We exchange a kiss goodnight, leave the apartment at 3 a.m., and hail a cab. On the ride home, we think about the hot, steamy sex we just had with someone else’s partner — we’re the side piece. This love affair makes us feel naughty and even raunchy. But not everyone feels guilt. 

In some cases, we don’t want to be a full-time partner; we want the excitement without the baggage. Side chicks want to make the most of their time with the man, without doing the laundry, cooking, cleaning, or going through the daily grind with him. Meanwhile, side men believe they’re the woman’s real fantasy of choice — she’s coming to him for what she can’t get at home. 

The unpredictability of an affair is alluring; it acts as a vacation from our day-to-day commitments. Some of us don’t actually seek a primary, traditional relationship, and prefer the role of a side piece over a full-time partner. Conversely, those of us with low self-esteem may choose to become a side piece because, from our perspective, at least someone wants us for something. In other cases, we’re not okay with being the side chick or the side man, but a lack of confidence pushes us into denial, and we fool ourselves into believing things are fine, and no one will get hurt.

In the end, it may come down to the question of respect, and what we're really seeking in these relationships. Here's a deeper look at the psychology behind the side piece phenomenon.

All About The Side Piece: The Side Chick Vs The Side Man

Adultery, infidelity, or an affair — this concept is nothing new. Approximately 30 to 60 percent of all married individuals will engage in infidelity at some point during their marriage. This means no man or woman is adultery-proof.

So, who are the side pieces in affairs?

The concept of “the other woman” or “the other man” manifests itself when two consenting adults engage in a non-committal sexual “relationship”, while one or both are committed to other people.

Men and women are different when it comes to who they choose for an affair. Most men admit to cheating with co-workers, while women are more likely to cheat with a close friend, according to a 2015 survey.

For example, during the Clinton administration, former President Bill Clinton and then White House intern Monica Lewinsky were involved in a political sex scandal. Clinton and Monica were sexually involved between 1995 and 1996, while Clinton was still married to the First Lady Hillary. In this scenario, Lewinsky willingly became Clinton’s side piece with the knowledge that he was in a committed relationship.

She was okay with becoming the president's side piece, but why?

The power dynamic between the intern and the president acted as an aphrodisiac for Lewinsky, who saw she was being desired by the most powerful man in the country. It became an intoxication to have the attention of a successful and powerful figure like President Clinton, which made it harder for Lewinsky to resist. A young woman garnering the attention of the leader of the free world is undoubtedly enticing.

Kevin Darné, author of My Cat Won't Bark! (A Relationship Epiphany) said cheating and infidelity have become so commonplace that almost everyone has been personally affected by it or knows someone who has.

“[T]he more common something becomes, the less stigma there is with it,” he told Medical Daily.

Why has it become acceptable among the side pieces to be second best?

In the song Side Pieces, rapper Drake has touched upon the increasing openness side pieces have about their position in an affair:

“This is dedicated to all of the side pieces. I know you’ll never be more. And you’ll always be less. But there’s comfort in knowing that you’re okay being second best.”

This picture of casual and “second best” intimacy outside commitment is in contrast to the media’s traditional depiction of the other woman: either a lonely psycho or someone who wants to sleep with everyone. But, what research and our current culture suggests is that women and men are just "regular" people who want to satisfy their sexual needs without restraints — at the moment. In general, the people who are OK with being side pieces are in it for themselves - they’re not worried about the other person.

These affairs are becoming more commonplace, which suggests people are becoming more selfish and more self-centered, valuing sexual gratification over emotional intimacy.

Breaking Gender Roles In An Affair

A side piece in an affair is not gender specific. Hollywood has portrayed the side piece to be a woman or a victim of the "situationship", imposing double standards. Typically, cheating is associated with men, and the language used to describe it include jump off, side piece, and mistress, which refer to men sleeping with multiple women. Yet we don’t talk about women doing the cheating, or women having a man as their side piece.

In a 2008 online poll conducted by Women's Health, 79 percent of women said having an affair with a taken man was never acceptable, but a surprising 46 percent admitted to having done it, and more than half felt no regrets. Interestingly, when asked whether they'd rather be a mistress or a deceived wife, more than 62 percent chose the former. So it was better to deceive someone else than be the deceived.

Moreover, previous research has found women and men are cheating at about the same rate — 19 percent to 23 percent, respectively.

Overall, both men and women are guilty of contemplating or dating multiple people at the same time.

For example, in Time Out's inaugural City Index survey, the magazine observed what it's like to live in 18 cities all around the world, and asked 20,000 people to rate their cities on six key characteristics, including dynamism, inspiration, food and drink, community, sociability and affordability. When it came to dating, in New York, a total of 33 percent of people said it was OK to date multiple people at the same time. This suggests both men and women are more likely to have side pieces (at least in NY), because there's a more lax attitude on dating.

Men and women are becoming more accepting of being a side piece for different reasons, according to Chris Armstrong, a certified relationship coach in Alexandria, Virginia. He explains it really has to do with what each person values and seeks at any given point of their life; where their confidence is; and what story they tell to justify their roles. Also, he suggests when it comes to dating, relationships, and love, there are pieces to the intimacy PIE (Physical, Intellectual, and Emotional).

“If someone is tired of the dating scene and is strictly looking for a physical piece of the pie, being the other person is not going to offend them because they are not looking for anything more serious,” Armstrong told Medical Daily.

Someone who is tired of the dating scene and only seeks physical gratification will prefer to be a side piece. Jacob Ufkes, Public Domain

It only becomes problematic if and when their initial desire for a strictly physical relationship ventures into them developing an intellectual or emotional connection with the person. However, this is becoming less frequent, because our views on relationships are surfacing. We’re becoming more open-minded when it comes to dating — for better or for worse.

“[W]e’re evolving our views on relationships and our openness to multiple partners or different sexual experiences is both new and perhaps dangerous or unwieldy,” he told Medical Daily.

We choose to be a side piece for several reasons: we either don’t want a traditional relationship, and solely seek physical intimacy; we choose to settle for less than we deserve, because at least we’ll be desired; or we’re not okay with being the side piece, but we convince ourselves this is fine. Here, we are the ones manipulating ourselves into accepting a situation we’re not comfortable in. But, why do we do it in the first place?

“This is generally a feeling that is intermingled with fairly frequent bouts of reality that they then tuck away in favor of what's easy: temporary acceptance and temporary satisfaction,” said Armstrong.

Affair partners need to manage their emotional vulnerability since their partner is not fully committed to them. This means they need to protect themselves from getting too emotionally invested. A situationship that includes emotional distance can fulfill a fantasy about passionate and dangerous love.

The truth is, affairs are a forbidden romance and offer a stark contrast to the routine of a long-term relationship.

The Evolution Of The Side Piece: Mate Poaching

The notion of stealing someone’s partner, whether for a fling or long-term commitment, can be traced back to evolution. For example, when it comes to choosing a mate, evolution has programmed individuals to look out for themselves — survival of the fittest. Previous research suggests mate poaching behaviors tend to occur to entice only temporary sexual desertions by the already taken partner, leading to brief affairs or short-term liaisons.

Mate poaching is considered to be an effective strategy, especially for women, since men are in scarce supply, which means women will compete to access them. Evolutionary psychologist David Schmitt at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., believes women are more likely to be a side piece than men. They hypothesize stealing a mate is less physically dangerous for women, whereas a side man can risk having a more physical altercation with the male partner.

Scientists believe “mate poaching” happens in almost every society, with about 10 to 15 percent of romantic relationships starting off as an affair, according to a 2004 study. Moreover, as relationships become more complex and change over time, and about 40 to 50 percent of marriages end up in divorce, this numbs us to infidelity; we almost expect it.

Hence, when we hear a woman or a man is having an affair, it doesn’t generate as strong of a reaction.

For example, a 2009 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found men appear more attractive to women when they’re already taken. Researchers showed women a photo of “Mr. Right”; half of the participants were told their ideal man was single, and the other half were told he was already in a romantic relationship. When offered a single man, 59 percent of women were interested in pursuing a relationship, but when he was attached, 90 percent were still interested.

This mentality is fed by the popular preconceived notion “good men are hard to find.” Shadeen Francis, a marriage and family therapist in Philadelphia, Pa., explains this belief can entice women to compete against each other.

“This mindset fuels the sense of competition amongst women to pursue or be open to relationships with men that fit their desired criteria, even if he is already in another relationship,” she told Medical Daily.

So, if it’s not going to evolve into a relationship, why pursue?

In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Valerie Golden, a psychologist in Minneapolis, Minn., believes women want married or committed men because of the thrill of sneaking around.

“The need to be secretive, sneak around undiscovered and grab quick sexual encounters on the fly can be a huge turn-on in comparison to a dinner date with a single man who calls on Wednesday night for Friday.”

People having an affair get turned on by keeping their relationship a secret. Felix Russell, Public Domain

The newness, change, or excitement an affair offers mimics feelings felt in the beginning of a relationship, affecting how the brain responds to stimuli.

The Brain During An Affair

Affairs are commonly portrayed as being exciting, fun, and mischievous. It serves as a vacation from the day-to-day agenda. It’s excitement without the baggage.

The brain goes through several changes in functions when we’re infatuated, bonding, and keeping the affair a secret.

Infatuation

During the infatuation stage, the brain is inundated with dopamine — a neurotransmitter that heightens the sensation of pleasure. Dopamine increases energy, which is why our first conversation with someone attractive is exciting. Interestingly, couples or partners often show signs of surging dopamine including increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention and delight in the smaller details of a new relationship, or affair.

Previous research has found the infatuation phase really does change how you think. A University of Pisa study studied if the brain mechanisms that cause you to think about your partner constantly were linked to similar brain mechanisms seen in OCD. Upon analyzing blood samples from the lovers, the findings revealed serotonin levels of new lovers were equivalent to the low serotonin levels of OCD patients.

Jonathan Bennett, dating and relationship coach in Columbus, Ohio, suggests this level of infatuation is what causes partners to treat their side pieces extra well.

“Their brain is releasing pleasure chemicals (dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin) that make falling in love an exciting and happy experience,” he told Medical Daily .

The feelings the cheater feels for their side piece brings them back to the happiness of young love that they haven’t likely experienced in many years.

Bonding

People who decide to cheat are likely to experience a flood of the love hormone, oxytocin, in the brain. Oxytocin promotes trust, bonding, and attachment between adults, between parents and their offspring. A study conducted by Israel’s Bar-Ilan University supports the belief new lovers tend to have substantially higher plasma levels of oxytocin, as compared to non-attached singles.

Similarly, findings on other mammals, specifically monogamous rodent species, oxytocin has played an important role in the formation of pair bonds. The hormone makes us more emotionally vulnerable, which is why during the earlier stages of an affair, there’s an enhanced sense of well-being that manipulates the cheater to think the affair is good for them. In other words, the more time spent with the side piece, the more oxytocin is released, and the desire for intimacy continues to increase.

Keeping Quiet

When it comes to an affair, both parties agree to keep it a secret. Neuroscientists suggests it's better for us to confess our secrets, because holding them in can interfere with brain function. For example, when we choose to keep a secret, the brain’s orbital prefrontal cortex — involved in decision-making, complex thought, and deception — stimulates the mind with how bad the secret can be.

If the prefrontal cortex wins the battle over keeping a secret, this pressure will cause the cingulate cortex to boost the production of stress hormones, also known as the fight or flight response. An increase in cortisol levels can negatively impact attention, memory, digestion, sleep among many others. A lack of sleep can lead to mood swings, depression, and even difficulty controlling tempers. This is why when people are in affairs, they can get angry or even withdrawn when their spouse becomes suspicious.

Darné believes affairs can becoming emotionally draining under two circumstances:

“[I]f the other woman/man starts making demands or the spouse has become increasingly suspicious.”

However, some affairs never become exhausting. For example, actress Katharine Hepburn allegedly had a 26-year-love affair with actor Spencer Tracy, who remained married throughout the relationship. Hepburn made the affair publicly known after Tracy’s wife’s death in 1983 (Tracy died in 1967), and even wrote about it in her autobiography Me: Stories of My Life. Darne acknowledges, perhaps Mrs. Tracey was content being recognized as his wife, and not as his side piece.

Should You Be A Side Piece?

The thought of not committing to someone and having sex without complications can deliver an intoxicating thrill. It’s a situationship that is free of emotional entanglements, where both parties make the most of their time. They both satisfy each other’s sexual needs and go on with their lives.

But if you’re single, are you fully prepared to have an affair with a committed partner?

Holidays, vacations, dinner parties, and events in between are off limits. Valentine’s Day is off the table; you’ll have to wait until February 15 (National Side Piece Day) to go out and celebrate. You will always be second best in this committed partner’s life.

In an article for The Cut, a man known as “Tim C.” shared his personal experience of being a side piece, and why he’d never be the other man again:

“I know a lot of people who have done that — people who are married to somebody they met while that person was married to someone else. And some of those relationships are happy and long lasting, but I think everybody has to save themselves,” he wrote.

Tim C. explained that the older he gets, the more he realizes he’s interested in long-term, lasting relationships.

You should assess why you want to become a side piece.

Is it a discomfort or disinterest in emotional intimacy? Or, does it fulfill a need to establish this kind of relationship?

Meanwhile, committed partners who have an affair do so for several reasons.

“Most often it is a fear of total commitment, or getting little clandestined support on the side, so at home the person can continue to support a demanding spouse, or just using someone for [their] own gratification,” Dr. Christine Adams, a psychiatrist in Louisville, Ky., told Medical Daily.

Whether you’re a side piece or the committed partner having an affair, you’re doing this for yourself. You think about how this can benefit you. As a side piece, you don’t want to be a full-time partner, and as the committed partner, you’re afraid to confront your relationship issues at home.

Singles, if you’re contemplating entering a situationship, ask yourself: “Am I putting myself in a position of respect?”

Are you OK with being someone else’s “second best?”

Once these intentions become clear to you, everything else will too.

After all, you have control over how much respect people give you — wifey, hubby, or side piece.