Mistress fix-it takes to reality TV to counsel women

Nina doesn’t like the term mistress. “Some people see it as being glamorous,” she says. “Other people think of it as bordering on something really bad.”

But then the 31-year-old dental assistant, who asked to be identified only by her first name in order to protect those who may be hurt by her story, found herself in a relationship with a married man who she met online. Somewhere between the expensive gifts and talk of subsidized rent on a pricey downtown apartment, she realized that “mistress” described her pretty accurately.

That’s when she sought out Sarah Symonds, whose very public affairs with British notables like Lord Jeffrey Archer and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay ended with a book deal.

Since the 2007 publication of Having an Affair? A Handbook for the Other Woman, Symonds has been providing the likes of Oprah, Dr. Phil and Larry King with an unusual perspective about infidelity — that of the other woman.

Symonds asked Nina to be a part of her reality television show, The Mistress, which was filmed in Vancouver and Toronto over the last year and debuts on Slice Aug. 29.

Mistress is a loaded term, with connotations that go beyond the “other woman.” It evokes a breathy Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday to a young President Kennedy or a beguiling Madame de Pompadour ruling over Versailles with her lover, King Louis XV of France.

The mistress is both elevated for her glamour and vilified as a home-wrecking temptress. Add financial inequity into the equation and the stakes become heightened, creating a relationship where the married man can begin to feel he owns his lover.

Speaking over the phone during a break from the final days of shooting in late July, Symonds says that she sees the word as a chance for redemption for the women she works with.

“I do not like or dislike the word — it is what it is,” she says. “It gives the situation a sort of wake-up clarity and definition. It reminds women that they are just being used as a crutch for a man’s marriage. I always ask them, ‘How do you feel to be unwittingly helping a man’s marriage survive?’ That usually wakes them up and inspires them to want more out of life and for themselves.”In each episode, Symonds takes a woman through the 13 Steps of what she calls the Mistresses Anonymous Program, which include “Make inventory of all the lies he has told you and the empty promises he has made you” and “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and wallowing in your misery.” The final step is to enjoy a nice glass of Chardonnay because, “you deserve it.”

The show’s source, Symonds’ Having an Affair?, is a breezy self-help book that manages to both celebrate and condemn the position of the mistress. Symonds has been heavily criticized for being cynical about relationships and profiting from the misery of others, namely those women whose husbands she had romanced.

The women Symonds aims to rehabilitate on her show might also have good cause to be wary of her methods.

According to Vancouver-based registered clinical counsellor Delyse Ledgard, self-help regimens such as Symonds’ MA 13-step program can do more harm than good.

“It’s all about conformity,” she says. “If I do this and nothing happens, then there’s something wrong with me. That focus on having to do something, focus on solutions, reinforces shame. It reinforces compliance.”Rather, Ledgard contends that it takes a long time and a lot of introspection to really address the deeper issues that make it difficult for people to trust each other and build stable long-term relationships.

“This is one of my pet peeves,” she says. “We live in a world of quick answers and short solutions. There are certainly things that can happen in the short term but if we are to make long lasting deeply felt changes, it’s an ongoing process. There’s no real time limit to that.”

She contends that often an affair doesn’t have much to do with sex at all. Rather, we each enter a relationship with a set of baggage and when the initial rush of romantic love wears off and the difficult stuff of relationship building settles in, it can trigger a fight or flight reaction that can send one or the other person into a new bed.

“The partner represents the mundane, the hard work, the difficulty that all relationships have, and on some unconscious level can represent the mother,” she says. “So the lover represents the escape.”

In this situation, the lover, or mistress, becomes elevated while the partner becomes relegated to a secondary position. “It’s very compelling for women to either want to feel important or special for whatever reason,” she continues. “But of course it’s often temporary.”

Although scientific data on infidelity rates is notoriously difficult to find, a 2006 study from the University of Chicago called American Sexual Behaviour found that about 15-18 per cent of married people have an extramarital affair at some point in their marriage. That same study found that about twice as many men cheat as women, with numbers much higher among people with lower income and lower education levels.

Aside from the featured weekly mistress, Symonds’ show also has interviews with men that reveal the husband’s true motivations, shot on sunny days around Vancouver’s shiniest beaches. There are also short clips from a “wife seminar” in which Symonds addresses a darkly lit room full of neatly dressed women on how to identify a cheating spouse and keep him from straying.

Although Symonds has herself never been married, she stands by her advice. “I think it’s a wife’s responsibility to make a man happy, and if she’s not sleeping with her man, I guarantee he’s sleeping with somebody else,” she says over the phone.

“It doesn’t mean she’s at fault. Women have to wake up and realize that you married him and you need to be the woman he married. It can also work both ways. He needs to be the man you married but we’re talking about men cheating here.”

Ledgard sees this uncompromising view of the male and female roles in a marriage as problematic. “That really puts the emphasis on the woman as responsible for maintaining the relationship, which I do not agree with,” she says. “It’s both people’s responsibility to make a relationship happen.”

Since ending her six-month affair thanks to the show, Nina has no plans to be involved with another married man. She says that she is now able to recognize the signs of a man who is cheating on his spouse and avoid becoming involved at all.

Read it in the Vancouver Sun