Dating married men, guys with serious girlfriends – I’ve been the piece on the side more than a few times over the years and ended up in a series of side relationships (and a long-lasting love triangle/ rectangle thing) that eventually led me to marry my husband, and then starting a few things on the side on our own.
At this point, I’m 42, been married for longer than I can remember, have a couple of kids, and found a place for myself in the suburbs. And I still deal with stuff on the side. It sounds weird, but in all of this, I try to keep things fair and ethical for everyone involved.
What’s a side relationship, you ask? More than a crush (which is a one-sided deal) because as they say, it takes two to tango. My working definition of ‘piece on the side’ is anything that’s not the primary and publicly visible relationship but is based on a physical and/or intense emotional connection between two people, with one of them already in a romantic relationship with someone else.
Some might call it – gulp – cheating, but I personally shy away from this word as it implies a sense of proprietorship and level of dishonesty that might not be felt by either party. The side relationship is often hidden simply to maintain the existing primary relationship or prevent hurt.
So, although lies and dishonesty may be used to maintain the relationships (and trust me, I’ve come across my share of lying cheats), that’s not what it’s all about – it’s a connection between people that somehow circumvents existing social norms.
For me, being the piece on the side is about existing in a secondary relationship to the primary, and this is longer lasting and complex than a one night stand. I often have strong feelings for the person I’m in a relationship with, and respect their right to maintain their relationships as they choose.
This sure isn’t new – although poly and pan is on everyone’s lips these days, and Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s Ethical Sluts and more vocal discussions on polyamory emerged in the nineties; this type of relationship has been with us throughout human history. And, unlike most conventional forms of polyamory, it might not be fully disclosed to the primary partner. Hence, the side bit.
My favorite examples are of courtly love in medieval Europe and my own Eastern European grandmother’s series of boyfriends over the years. Trust me; grandma had some pretty liberal views on the tradition of men in power having mistresses; she’d shrug, and say it’d be nice not to pick his socks up off the floor, but still get the fancy clothes and jewels. And for me, that’s what a side relationship is about.
A form of attachment that doesn’t hold the responsibility of modern common law and marriages – you’re not cohabiting with the person, there’s no shared chores, child rearing responsibilities, or financial obligations, but you both benefit in some way. Friendship. Love. Sex.
Or simply companionship.
Consider it a variant of polyamory (where in ideal forms all partners are aware of the relationships between each other), or you’ll know it when you see it. Sometimes a side relationship takes on the label of ‘emotional or physical affair’ and can be considered a simple form of fallout of our modern times – people live longer, know each other in different contexts, and human relationships are expressed in different forms.
What makes it work?
Honestly, if you can believe that one; keeping expectations in the relationship clear. I love it when men tell me they are married because I now know where their expectations lie and can work with them (in terms of ensuring discretion and respecting boundaries). If I know, I’m on the side of a bitter divorce, or an unhappy marriage, or just a guy out looking for fun, I can adjust my emotional expectations accordingly (and at least make sure I’m not messaging at awkward times).
As a piece on the side, I never expect never to succeed the primary relationship, but to hopefully enrich both our lives. I think that’s fairest for everyone involved. Sometimes people just want to feel validated, and have a sympathetic ear and a bit of action, while others are looking for more heat and heaviness, with little emotional entanglement. I’m in it because somehow it enriches my life, and I hope that’s what the other person gets out of it too.
Personally, I prefer having an actual relationship with the person, where we share details of our lives, and somehow craft an actual reciprocal relationship, rather than being the source for sex (and now at my age, I’m past that anyway, for the most part). What else makes this work? Being strong, having a definite sense of yourself, and a calm acceptance of the situation (and remember that as the person on the side you’re always free to walk away). You need to be confident in order to deal with the feelings of jealousy that will likely arise, and you need to have secure relationships elsewhere in your life.
If you’re in it to ‘steal’ someone’s partner or for simply the ego boosts of multiple conquests, it’s not fair to the people involved. The stakes can be quite high – beyond emotional fallout, the complexities of someone’s life (finances, housing, assets) and other relationships may be at risk.
Which leads us to the other partner – the one in the primary relationship who may not know you exist at all or may be mislead as to the actual nature of your relationship with their partner. You need to respect them. This sounds really weird, but the least you and your side partner can do is act with their feelings in mind.
For me, this means I might have information that someone shared in confidence about their partner, (i.e. a husband sharing details about his wife) and I do not share this further. Full stop. That kind of stuff goes with me to the grave.
I also do not pry. I respect the boundaries of the household that person I’m involved with lives within and don’t push into someone’s personal domestic life. I don’t stalk people on social media (I honestly prefer keeping a distance between us that way, for both my own needs and to avoid awkward questions). And truthfully, I don’t want to see such intimate details in their life, but prefer to enjoy my time with them in whatever context this takes.
If I know the other partner personally, I maintain a friendly relationship with them and do not do dumb shit like try to corner their partner at a party, and make sure our outward appearances are always respectful and appropriate.
What are the downfalls? People get hurt.
Sooner or later, someone’s going feel it, that’s simply human nature. I’ve personally been the direct cause of hurt for a number of people, whether through my side relationship becoming the tipping point of a situation that was going south anyway, or caused a rocky hiccup as someone found out, or, I’ve hurt people by not continuing a relationship in a way they’d like.
I’ve also been hurt, because, as we all know, it goes both ways.
I’ve learned to hold people in a light of love and respect, with fond regard, once my time with them has passed. I try to appreciate what we’ve had, and I hope they do too. Because even if I’m only on the side of their life, they’ve let me into a part of themselves in some way, and I respect that.
So why do I do it? Good question.
For me, it’s never about sexual conquest or a notch in my belt. There are enough single people out there for that. I find myself as a piece on the side because I feel a connection to a person in some way, and to such a degree, that a side relationship is the most reasonable way to express it. Together we find ways to exist within the space we create.
I am not interested in cohabiting with someone or pushing their primary relationship into a path of destruction. I respect their decision to stay in whatever situation they choose, but I allow an outlet or opportunity they may not have otherwise. Sometimes I’m simply a friend with just a little bit more.
I often say that had I never married my husband, I would have been his mistress instead, while he married the woman he was engaged to when we met. We both would have accepted the limits of this situation, and lived within them.
And then there are days when I wish this had actually happened, and I wouldn’t have to pick his dirty socks up off the floor – never mind deal with the endless details of domestic life.
That is one of the benefits of being the piece on the side;
Love, without housekeeping, albeit in a complicated way.