Ashley Madison Hack Could Have A Devastating Psychological Fallout

Users of the affair website could face long-lasting emotional trauma.
Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

Ashley Madison users may face more than just marital discord after the dating website's recent hack.

On Tuesday night, hackers came through on their threat to leak almost 10 gigabytes of user data, revealing information including the names, email addresses and credit card numbers for up to 34 million people allegedly registered on the site, which caters to people looking to cheat on their spouses.

While individuals can search for their spouses' information, 4chan users -- who recently leaked images from a celebrity photo hack -- are also combing through the data and looking to out high-profile users.

The potentially devastating fallout of the leak is just beginning, with users of the site and their families being most likely to suffer.

What do these unmasked users face? In addition to the obvious and devastating repercussions for those who were caught cheating -- marital conflict, divorce and the rupturing of family ties -- users of the site (whether they've actually cheated or not) may be subject to psychological trauma, public humiliation and possible blackmail. Public figures and government officials, of course, have the farthest to fall.

"Dealing with an affair in a very public way makes the embarrassment greater and the hurt for the spouse and kids even more devastating," Dr. Elaine Ducharme, a Connecticut-based clinical psychologist specializing in family trauma and divorce, told The Huffington Post in an email.

So what are some of the psychological impacts of being unmasked as a cheater on the Internet -- or having your partner outed as one? Here's what some experts say we can expect the fallout to look like.

The Curse Of Uncertainty

One of the first likely outcomes is that former users of the site will develop a sense of constant fear.

"There's a threat out there, and you don't know when it might hit," said Dr. Katherine Hertlein, a psychologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who specializes in technology and relationships. "In a case where security is breached or you experience a threat that's ambiguous -- so you don't really know if or when it's going to hit you -- you spend a lot of your time being hyper-vigilant."

Users might develop a habit of opening their inboxes and waiting for the worst-case-scenario email from their partner, or becoming tense every time they answer a phone call from their spouse, wondering if they're about to be exposed.

It's also likely users will experience a sense of losing control, which may lead to attempts to regain control or protect themselves in any way possible.

"People who use the site really don't have control of the information that's out there at this point," Hertlein said. "When people have that type of traumatic experience, they inherently find ways to take control again."

One of the most damaging ways people try to gain control is through self-harm and, if taken to the extreme, suicide.

"This is one of the things that may be a concern when someone who is well-known becomes exposed through this Ashley Madison breach," Hertlein said. "Not only do they have the trauma of humiliation and exposure, and the challenge to the sense of self and impaired sense of identity -- they will want to take control back in ways to feel safe again."

Ruptured Relationships

Whether a cheater is exposed online or face-to-face, the consequences for a relationship are largely the same.

"There will be divorces, there will be pain, there will be some who realize they have a sexual 'issue' or addiction," said Robert Weiss, a social worker based in Long Beach, California, and the author of Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work and Relationships.

There are some important differences, however, between being caught on the web versus in bed. Being exposed in an online affair tends to be more of a "mind mess" than being caught in the act, Hertlein says, because there's more of a gray area.

"There is a level of denial that can occur (Well, yes we were talking but nothing physical happened) that can't occur catching someone in bed, where it's more obvious," Hertlein said. "The ambiguity creates a stalemate between couples (You cheated/No, I didn't), which can prevent healing."

Public Humiliation And Blackmail

It's no exaggeration to say this hack has the potential to ruin lives. High-profile Ashley Madison users -- perhaps some of those possessing the 15,000 .mil or .gov email addresses released -- could face blackmail.

"Some people might be vulnerable to blackmail, if they don't want details of their membership or sexual proclivities to become public," security news analyst Graham Cluley wrote on his blog.

Public humiliation is another concern for well-known figures. Social media has created an aggressive culture of public shaming in which individuals take it upon themselves to inflict psychological damage on others, and sometimes this damage can persist for years. More often than not -- as we saw recently in the case of the American dentist who killed Cecil the lion -- the punishment goes beyond the scope of the crime.

"We might see these people's livelihoods being threatened because there might be some damaging effects that involve their career," Hertlein said. "There would be in some ways a threat to survival or a threat to their identity of who they are as people."

Previous victims of online shaming have suffered from depression and insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder and even suicide.

As Cluley warned, "There could be genuine casualties."


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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