Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the Ashley Madison debacle. If you do actually live under a rock, the punch line is that an anonymous group of vigilante “hacktivists” has hacked into AshleyMadison.com, a website that seeks to pair up married people looking to have secret extramarital affairs, and has now released the personal information of up to 37 million of the site’s subscribers. At least two suicides have been alleged as a result of the fallout. Yikes.
Pundits have wasted no time speculating about a potential impact on divorce rates, economic trends, Internet security, and general pop culture mayhem. Josh Duggar, of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting fame (or notoriety), has been outed and subsequently admitted to using the site to cheat on his wife. The earnest-looking guy from that viral “reverse pregnancy announcement” video appears to be next in line. Meanwhile, up to 15,000 of the email addresses found on the site’s subscriber list belong to .mil and .gov domains, and although email address verification was not required, it certainly seems like some of our elected officials and armed forces might be having some awkward conversations in the near future. Perhaps we’ve suspected it all along, but now we’re faced with ten gigabytes of data to prove it: Nobody is totally immune from the temptation of cheating.
What the eff is going on with marriage these days? Ashley Madison subscribers are not simply people who have had an affair—who let some chemistry with a coworker go too far or who made a drunken mistake at a bachelor party—they are people who have found a quiet and private time to presumably do some research on the site, create an account, and proactively seek out an affair.
In the examples of Josh Duggar and pregnancy-announcement-guy Sam Rader, these are people who appear to be happily married yet seek out secret dalliances alongside their relationships with their wives, whom they profess to love. Are they in fact unhappy in their marriages? Are they considering divorce and thinking that an affair might help them test the waters? Or are they acting on the same line of thinking that the site’s tagline embodies? Life is short. Have an affair.
If it’s the latter—that is to say, if the majority of the approximately 37 million subscribers were hoping to have an affair without negatively impacting their marriages as opposed to committing adultery as a marital exit strategy—it seems that there might be a quiet cultural shift in how we view marriage, what’s allowed, and what we’re entitled to. Worth noting is that 90 to 95 percent of Ashley Madison subscribers are men, which seems to suggest that if there is in fact a cultural shift occurring in how marriage is viewed, it’s our husbands who are shifting. Perhaps it’s time we all had an awkward conversation.
Is it possible to truly love someone but to also serve your individual desires in a way that you know might hurt them? Would you want to know if your spouse was seeking out an affair, even if he truly loves you and hopes to stay married to you forever? Would it matter if you found out that your spouse was seeking out an affair but was never able to fulfill the search? How would your spouse respond to these questions? Are you sure you want to know?
Because authenticity and honesty are highly valued qualities for most women in exclusive relationships, there’s a good case to be made that these conversations should be happening, whether or not the truth is what one wants to hear. Learning about the betrayal of a spouse can be a world-shifting and devastating discovery, so it shouldn’t be taken lightly.
One thing’s for sure: Cheated spouses often feel blindsided by the knowledge that their spouses were keeping secret double lives in plain sight. If a cheating husband isn’t hoping to end the relationship, he’s got his work cut out for him to restore trust in the relationship, starting with coming clean, ending the cheating behavior, taking responsibility, and showing empathy for the pain that he caused his spouse. And, if he’s one of the unlucky spouses whose name was leaked by the Ashley Madison hacktivists, he may already be one step toward understanding what it’s like to be blindsided by something he once trusted to be secure.