In the weeks since the Ashley Madison “hack” first made headlines, I must have heard a hundred jokes about how busy my divorce practice is about to get in the wake of the scandal involving the controversial dating site for married people. In reality I don’t necessarily expect the now infamous data leak to have any dramatic impact on local divorce rates, but it is interesting to watch the world discuss a thriving underground practice many of my colleagues and I have been dealing with for years.
Despite Alabama’s relatively high divorce rate, I’m somewhat skeptical of the recent data suggesting our state has the highest percentage of cheaters nationwide according to the user identities exposed in the Ashley Madison breach. News of the rankings inspired numerous headlines naming Alabama the “adultery capital of the U.S.,” but as plenty of other folks have suggested, I suspect the data was skewed by curious looky-loos choosing Alabama as their home state simply because it was the first option on the drop-down menu.
At any rate, I can definitely confirm Ashley Madison use is a real “thing” here in Mobile. For quite a few years now it hasn’t been particularly uncommon for a client to come to my office, place a tablet or smart phone on my desk and say, “Well, it all started when I discovered my spouse’s dating profile …”
Ashley Madison comes up regularly, as well as several other “dating” sites that are commonly used to meet potential partners for illicit encounters. Given that other free sites seem even more popular than Ashley Madison, my guess would be the millions of people whose data was compromised in the recent leak represent only the tip of the iceberg. There are apparently a LOT of people cheating or at least curious about cheating on their spouse, and the Internet has become one of the most common ways to find potential partners.
Of course my clients’ tales of heartache and betrayal belong to them and only them, but I can relay some general observations about my experience with adultery here in Mobile.
So who cheats? As far as I can tell it could be just about anyone, including homemakers, doctors, therapists, school teachers, mail carriers, politicians and church deacons. There is no definitive “type.”
Most studies suggest men commit adultery significantly more often than women but I’m not sure I buy that data either. From my experience it does seem somewhat more common for men to “get caught” and women to privately admit to infidelities their spouse never discovered.
Some studies have suggested that in more than 70 percent of long marriages, at least one partner is unfaithful at some point along the way, and that estimate honestly doesn’t surprise me. No matter who you are, it’s pretty likely someone you know and love has struggled with this issue at some point in time.
Perhaps the bigger question: Why do people cheat? That’s a pretty complicated issue, in my opinion, one that really exceeds the depth and breadth of this column and my lack of psychiatric expertise, but I can at least break it into a few very basic categories based on my general observations.
1. Some people are selfish and dishonest a**holes who will lie repeatedly and do whatever they want for as long as they can get away with it.
2. Some cheaters are generally decent, well-meaning people who enter marriage with the intention of being faithful, only to find themselves eventually led astray by their own personal weaknesses, often in the form of a perceived need for external validation to combat their own feelings of inadequacy, incompleteness, etc.
3. In other cases infidelity is closely related to unhappiness in the relationship. Please note that I don’t mean to place any blame on the betrayed party. Cheating is always a choice. However, the more we understand the perspective of people who stray in marriage, the more we can try to heal the wounds of betrayal.
Many people who place a high priority on emotional intimacy become increasingly lonely and eventually turn elsewhere after feeling their partners were emotionally distant and spending too much time withdrawing into things like work, hobbies, sports, friends or even the kids. Right or wrong, a large percentage of human beings have a low tolerance for loneliness and lack of emotional intimacy, and unfortunately many make poor decisions as a result.
On the same note, many people who place a high priority on sexual intimacy become increasingly lonely and frustrated and eventually turn elsewhere after feeling their partners were unwilling or unable to meet their sexual needs.
In any case, I’m not here to say what’s right or wrong, only to report what currently “is,” from my perspective. Obviously people “should” be wise and mature enough to deal with their personal problems responsibly without foolishly chasing rainbows and hurting the people they are supposed to love the most. And obviously people “should” confront relationship problems directly instead of dishonoring the commitment by turning elsewhere.
As simple and straightforward as it all seems to some (and trust me, I get that), the unfortunate reality is that most couples struggle with at least one of these issues at some point, and these problems are incredibly common. They also tend to lead to enormous pain for one or both parties and in some cases the splitting of a family. Don’t get me wrong; just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s okay or not a big deal.
However, people are flawed and complicated and beautiful and terrible. I wish life were easier for everyone and I try not to judge. I do wish people were able to be more honest with one another about their needs and expectations. If anything good is to come out of this recent scandal, I hope it leads to more honest and nuanced discussions about the expectation of monogamy and the complications that surround it.
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