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September 5, 2011 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Home wreckers or hopeless romantics?

The ethics of being a mistress

“There is a good deal of debate about the importance of [Lady] Walston in Greene’s life. She clearly is the inspiration for The End of the Affair” – The Telegraph‘s review of The End Of The Affair by Graham Greene.

How Lady Walston would feel about such a remark is never broached in this review, nor is the importance of Greene in her life. She, like many men and women around the world and throughout history, does not fit comfortably into narrative of their lover’s life. She is just a mistress.

This is because the mistress is not seen as an important figure in the life of their ‘taken’ lover. Thoughts such as ‘surely if they were truly important they would be legitimised at some point by being made the sole benefactor of their lover’s love’ are common when discussing the other woman or man. But is this fair considering that most conventional relationships don’t work out either? What sin has this person committed other than to break the ‘Golden Rule’ of “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself”? Should an adage be enough to stop someone from searching for happiness?

Desire vs. Reality

The ethics of being complicit in an affair may be questionable, but within this subjectivity is wiggle room which casts it out from other types of ‘bad’ behaviour—to cheat is wrong, but to cheat for a noble purpose might not be—and places being a mistress in an ethical grey area. They are generally understood as being sub-optimal for the long term future of a formal couple, but the mistresses emotions are as important as those of either member of the couple, and their presence merely highlights cracks already within the relationship. More often then not the mistress is a scapegoat and a pariah, while the cheater has suffered a lapse of judgement and is excoriated, but forgiven – see Bill Clinton, Kobe Bryant… not so much Tiger Woods. While it is simple to hurl blame on the mistress, if one is actually interested in discovering the flaws in a relationship and not just excreting bile, then it is fruitless.

Mistresses are opportunists—sometimes in love, sometimes just in lust—and while being an opportunist is no virtue, being desired is no vice, and is this what all mistresses have in common. Mistresses come in all shapes, sizes, and types… but Salient can only be so long, so here are the two most polar types of mistress.

What kind of mistress are you?


The earnest ‘I can convince them to leave their partner’ type of mistress is by far the most dangerous of the two due to being the one with the highest hopes, and therefore greatest potential to become embittered and seek revenge. They can be the most honourable form of mistress, after all they are the ones who believe love can conquer all, but they are often unwilling to accept the place of part-time lover and have historically been known to take their revenge in the most public of fashions if their plan for formal partnership do not come to fruition.

Historical example: Lady Caroline Lamb—lover, and eventual stalker of Lord Byron.

While technically not a mistress—she was married, he was not—when the lover who has scorned you is compelled to widely publish poetry asking you to leave them alone, you classify in this category. Byron’s advice never got through to Lady Lamb, who published her own, increasingly public, increasingly troubling poetry demanding her former lover’s attention. She eventually died alone of drug abuse related organ failure without fulfilling her potential as a great poet in her own right.


The realist long term mistress is a common staple in history and literature. Far beyond the yearnings of the earnest type, they are understanding of their position in the life of their lover. They are loyal partners in crime, who embrace the part they play—or at least pretend to. However they can also be the most fatalistic; their freedom limited by the relationship, and their power within the relationship hindered by mistresses being more expendable than their legitimised counterparts.

Historical example: Madame de Pompadour—The Chief Mistress of Louis VX and Diplomat.

Though blamed for several of France’s mis-steps in the Seven Years War, which cost her nation its claim to Canada, Madame de Pompadour’s achievements were numerous. She won the undying affection of influential friends, her devoted lover, and even enjoyed a cordial relationship with her lovers wife. She embrced her formal role as the “Mistress above all others”, and with this role she was given power only second to that of the queen, with far more ability to make back room deals—she held a greatly envied level of power in the diplomacy of her nation. But her life was not her own, and her role as Chief Mistress barred her from moving beyond the confines of her lover’s shadow. She too died young and wanting.

Is it worth it? An interview with a mistress.

In light of the moral uncertainty (though not immorality) and practical concerns,
Salient speaks with a mistress about the challenges and meaning behind his role and their relationship.

What leads someone to become a mistress?
It began in the same way any relationship begins—we met through a mutual friend, there was chemistry, and we decided to play it out.

When did you find out she was married?
When she told me about her three children—Yes she has children, but they are not ours and they have no reason to know of me, all they need to see is that their mother is happy—which was early enough that I could have run for the hills without any issue. Clearly I didn’t.

Why didn’t you?
Love cannot be planned, but I think that it can be attained if you are open to it, even if the timing or circumstances aren’t right, and I grew tired of waiting for the perfect situation; while this may not be optimal, but it’s preferable to the single life of quiet desperation. And besides, my feelings for her are more important than being polite to a man I have never met so I agreed to continue seeing her.

What are the requirements of, and expectations on, a mistress?

Discretion, support, and affection. A good mistress isn’t looking for ownership of their partner, but rather a sense of sharing happiness. The [formal partner] may be able to offer financial support, but the mistress can offer honest support; I’m not going to profit from anything outside of the relationship so my caring comes from an honest, non-self interested place.

What is the mistresses expectations of the other person?
To be treated as they expect the other person to treat them. It can be easy for either side of the relationship to slip into taking the other for granted, as it is in any relationship, but this leads to animosity and distrust, which could lead to a revelation of the secret affair.

So these relationships require internal honesty, but not external? How is that sustainable?
All relationships have secrets, sure this is a bigger secret, but just so long as those within the affair are honest with each other, the outside world doesn’t matter. My friends don’t judge my life, and I’d leave them out of it if they did.

Have you ever been cheated on?
Not that I know of, but probably. What I have learnt from friends that I have discussed this with is that cheating is very common, though people do not like to admit it. Over analysing the [ethical dilemmas] isn’t interesting to me.

Do you not empathise with the man who wife you are having an affair with?

Because I’m an enabler to immoral behaviour? . No, I think I probably would like him if we were ever to meet, but I will not apologise for making her happy.

What happens if this person leaves her husband and begins a relationship with you?
I am under no illusions that this will happen in my situation, but if it did then I wouldn’t have ruined a happy relationship, but rather ended a failing one. However, the odds aren’t great for relationships which begin like that—you might be that one in a thousand, or you’ll silently freak out once you realise what you have done.

Like the end of The Graduate?

Yes! when you see the two of them look into each others eyes with [bewilderment], and you can tell they realise what a monumentous decision they have made somewhat on the fly. That can be a hard feeling to move on from, and normally at least one person does not.

What would your perfect relationship be like then?
They don’t exist, I wouldn’t be talking to you if they did. People are fickle and what seems great today may seem cold and uncomfortable tomorrow. The world isn’t that convenient.

Do you see the life of a mistress as a viable choice for others?
It’s not something you choose, and not something I would recommend unless you are comfortable with the lack of ownership and amount of time spent alone. It takes a certain kind of person to deal with that as this is where affairs exist and blossom, and where their downfall all too often begins.


DISCLAIMER: The term mistress is technically feminine, but due to the lack of a non-gendered word for this situation, it will be used throughout as an all encompassing phrase meant to classify a person who engages in a prolonged romantic engagement with someone who is already in a relationship. We didn’t create the English language, we just attempt to use it.


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  1. Electrum Greenstone says:

    GP > act

  2. Electrum Greenstone says:

    GP > TCB > CBT

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