AshleyMadison.com is an online dating site that invites people in committed relationships to “have an affair, life is short.” Last August the website’s database was leaked, exposing 30 million customers’ personal information.
For a few weeks the internet was rife with articles:
- New internet sites that made public the names listed on Ashley Madison’s leaked information sprung up overnight. Other articles wrestled with the ethical conundrums of actually searching those sites.
- Cheapair.com offered discount coupons to Ashley Madison customers, arguing that a “vacation is what you need right now.”
- Several articles tittered about the possibility of “400 pastors” getting caught up in the scandal. The tittering subsided when a pastor’s family bravely revealed to CNN that the Ashley Madison leak had led to a husband and father’s suicide.
- Women talking with women reassured each other, that “most of the female profiles were fictitious.”
- Concerns that many accounts were fake both fueled and allayed people’s fears should their loved ones’ names show up in the data dump.
Even considering accounts with false information and fabricated women, the numbers were staggering. However, as a couple’s therapist, I’m accustomed to hearing about infidelity, so the numbers didn’t surprise me too much.
Casual Conversations Turned Intense
What did catch my attention was that many light-hearted dinner conversations outside of my therapy room turned intense when the Ashley Madison story came up. These conversations wrestled with the story from several angles. What actually constitutes an affair? How forgivable is an affair? What would you do if you found your lover’s name on that list?
As the resident couple’s therapist at the table, people soon wanted to know what I thought. And a couple of things occurred to me.
Fear of Isolation
First, even those of us who are partners in a healthy intimate relationship may wrestle with the fear that it will end in rejection. The fear of isolation and abandonment terrifies almost everyone from time to time.
Rationalize the Fears Away
Second, one of the ways we try to wrestle such fears down is to rationalize them. We do this by defining terms—what constitutes betrayal or an affair, for example. Or, we may try to be dismissive of the entire Ashley Madison information dump, pointing out that the lists are rife with inaccuracies and fake data.
Third, we are fascinated—I’d say we almost have a morbid fascination—with the breakdown of others’ intimate relationships.
Fourth, and most importantly, what ties all of these diverse strands together is a deep truth about all humans—we need intimate, satisfying, safe connections with other people. We were born to such relationships when we first rooted for our mother’s breast. We were nurtured into the ability to have faith, hope and love by the care we received from parents and other guardians in our youth. We were able to set out on our own as young adults because we had the courage, wisdom, and coping skills that those we were most closely connected to growing up passed on to us.
And the whole Ashley Madison story reminds us that far too many humans – perhaps even people we love – have stumbled when they’ve offered intimate connection to people outside their primary relationships. Knowing this is scary. Maybe even frightening.