Marilyn Monroe. Monica Lewinsky. Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. All are famous women in their own right but have scaled the heights of infamy because of the men they loved. So, when you think of these women, does the term 'mistress' immediately come to mind? Or is it now incidental to their own notoriety?

Wikipedia defines the mistress as “a relatively long-term lover and companion who is not married to her partner, especially when the partner is married to someone else.”1

And while this definition may seem universal in today's society, the purpose of having a mistress surprisingly has different connotations – and different levels of acceptance – among the world's cultures. What's even more fascinating is how people's perception of mistresses depends on how they view the institution of marriage.

Author Helen Fisher, who is cited in a New York Times Book Review of Victoria Griffith's “The Mistress,” notes that out of 853 human cultures on record, only 16% subscribe to the concept of monogamy.2  Now mind you, that 16% likely comprises a vast majority of 'civilized' folks in modern day society, but it does raise an interesting paradox which Ms. Griffith points out in her book - “a mistress lives outside the institution of marriage, but is also subject to it, by being defined by it. Without marriage, there would be no mistresses.”2

However, before we get too caught up in sociological stereotypes, let's take a brief step back in time to look at the history of mistresses and why extra-marital liaisons still have such a major impact on life in the 21st century.

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Mistress: A Brief History

The fact that men have romantic relationships with women other than their wives dates back thousands of years and many prominent amours have been documented by historians specializing in the ancient civilizations of Greece, Egypt, Rome, Arabia and Asia. Just hark back to the stories of Helen of Troy and Paris, or Cleopatra and Mark Antony (as well as Julius Caesar!). Indeed, the Old Testament in the Bible chronicles the drama surrounding Abraham's relationship with his Egyptian paramour, Hagar, and the subsequent birth of his son Ishmael – later much to the chagrin of his wife Sarah. This scriptural love triangle would come to symbolize the creation of the Islamic faith (through Ishmael) and the Jewish faith (through Abraham's son Isaac by Sarah).3

Arabian lore would give rise to the Sheikh's harems, Roman and Chinese literature speaks of the concubine and Japanese culture is famous for the geisha girls of society. For as far back as history has been recorded in China, tales have emerged of famous concubines who rose from meager (usually rural) roots to take their place as lovers (and sometimes child-bearing partners) of famous emperors and lesser royalty.

Even today in China, where strong and powerful men of the Community Party have supplanted emperors and kings of the past, it is still a sign of prestige for them to keep female lovers for romantic, social and political purposes. And, in some cases, the prestige may work both ways. In a recent article by James Palmer in the online publication Quartz, “one of the most sought after jobs for rural Chinese women is to become a mistress.”4 But given the impoverished circumstances of many people in China's rural regions, one could suspect this dream job has more to do with economics than a need to climb the dynastic social ladder.

In that same article, Mr. Palmer cites a study by the Crisis Management Centre at Remnin University in Beijing that states 95% of “corrupt” officials had illicit affairs and 60% had kept a mistress. And, depending on the motivations of the women involved, they are known in Chinese circles as “ernai” which means “second woman”; or “xiaosan” which means “little threes” for those who try to force a divorce between her lover and his wife.4

Finally, and perhaps a bit closer to home for their subjects' descendants in North America, we can look to the exploits of European aristocracy and the storied romances between royalty and mistress. Many of us are all too familiar with the much-hyped and tortuous ménage-a-trois between Prince Charles, Diana – Princess of Wales, and the now Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. But you may want to check out History Channel's series on Four Famous Mistresses Who Shaped History, including the dalliances between Diane de Poitiers and King Francois I of France; Barbara Palmer and Charles II of England; and Lola Montez (born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert) and King Ludwig I of Bavaria. By the way, one of Barbara Palmer's most famous descendants is Diana, Princess of Wales.5 And rumour has it, that Lola Montez, a well-known 'Spanish' stage dancer in Europe who eventually ended up in the United States, was the inspiration behind the hit song “What Lola Wants, Lola Gets” from the musical Damn Yankees.6


Why Does the Term 'Mistress' Evoke Such Strong Feeling?

In today's society, the term mistress automatically refers to someone engaging in an illicit extra marital affair with a married man. Ironically, the term itself, up until the early 19th century, was the female form of 'master' and was applied to the woman of the house who had servants. Furthermore, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, during the 16th - 18th centuries, 'Mrs.' was a term of courtesy for elderly, unmarried ladies to put them on par with married women when before the courts.7  It wouldn't be until the 1740's and the age of increased urbanization and commercialization that the use of 'Mr.' and 'Mrs.' became more widespread in business circles, eventually extending to how we know these terms today.7

And by some accounts, the term mistress, as we now use it in modern times, comes from the French 'maitresse' or someone who is loved.8

Understandably, the reality of a mistress can mean polar opposites between a married man and a married woman – who happens to be his wife. Particularly, in North American society. The fact that her husband is carrying on an illicit affair can mean unbelievable hurt and abject betrayal for many of today's wives.

In her most recent work, “The State of Affairs – Rethinking Infidelity,” renowned therapist, author and TED lecturer Ester Perel thinks these feelings have a lot to do with women's expectations of modern marriage. In an interview with the Globe and Mail's Zosia Bielski, Ms. Perel claims “The meaning of infidelity has dramatically changed because the meaning of marriage has dramatically changed. Modern marriage is about having a best friend, a confidante, a passionate lover, a co-parent, an intellectual equal and the one who inspires you to pursue your dreams and your career: one person to give you what the whole village used to provide.”9

But how realistic is that for any of us to live up to and does it explain why a fair proportion of men still feel the need to turn to women other than their wives?


Mistresses and Their Men

In his book, 'The Truth About Cheating,' Florida-based psychotherapist Gary Neuman interviewed 100 faithful and unfaithful husbands to try to find some answers to this age-old question.

Surprisingly, of those who cheated on their wives, 88% claimed it had nothing to do with sex, but was more a lack of “thoughtful gestures at home.” Forty-eight per cent felt emotionally dissatisfied in their marriage, leading Mr. Neuman to comment in an article with Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper reporter Zosia Bielski that “Men tend to be more insecure and impressionable than they let on. Having a mistress gave them verbal and emotional support.”10  However, of those who said sex is a factor, 32% were sexually dissatisfied, 68% said sex was different with their mistress, and 22% stated their mistress offered sexual options that their wife didn't. In Neuman's words, “Men are not dissatisfied with the sex they're having (at home). They just want to have more sex. That's how they connect and that's meaningful to them.”10

Other studies seem to confirm that most wandering men are looking for more than just sex outside their marriage. An article titled “Why Husbands Cheat” by Dr. Marilyn Wedge, in an online version of Psychology Today, states that only 12% of cheating husbands say their mistresses are more attractive than their wives and that they commit adultery more for emotional support.11

But is there something even more basic, more primordial why men (and indeed some women) need emotional and sensual support outside an established relationship? According to Perel, “Even in relationships that have consensual non-monogamy, where people have the permission to be with other partners, they still may go to the one place that was forbidden. It speaks to the power of transgression as part of human nature. It gives us a sense of empowerment and autonomy. We're on a hedonic treadmill: When we get what we want, we still want more.”12


What If Having A Mistress Was Not So Taboo?

Would some men still crave the company of “the other woman” if it wasn't looked down upon so much in today's North American society? Our brief look at historical and modern day analyses leads us to believe the answer is - probably. The real question is what keeps us from understanding the true motivations of adultery and our reactions to it? After all, as Perel points out, if divorce and a woman's ability to leave a relationship is now more acceptable, why isn't infidelity obsolete?12

Or perhaps we need to view the role of the mistress through a more cosmopolitan lens? In her Vogue article “What We Can Learn About Marriage From the French,” Christine Perez reviews Jo Piazza's book “How to be Married – What I Learned From Real Women on Five Continents About Surviving My First Really Hard Year of Marriage.” Piazza interviewed hundreds of people from around the world and the one statistic that stands out, perhaps not surprisingly, is that 49% of French women believe infidelity is unacceptable, compared to 84% of American women. And while each marriage has its own nuances and complications, maybe there is something to how French women perceive their relationships with their husbands – by treating them more as lovers and less as domestic co-partners.13

Are we really so entrenched in our views on marriage that we're missing out on what really makes us happy? Some food for thought.


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