• Ashley Madison and the Pain of Betrayal

  • It has been well over a month and fallout from the Ashley Madison hack continues. In conducting a search on the topic I was astonished by the mere scope of the story. More than 30,000.000 accounts. Multiply that by the family members that are affected by the release of user names and the number could exceed 120,000,000 or more. The number of people affected could even be higher. Adultery, infidelity, “cheating”  no matter what you call it, it is a subject about which nearly everyone has strong feelings about. As noted therapist, author and lecturer Esther Perel says, “an affair is a collective event whose cast of characters includes family, friends, colleagues and neighbors.” 

    Overall there really is not much that is funny about any of this on any level. However, there a few eyebrow raising bits of information that have been publicized. For instance, if some of the passwords employed is any indication, many users showed little concern about securing their accounts. Or this: of the more than 5 million female users, approximately only 12,000 actively used the site. Makes you scratch your head and go,”huh?” doesn’t it?

    In addition to the toll on people impacted by the release, there are some serious secondary consequences. Predictably, law suits have been filed against Ashley Madison and wells as companies that allegedly allowed access the hacked data. In addition there is at least one alleged extortion plot. But perhaps the worst, a suicide.

    I hope there is no one that wishes death on any of the Ashley Madison users. I do think there a few, perhaps more than a few, who might feel more than a little giddy over how Ashley Madison users have been publicly disgraced. The internet is many things, in this case, corners of it serve as a modern day pillory where the fallen are mocked and humiliated. As if doing so somehow teaches them a lesson. Or, serves as a warning to others who might follow in the footsteps of the exposed. It is easy for any of us to pass judgement on “cheaters.” When we do, we find a lot of support from the many.

    People’s outrage at cheaters is certainly understandable. I’m willing to bet that, like cancer, everyone reading this either knows someone who has been affected by infidelity. Or perhaps, sadly, have been affected themselves. The Ashley Madison story reminds us that “cheating” is common. Or more common than many people are comfortable in acknowledging. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 20% to 60% of married individuals in the U.S. will engage in infidelity at some point during their marriage. What is also entirely possible is that subjects in these polls are likely to under-report their behavior. So, as shocking as 60% might look, there is a good possibility that number is even higher. 

    As you might imagine, a partner’s unfaithfulness is often a reason why couples present for couples therapy. In my line of work, there are few cases which contain more pain than when a couple chooses to do the hard work to repair a relationship after an affair. Couples soon find that the truth of unfaithfulness is not as simple as sometimes all of us would like to make it. Working to repair the relational and emotional after effect of an affair isn’t just hard, it’s nearly impossibly hard. Both partners have vastly different thoughts, feelings and perceptions of the shared event (the affair) of which both are profoundly affected. So extraordinary is the pain each experience that both have difficulty understanding the pain of their partner. Most often the harmed partner feels the wound was inflicted with intention (e.g., “Why did you do this to me?”). The harming partner’s pain (and guilt) often leads them to want to move on far faster than is humanly or therapeutically possible. 

    So, where does all this leave us? What is to be gained by the human drama of the Ashley Madison story? The story brings up a lot for many. What the story has to do with however, is our relationships and the many things that impact and stress them. I share Esther Perel’s view that the subject, “open(s) the door to a deeper conversation about values, human nature and the fragility of eros.”  As Perel suggests, the “conversation” can be about a great many things. Regardless where that conversation starts, it winds up being about relationships and how central relationships are to our lives.  I wish to have that conversation. Will you join me?