Ashley Madison.com, the leading infidelity website, and its 37 million users, were caught with their pants down this week by a group of vengeful hackers. The hackers, known as the Impact Team, stole caches of user account information and demand a full shutdown of the website. They intend to leak snippets of stolen data every day Ashley Madison stays online; revealing everything from user's sexual fantasies to their credit card information. This leaves 37 million Ashley Madison customers waiting with baited breath to see if their most intimate secrets will be splattered all over the internet or sold to the highest bidder. In terms of retribution, the Impact Team has a clear message "Too bad for those men, they're cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion," and "Too bad for ALM [Ashley Madison's parent company], you promised secrecy but didn't deliver."
But it's hard to tell who deserves to be punished. Who has the moral high ground when hackers have ransomed private information, ALM capitalized on false promises, and the victims aren't exactly innocent bystanders. Everyone has something to lose.
"This could be a boon for divorce attorneys."
Well, maybe not everyone. Forbes, CNN Money and other news sources suggest that divorce lawyers could be the beneficiaries of this adultery scandal; publishing sound-bytes and speculations over a spike in infidelity related divorces and a potential run on attorney fees. But this is a dangerous road. With the protections of No Fault Divorce laws, affairs no longer entitle betrayed spouses to more marital assets, but some lawyers assert that there are still ways to exploit the situation: if the cheater feels guilty, betrayal can be used as emotional leverage to get more out of the settlement.
Yes, we can leverage emotions to manipulate the truth. But should we?
With incendiary, emotional settlements we're sentencing too many premature divorces. Instead of rushing to cast blame, let's take a moment to re-frame the active roles each spouse plays as betrayed and betrayer. By stepping back from the emotional argument, we can soften the link between infidelity and divorce:
- Affairs are more common than we'd like to think. An estimated 40% of spouses admit to having extramarital affairs. But the real percentage might be even higher, since a 2015 study in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy revealed that 74% of men and 68% of women say they would have an affair if they knew they would never get caught.
- Infidelity has never been a simple decree of victim and perpetrator. Though cheating causes one spouse insufferable pain, most relationship counselors and divorce professionals agree that affairs are not the cause of divorce. Affairs indicate deeper problems within the relationship, and those marriages are already in serious trouble before the affair even begins.
- The reasons why people cheat aren't always easy to diagnose. As research expands to include anthropology, genetics, neuroscience and sociology, we're getting a broader picture of how complex cheating really is. For example, according to a recent New York Times article, genetics research suggests that some people may be biologically predisposed toward infidelity. Women with variations on the oxytocin and vasopressin receptor, associated with social bonding, just aren't hormonally hardwired for monogamy.
Marriage is a choice, not a feeling.
No matter what the reasons behind it, the damage and pain caused by infidelity is real. Some partnerships will never recover from that breach of trust. But given the right tools, some will. If spouses are willing to sit down together and examine the root causes of the affair, it can lead them both to more fulfilling relationships. Mediation can provide couples with the tools to train the puppy brain and consciously decide if the marriage is worth saving or it's time to seek closure. As divorce professionals, we have a responsibility to open all paths to recovery for clients rather than capitalizing on an emotional scandal. Instead of leading the charge toward the battlefields, we can lead clients inward. Deeper examination and improved communication are at the heart of a successful marriage, and perhaps a successful divorce as well.