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The Ashley Madison Hack: Everybody Loses

It is possible that after learning about a cheating spouse's (or parent's) Ashley Madison membership and activity, these betrayed spouses and children are experiencing even more emotional pain and angst than the cheaters themselves.
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I have created a help page with information, referrals, and support for those affected by the AM hack. To access this free webpage, click here.

So much for the last half of August being a slow news cycle. Between Jared Fogle (Subway), Josh Duggar (19 Kids and Counting), and the Ashley Madison hack, news agencies and social media mavens have spun themselves into a frenzy. And why wouldn't they, seeing as how these news items are literally bursting at the seams with celebrity gossip, betrayals of trust, and various forms of sexual misbehavior - the holy trinity of tabloid journalism.

For a while, it looked as if the Ashley Madison data breach might fizzle - particularly after the hacker group, calling itself The Impact Team, threatened to release the personal data of well over 30 million AM members but then sat quietly for a few weeks. In fact, the hack was starting to look like much ado about nothing - until, of course, the hackers followed through on their threat, creating the current hailstorm of misery in which so many people now find themselves.

Regarding Ashley Madison, media attention has focused mostly on two elements of the hack - reality TV star Josh Duggar's extensive use of the site and a couple of potentially related suicides. I think it's important to mention that there is still a huge amount of data being sifted through, and other celebrity cheaters are likely to be named as the days and weeks wear on. Regardless, what's getting lost in the shuffle is the fact that AM's members are hardly the only victims in this hack. A lot of other people are being negatively impacted - most notably the betrayed spouses and children of the outed AM members.

It is possible that after learning about a cheating spouse's (or parent's) Ashley Madison membership and activity, these betrayed spouses and children are experiencing even more emotional pain and angst than the cheaters themselves. In part, this is because the cheaters have known about their secretive sexual behaviors right from the start. After all, they made a conscious decision to join the site, to create a profile, to seek out extramarital sex, and to keep this behavior secret. Meanwhile, their families are, in many cases, blindsided by this information.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, after more than 20 years as a licensed professional who treats infidelity, intimacy disorders and sexual addiction, I can tell you that it's not learning about the search for and/or the engagement in extramarital sex that causes the deepest emotional pain to a betrayed spouse. Instead, it's the lying and secrecy - the fact that the betrayed spouse's trust in the one person he or she thought would always be loyal and true has been shattered. This realization can be incredibly traumatic, potentially resulting in acute stress reactions reminiscent of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As such, betrayed spouses, upon learning about infidelity (whether it occurred through AM or elsewhere), typically respond in one or more of the following ways:

  • Heavy mood swings and excessive emotional reactions - quick shifts from tears to rage to hope and back to tears
  • Hypervigilance - checking credit cards, wallets, emails, texts, apps, etc. in an attempt to find more evidence of cheating
  • Sleeplessness, nightmares, inability to wake, etc.
  • Lack of focus on day-to-day activities
  • Obsessing about the betrayal (and other possible betrayals)
  • Avoidance - an unwillingness to talk about what happened, hoping it will simply go away and that everything will return to normal
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Compulsivity with alcohol, drugs, exercise, cleaning, shopping, or any other potential distraction

Needless to say, these behaviors affect everyone in the family, not just the cheater and the betrayed spouse. Even in cases where children and others in the house don't know exactly what is going on, they are well aware of the ongoing tension and the fact that they aren't getting the basic positive attention that they're used to.

Plus, there are plenty of victims beyond just the families. For one thing, AM's planned IPO, scheduled for later this year, will almost certainly not happen. This means the company's owners and investors stand to lose millions. Employers, churches, charitable foundations, and others are also feeling the pain. If you don't believe me, consider the impact on TLC, which aired 19 Kids and Counting, the Family Research Council, for whom Josh Duggar once served as executive director, and the conservative Christian church to which the Duggar family belongs. There just aren't any winners in this hullaballoo.

And yes, I understand there is an element of schadenfreude here, with people thinking, "You joined this site, created a profile, and cheated (or tried to, anyway), so now that you've gotten what you deserve we can all laugh at your pain and feel superior in the process." But folks, there is a reason hacking is illegal. People DO have a right to privacy, not only in terms of Social Security and credit card numbers, but also when it comes to the most intimate elements of their lives. Hacking violates that right. And this is true even if you don't agree with or approve of what it is that a person hopes to keep private (i.e., sexual infidelity).

One of the things that I find interesting about the AM hack is that the experts who initially appeared on various TV shows and in other major media outlets were mostly divorce lawyers talking about the impact this will have on their business. In other words, our culture immediately leapt from "cheaters found out" to "betrayed spouses want divorce" as if couples faced with infidelity have no investment in their relationship and in working things out. However, as therapists who work with cheating day-in and day-out will tell you, quite a lot of couples choose to stay together - despite infidelity.

In my own therapy practice, approximately 90% of the couples who are dealing with infidelity are not driven to divorce by it. And this isn't because I'm the world's greatest therapist; it's because most people in a situation like this are more focused on getting through the day than on filing for divorce. Generally, they are looking for ways to survive and heal, regardless of how painful their situation feels in the moment. Sadly, cheated-on spouses are sometimes criticized for sticking it out. For a betrayed spouse, this is a double whammy. He or she must deal with the emotional betrayal of the cheater plus the highly personalized shaming that friends, family, and in some cases the media, dish out (see: Anna Duggar).

Despite the current media frenzy and its generally pessimistic outlook, I suspect that the vast majority of families affected by the AM data breach will tough it out, hopefully seeking counseling as they try to stay together. In such cases, relationship therapy and various support groups can be extremely helpful. The good news here is that many couples actually grow stronger over time, post-infidelity, as long as both halves work toward a restoration of trust and the building of a new foundation.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S, is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. As a well-known expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, he has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among others. He is the author of numerous books, including Closer Together, Further Apart and Always Turned On (both co-written with Dr. Jennifer Schneider). For more information, please visit his website.