What Couples Can Learn From the Ashley Madison Scandal

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40 Million cases of infidelity Were Just Exposed

Unless you've been living under a rock lately, you've probably heard about the massive hacking and release of private information from the popular adultery website, Ashley Madison.  For years, Ashley Madison, a service whose motto is “Life is Short, Have an Affair,” has marketed itself as the number one cheating website for married people looking for affair partners. At the time of the hack, their membership had allegedly grown to over 40 million users worldwide.

In the wake of the scandal, media coverage has mainly sensationalized the potential consequences for the users whose names, contact information, and transaction history are now public. For a site that explicitly advertised the advantages of confidentiality, secrecy, and deception, the fallout may truly be monumental for the users whose attempts at infidelity are now exposed.

It's Not Funny for those involved 

There have been no shortage of jokes about the hack, but most commonly, there have been moral and ethical discussions about such a a website, its users, and the hackers. Radio hosts and bloggers have mentioned the names on the list, and hypothesized about what potential consequences may be in store for users, whether lawsuits, divorces, angry spouses, loss of respect in the community, or negative impact on careers. 

At best, this has spurred discussion about morality, sexuality, monogamy, infidelity, and other hot topics that we could all benefit from talking about. At worst, these discussions have devolved into mere gossip and opportunities for smug self-righteousness. 

Opinions range from applauding the hackers, who call themselves the "Impact Team", as moral or social justice activists or vigilantes, to decrying the hackers as  criminal and exploitative, blackmailers, or having a "puritanical" mission.  

Regardless of how you feel about the Ashley Madison hack, I hope that you will remember that everyone involved is a real person, not just a fictional character in a good story. For those who has been affected by this ordeal, including the cheating spouse and the spouse who has been cheated on, the impact of this type of exposed betrayal can be devastating.

At best, this has spurred discussion about morality, sexuality, monogamy, infidelity, and other hot topics that we could all benefit from talking about.

There have been recent reports of several  suicides of the users who were exposed to the hacking. In some countries, infidelity is punishable by death, and therefore some website users' lives may be at risk. People are entitled to have very different views on the morality of a person's decision to join a site like Ashley Madison; however, most of us can agree that no one should lose their life as a consequence. 

Infidelity and its destructive path

Regardless of your beliefs, most of us can agree that lying and dishonesty, especially to one's partner, is wrong. Dr. John Gottman, the premier researcher of relationships, has written about the devastating consequences of infidelity on relationships.  Regardless of culture, religion, ethnicity, race, gender, or sexuality, traditional monogamy is still by and far the most popular arrangement for couples around the world.

When two people promise to remain faithful (sexually and otherwise) to one another, they close the doors on all others. This bond is the foundation of trust and commitment in a monogamous relationship. Sexual fidelity in a monogamous paring is critical to making each partner feel like safe, secure, connected.

who cheats?

There are as many reasons for infidelity as there are unfaithful partners. However, there are typically a few standard types of cheaters:

1) The Sociopath

Some infidelity results from a cheating spouse having sociopathic characteristics and/or character pathology, which includes lack of empathy for other people and a self-centered desire to have whatever one wants, without care for those who might be hurt. They love using people for their own gain, whether it's their spouse or an affair partner.

This types of cheating pathology is most likely when there have been series of secret affairs, an unwillingness to take responsibility once exposed. If exposed, they will usually try to blame their partner and use manipulative emotional abuse to make the partner believe it was their fault. They usually show no remorse about their affairs unless it is manipulative, and tend to minimize their lies and criticize their partners for "making a big deal out of this."

2) The Entitled Narcissist

Some cheating partners are simply narcissistic and entitled. They may have grown up being told that "boys will be boys" or "everyone cheats". There is usually a sense of grandiose entitlement in which they are more amazing than other people and "deserve" to have fun through affairs. Also, sometimes they are afraid of being vulnerable with their partner, so they seek out other partners to be vulnerable with. 

They usually have little  guilt unless they are caught. And they often have self-righteous thoughts, that they are better than their partner, so they "deserve" to be an exception to the rules of monogamy. They rationalize their infidelity by devaluing their partner: "Well she put on weight" or "He was never meeting my needs anyways" or "She doesn't have sex with me enough". They often pat themselves on their own backs when they have successfully "gotten away with it". 

3) The Non-Monogamist Pretending to Be Monogamous

They often believe that monogamy is foolish, outdated, but see it as necessary to look good in society, so monogamy becomes a mere ruse.  Instead of being truthful, and telling their partner that they don't believe in monogamy, and that they want prefer to have relationships with other people, they lie and pretend that they will be monogamous.

They actively deceive their partner, and then secretly seek out other sexual partners in order to "have their cake and eat it, too". They enjoy having the best of both worlds, including the security of monogamy and the passion of new partners and elicit affairs. Unlike a healthy non-monogamist who is open and clear about their beliefs, this type of secret non-monogamist is engaging in very unhealthy behavior.

Possible reasons for this type of pretense:

  • they enjoy deception
  • they have been raised in a culture that values monogamy and have never allowed themselves to be "openly non-monogamous"
  • they are severely conflict-avoidant
  • they are afraid of losing a partner that they know would only agree to be in a monogamous relationship

4) The Addict

In the midst of active addiction, some people engage in behavior that they would normally find reprehensible. Addiction is most often defined as a physical or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, such as a drug or alcohol, or a behavior, such as sex, gambling, pornography, or gaming.

Addiction thrives on shame and secrecy, so the longer that the person denies that they have a problem and does not seek help, the more difficult it becomes for them to regain a healthy life and relationship. 

5) The "normal" or "Average" person

Despite the outliers such as sociopaths and narcissists, the far majority of people who choose to cheat are regular, normal people who have morals and empathy for other people. They typically take their vows seriously and want a monogamous relationship, at least at first. These people don't set out to cheat early on in the relationship. 

Often times they're very happy in their relationship, but when their relationship starts to experience the normal dips in satisfaction over time, when the couple does not feel as connected, or typical life stressors happen and the relationship experiences more conflict, this person drifts away from the relationship rather than repairing the damage. They usually don't tell their partner, "our relationship is in trouble and I think we should see a couples therapist...I'm feeling lonely and disconnected from you and I don't like that I have started thinking about other people". 

They tend to be conflict-avoiders and fear having the difficult (but necessary) conversations that are essential to a healthy relationship. Or maybe they try to change the relationship but when it doesn't change as quickly as they want, they become discouraged and give up trying. So the silence and distance grows, and before long, they fantasize about leaving the relationship or "testing the waters". They have one foot in the relationship, and one foot out. But their partner is left in the dark because they won't openly discuss their complaints, needs, and how they are contemplating ending the relationship.

And so they ignore their own morals, and put aside their own values and beliefs in honesty and being faithful. They compartmentalize. They rationalize. They begin to make excuses for their small, then big, relationship-destroying behavior. It starts with a small lie, like spending time alone with a coworker who really likes and admires you, who makes you feel good. You start to find them (and the attention) attractive. You start to compare this new person to your spouse. Then, you start crossing lines you swore you never would.

Once the are in the midst of their infidelity, they are aware of doing wrong, but also in some denial. They tend to rationalize why it is "okay" to lie to their partner, to break the marital bond, etc. They may tell themselves "Well my partner never tells me I'm beautiful anymore" or "This relationship has been dead for a while" to ease their guilt. 

In their rationalization, they can usually spin reality in a distorted way to view themselves as the "victim" of a bad relationship, and to vilify or blame their partner. However, the difference between these normal people who cheat, and the sociopaths and narcissists, is that once the dust has settled after they have confessed or been exposed, they are usually capable of seeing their wrong doing and are able to feel for their partner's hurt and pain. When they are able to take full responsibility, they are able to sincerely apologize, atone for their wrongdoing, and take the time that their partner needs to heal, before the couple rebuilds an entirely new relationship from the ashes.

Why Do "Monogamous" People Cheat?

The users on the Ashley Madison site could be any of the "types" of people, whether sociopathic, narcisstic, secret non-monogamist, or standard monogamous person, etc. For the typical monogamous person, who is not sociopathic or narcissistic, they usually feel hurt or lonely at some point, and then they start to see themselves as the victim of a bad relationship. They justify an affair by rationalizing that it's okay to cheat on their partner because (fill in excuse here).

Typical Excuses for Cheating:

  • Feeling stuck and hopeless. They believe that nothing will ever change, and feel that divorce or separation is impossible (maybe for religious reasons or looking bad), so they see cheating as they only way to temporarily exit a "bad situation".
  • Not being ready or willing to leave their partner. Cheating becomes a way of avoiding making a decision about the relationship.
  • Protecting the kids. They believe that it would be too difficult on the children to end the relationship for good, so they rationalize that it would be better to cheat rather than to "break up a family". 
  • Punishing their partner. Sometimes cheaters feel betrayed by their own partner for their own past infidelities, or for "not being there for me" in some way, whether emotionally, sexually, supporting a dream, etc. They are "evening the score".
  • They believe the marital agreement has already been broken in some way. So why not break it some more? They do not feel that the relationship has followed their expectations, whatever those were. They may feel that their partner has chosen work over them (they "works too much") or does not invest enough sexually in the relationship (they "don't want to have sex enough"), etc. Essentially, they feel that their partner has already broken the marital bond or agreement in some way, and so they feel that they have a "pass" to do so, too.

Regardless of the rationalizations that occur in the cheater's mind, there are clear patterns that the Gottman research has shown to be true more often than not. Many of these cheating spouses, instead of leaning into a difficult conversation with their spouse about their unhappiness, they choose conflict avoidance and dishonesty as the easier way of dealing with their own dissatisfaction or problem with the relationship, whatever that is. They make the unhealthy choice to cheat rather than sitting down with their partner about their unhappiness or their desire to improve or end the relationship. 

A single affair almost always results from dishonesty, deception, poor communication skills, loneliness, and an unwillingness to openly discuss the problems in a relationship. Cheating is a betrayal resulting in a complete loss of the trust created when people take vows and commit to a lifelong pairing. The partners of unfaithful spouses almost always experience the trauma of discovering the betrayal, and are often re-traumatized by their partners, pastors, or misguided couples therapists by being told to "quickly forgive and forget" and "not talk about it anymore". 

we're talking about Monogamy 

It is important to note that I'm not talking about non-monogamous agreements such as "polyamory", "open relationships" or "swinging", in which some couples have created an alternative arrangement. In these consensually nonmonogamous relationships, both members of a couple have openly discussed and agreed to allow of some sort of extra-marital sexual behavior. "Cheating" in any relationship is about in one partner's sexual "stepping out" without their partner's consent.

Although this type of arrangement certainly works for some couples, the far majority of people simply do not want nor do they seek non-monogamous relationships. Besides, research only currently exists for and supports the long-term sustainability and satisfaction in monogamous relationships. Most couples therapists agree that for non-monogamous relationships to work, they require a very high level of agreement about boundaries and thorough communication.

The Fallout

For monogamous couples who have agreed to only have sex with one another,  finding out that a partner has either sought a sexual affair or has actually followed through with an affair almost certainly shatters all trust within a relationship. It is also usually traumatizing for the non-cheating partner who previously thought their partner was faithful. For a relationship to repair, usually couples therapy is required.

If you have experienced this, I encourage you to find a very well trained couples therapist whom both of you like, who specializes in infidelity and validates the trauma of infidelity on the betrayed spouse.

The Remedy

Discovering infidelity is always painful. Some couples end the relationship while others choose to repair. In today's technological world, it's even easier to be unfaithful, but it's also much more likely that you will get caught. Whether it's the Ashley Madison hack, an exposed text message, an email left open, or some other method of discovering infidelity, more and more of this is likely to happen in the future.

Getting Professional Help

If your relationship has not experienced infidelity, there are ways you can improve your relationship in order to make it as protected as possible from infidelity (although there are no sure-fire ways). I offer couples counseling and workshops for couples. For couples on the brink of separation or divorce, I offer "discernment counseling", which is not couples therapy; rather, it is a way for you and your spouse to consider your options before making a final decision about separation or divorce. It is most helpful for couples where one partner wants to preserve and fix the relationship and the other is leaning more towards ending it.

Further Reading

There are also great books. For creating a healthy relationship from the ground up, I highly recommend Dr. John Gottman's books, including "What Makes Love Last?" and "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work." If you are interested in learning more specifically about the research on infidelity and the most effective treatment model for affair recovery, I highly recommend "Not Just Friends" by Shirley Glass.