ to someone else, and intrudes into a sphere that was already there – a space that existed long before ‘she came to stay’!

An interesting story of the Other Woman is that of Inessa Armand. Armand is, despite her contributions to the revolution and feminist thought, not remembered for that at all, as much as she is remembered as Lenin’s love interest and a woman of beauty and splendor, who would play on the piano. 

She did assist Lenin, who utilized her services, also as a participant in revolutionary activities. They say Lenin’s first love was revolution, and so was the second. Hence, for both his wife and Inessa he would assign tasks of and for the revolution. However, the fact that Lenin was in love with Inessa, is apparent from the words of Aleksandra Kollontai, who says that Lenin’s wife actually offered to leave her husband in 1911 to “facilitate his happiness with the Other Woman.”

In a sort of biography on the life of Inessa, R.C Etwood in her portrayal of the woman in question as a Revolutionary and Feminist mentions that Lenin sent Inessa to St. Petersburg to try and bring the recalcitrant editors of the Pavda that Lenin had launched, into order. Apart from this, Lenin also sent her for other ‘sensitive missions’. 

V.I Nevskii spoke highly of Inessa, describing her as an Old Bolshevik, who joined the party even before 1905. This woman was therefore committed to revolution as she was dedicated to Lenin. But as with all ‘Other Woman’, is remembered more as Lenin’s love interest than anything or anyone else. 

The Other Woman therefore, is an identity in herself, despite her crises, and while she might be a product of circumstances rather than making a conscious decision of being so, she lives on in memories, loved and loathed, as one would please to remember her!


Swaswati Borkataki is a doctoral student in JNU, New Delhi.

Featured image illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty.