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What Ashley Madison Tells Us About Affairs and Relationships

08/22/2015 12:14 EDT | Updated 08/22/2016 05:59 EDT
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The fallout has begun following the computer hacking of the Ashley Madison website as member information is now being released. It has become clear that people's privacy online is not what they thought it was, and that even a site that promises security can end up having significant leaks. Online privacy is certainly an important conversation to have regarding the hacking, but what makes this event especially intriguing is the nature of the Ashley Madison site.

Ashley Madison is one of the largest online dating sites in the world, claiming to have over 35 million users in 46 countries, so this puts a lot of people at risk of exposure -- not just their personal information but also the fact that they may be having an affair! This site caters to married people and the motto of AshleyMadison.com is "Life is short. Have an affair." This leads us to bigger questions regarding relationships and an examination of why a "cheating" website has such a huge number of users. What does this have to say about the modern state of marriage and monogamy?

Let's have a look at the statistics first. We know that marriage and families are changing, and that approximately 50 per cent of marriages end in divorce. Of those divorced, around one third of them identified as ending because of infidelity. Around 10-13 per cent of marriages report infidelity, and that number actually spikes up to above 20 per cent for people in their 40s. We also know that dating and meeting people has changed tremendously in the last decade, with approximately 31 per cent of people now meeting their partner on the internet. As you can see, both divorce and online dating have become quite common and the stigma associated with both of these subjects has significantly decreased. There is still a powerful stigma regarding infidelity, and most people would agree that it is wrong. Despite this we also know that infidelity has been around throughout history, with modern technology providing a new level of opportunity for those wanting to cheat on their spouse.

We know that affairs used to be something that primarily occurred between people who overlapped in some way. Possibly they worked together, or met during travel or they moved in the same social circles. The thing that is different about the use of AshleyMadison.com is that it is designed for people who are seeking an affair just for the sake of an affair. It is a community of like-minded individuals who want to cheat. There does not need to be any prior connection between people in order to get things rolling -- it is the affair (not the person) that is being sought. Participants simply want to have an affair with somebody (possibly anybody).

So what is it that people are looking for when they have an affair? The primary reason still appears to be sex, followed by excitement and connection and, much less commonly, love. There are different definitions as to what constitutes an affair, but the common denominators are secrecy, a sexual attraction and some sort of connection. Even people in happy marriages report they have attractions and connections with other people, but keeping things secret seems to be the key to it becoming an affair. Many people report that having a secret is part of the attraction, and that having an affair brings a powerful sense of vitality to their lives. This excitement releases the pleasure hormone dopamine in our brains; once some people get a hit of this dopamine they find themselves going back for it as often as they can. This leads to the serial cheater who moves indiscriminately from affair to affair. The person with whom they are having the affair with becomes less important than the hit of dopamine that is released by the excitement of the affair. Being curious and engaging in something risky often makes people feel alive and energized. There are many ways to experience risk and dopamine release. But as our modern society is a relatively safe place, having an affair just may be the elixir some people are looking for to make them feel alive and engaged in their lives.

So when Ashley Madison is telling people that "Life is short. Have an affair", they may actually be tapping in to people's existential fear of death and dying. Affairs peak in the 40s; this coincides with the 'mid-life crisis' when people start to fear aging, question the meaning in their lives and become aware that the clock is ticking. I once had a client, whose marriage had ended due to his affair, say to me "I may not be 30 anymore, but I am not 70. I know this hurt my family but this is my life and I am going to live it." This fear of missing out on something may be contributing to the desire for an affair.

Another consideration is that we may fear the vulnerability that comes with a deep and meaningful connection. If we keep things superficial it decreases our chances of being hurt. An affair started on a website, designed for strangers who want affairs with each other, is pretty superficial, and may actually be a self-protection against vulnerability.

In my book MORE: A New Philosophy for Exceptional Living I talk about how our fear of vulnerability draws us towards the superficial and actually prompts us to disconnect from the moments and relationships that really matter. Oddly enough our fear of vulnerability is a bit of a vicious circle as it leads us into actions that make us truly vulnerable, by undermining the things that have the most meaning. Having worked as a counsellor for years I have seen some relationships fall apart and some get stronger after the discovery of an affair. The factor that distinguished which relationship would survive and which wouldn't was the ability for individuals to be vulnerable with their partner, learn from mistakes and bring a deeper meaning to the relationship. I imagine many relationships will be tested in this way as the website information continues to be released.

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