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Infidelity: Inside the Allure of Ashley Madison

It was the data dump heard round the world. In August, hackers of Ashley Madison, a dating site for people hoping to have extramarital affairs, made good on their threat to release a mountain of information that purported to include members’ email addresses and sexual preferences.

Yet less than two weeks after this public outing, the company behind the site, Avid Life Media, claims that hundreds of thousands of new users have joined Ashley Madison and that close to 90,000 of these are women.

If this statement is true, and not just a spin of the figures in an attempt at damage control, it raises a question: Why are people still being drawn to a website that’s been openly compromised and whose motto is “Life is short. Have an affair”? Part of the answer is, no doubt, simple curiosity, said Dr. Janis Abrahms Spring, an acclaimed expert on trust, infidelity and forgiveness who’s written several books, including After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful and How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To.

“People hear about the site, and they want to check it out,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re choosing to hook up with someone, but the whole process is kind of titillating and erotic and weird, so that all makes it very enticing.” It’s proof, in short, that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

A desire to get back at a significant other might also play into the statistics, Dr. Spring noted, especially in the number of women alleged to have joined the site since the hack. “They’ve released statistics that the number one date women sign up for Ashley Madison is the day after Mother’s Day because they say that women are so angry and hurt and feel so unappreciated and uncelebrated that they go on as an act of revenge,” she said. “And the number two day is the day after Valentine’s Day, probably because of similar emotions — feeling so unseen and unloved that they look elsewhere.” Discovering a partner has an Ashley Madison account might, of course, prompt a similar desire to repay pain with pain.

Easy Infidelity

Before the hack, Ashley Madison boasted more than 37 million members worldwide, drawn in by the pledge of discreet and easy sexual connections with like-minded people. Despite whether the company’s growing membership totals represent reality, one thing is certain: Sites such as Ashley Madison — with their lure of anonymity, affordability and accessibility — have made it easier than ever to cheat.

“You don’t have to risk being seen publicly,” Dr. Spring said. “You don’t have to risk disease. You don’t have to spend money. You don’t have to go into a dangerous neighborhood. You can sit in your office or even while you’re in bed with your partner and click on and connect with millions of people.”

Such sites have also made it harder than ever to define infidelity. After all, if your significant other never got past the “looking” stage on Ashley Madison, is that really cheating?

Dr. Spring has a simple answer: “Affairs aren’t necessarily about sex, but about secrets and the violation of trust. And as a general rule, if your partner were in the room looking over your shoulder, feeling very uncomfortable with what you’re doing, you might consider you’re having an affair. It’s not how you define it. It’s how your partner defines it — how they would feel about it if they were witnessing what you were doing.”

Though Ashley Madison has since its inception claimed women represent a healthy share of its membership, subsequent investigations of the data released in the hack show the overwhelming majority of members appear to be men. Do such online sites appeal to men more, or do men really cheat more than women overall?

“Everyone quotes numbers, but there’s no way to collect this data because it’s secret,” Dr. Spring said. “People have theories and ideas, and they present it as reliable studies, but I don’t think the numbers are necessarily reliable. I think women seem to be acknowledging their affairs more and probably are having more affairs because, especially with these websites, it’s accessible to everyone and women are working, they’re out of the home, they have money, so they have more freedom to roam.”

When Ashley Madison Hits Home

For those who’ve found themselves caught up in an all-too-personal way in the Ashley Madison story, Dr. Spring offers this advice for picking up the pieces after “the atom bomb has been detonated”: “Partners need to bring curiosity and a certain lack of judgment to understand what this behavior is about and not jump to conclusions,” she said. An Ashley Madison connection doesn’t necessarily mean the significant other wants out of the relationship or has stopped loving their partner. “There are many reasons why people go on Ashley Madison that aren’t about not loving your partner or just about wanting sex with someone else.”

Sometimes, however, people jump to the correct conclusions. “Sometimes the partner is going on Ashley Madison as a way of exiting the marriage,” Dr. Spring said. “They want to see what it’s like to be with someone else because they’re planning to get out. And sometimes it’s something else. They feel they don’t know how to make love, they’re not good lovers, and they want to improve their sexual response and their behavior. Or they want variety, not because they want to marry this other person — just because they want to spice up their lives because they’re feeling dead to the world. So understanding the meaning and not jumping to conclusions and creating a space for partners to explore and discuss the meaning, I think, is essential to understanding what it’s about.” The result, she said, might be a stronger bond.

How forgiveness factors into the process, if it does, is something the parties involved must decide, Dr. Spring said. “I believe that forgiveness is an interpersonal process in which the person who has hurt you makes meaningful repairs, takes responsibility for their behavior and cares deeply about how they’ve hurt you, and the hurt party chooses to release this person from their contempt.”

Where forgiveness leads is the next consideration. “In my book, it doesn’t necessarily mean reconciliation. It means you decide what level of relationship makes sense for you to have with this person,” she said. “It may mean full embrace. It may mean cutting them off. What’s important is that people make thoughtful decisions about what’s in their best interest.”

There is still hope.

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