The Ashley Madison hack is still topic No. 1 in the media — from divorce attorneys predicting a “Christmas in July” boon to their business, to potential extortion threats and suicides because of the sensitive information leaked, to continued shaming of those whose names were found on the site’s database — and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon.
My heart goes out to every spouse who has just discovered that his or her wife or husband had been using the site — no one is ever prepared to discover a spouse’s infidelity. I sure wasn’t. Although all infidelity isn’t the same — a one-night fling is not the same as a long-term affair, or multiple one-night stands — the discovery is the same.
But even if you are, thankfully, one of the many people whose partner is not part of the leak, it doesn’t mean that you can ignore the Ashley Madison hack and its fallout. In fact, rather than ignore it, you should embrace it. It’s the perfect time for you to sit your partner down, look him or her straight in the eye, and start a discussion — not about infidelity but about monogamy. Yeah, monogamy. Before you do that, however, you need to have a heart-to-heart with yourself and figure out how you feel about monogamy.
- Are you good at it?
- Have you ever been bad at it?
- How many times have you been bad at it?
- Do you like it?
- Has it been hard? When and why?
- Do you willingly choose it?
- If you could have an open or monogamish partnership, would you want it?
Granted, these are hard conversations to have with ourselves let alone our partner. And, let’s face it — we lie to ourselves, too. But it may be among the most important conversations you will ever have if you want or already have a romantic relationship.
When I spoke with The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating author Eric Anderson a few years back on why monogamy is failing men, he told me that the assumption of monogamy puts everyone, men and women, into a sexual straitjacket:
“The way cheating men see it, it’s either cheat or don’t cheat, but telling their partners they want sex outside the relationship, or telling their partners that they actually cheated, is viewed as a surefire way of achieving relationship termination. It’s very important to remember that when men cheat for recreational sex (I’m not talking about affairs here) they do love their partners. If they didn’t love their partners, they would break up with them.”
Which is why you often hear professions of love from people who have been caught cheating. Many of us want commitment and a safe, loving place to come home to and still have some wild sex on the side.
And, that may be more of us than we think. Just look at how infidelity has impacted your life — have you experienced it with a partner or within your family or among your friends or co-workers? Despite a certain number of duplicate accounts and fake accounts, there were 30-plus million people on Ashley Madison — that’s an awful lot of people. And there are many people who are cheating the old-fashioned way, with co-workers or one-night stands while out of town, without the help of Ashley Madison. What does this tell us about monogamy, sexual fidelity and traditional marriage? According to a recent study, the chance of someone getting some on the side while in a committed relationship ranges between 46 percent and 76 percent. As study author Geneviève Beaulieu-Pelletier says, “These numbers indicate that even if we get married with the best of intentions, things don’t always turn out the way we plan.”
So, what to do, what to?
To me, it seems pretty clear — talk about monogamy. Talk about what you like about it and what you don’t. Talk about what scares you about consensual nonmonogamy. Read about people who have explored consensual nonmonogamy or, if you can, talk to them. Question your own beliefs about monogamy. How many people do that?
While doing research for the book I co-wrote, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, one of the couples that opened up their marriage told me:
“For a lot of people, it doesn’t even occur to them that they can be anything other than monogamous, and they get into a situation and then realize they maybe feel differently. I also feel monogamy can be dangerous even without sleeping with other people. Just having a sense of your own sexuality, being attracted to other people, being able to flirt with other people; when you can’t do that, it just shuts down a part of you. It changes who you are in your marriage and so long-term, that can be really damaging.
That’s true. It’s really hard for some people to talk openly and honestly about their attractions to others, about desire and fantasies, sex and pleasure. Yet because we can’t do that, we cause each other and ourselves a lot of pain — as much pain as those who are cheating, maybe even more. I am saddened by the continuing comments to a post on sexless marriages on The New I Do blog that’s more than a year old. Suffer, cheat or divorce are their only options — they think. Who will help them realize, no, there’s another option — consensual nonmonogamy? Why is that not even being presented to them? Why isn’t it accepted if they choose it?
So as the painful fallout from the Ashley Madison hack continues, think what would happen if more of us admitted, openly and loudly, that we struggle with monogamy. There would be less pain — whether from acting on desires or not acting on desires — and a lot less shame. Wouldn’t that be nice?