Recently, the anxiety levels of millions of individuals who have been less-than-faithful to their spouses skyrocketed the moment they read the headline: “Hackers Threaten To Out 37 Million Users Of Cheating Website AshleyMadison.com.” Suddenly, (supposedly) married individuals who, for whatever reason, had willingly created (and paid for) an online profile on a “top-secret” website targeting married individuals secretly looking for commitment-free extramarital liaisons could potentially be exposed. This site even allows for one to indicate their sexual preferences and for other members in the online community to “rate” people they’ve met. Think of what this could mean for these clients, and, of course, for their spouses!
Note that some Ashley Madison users are actually not married or searching for partners (there are plenty of “undercover” accounts on this site), but for those in committed relationships who had created a profile, the potential for unintended discovery of their secret could be just a click away. What will the fall out be for these relationships, if discovered?
Researchers have barely scratched the surface in terms of investigating the effects of cyber-infidelity on committed relationships, especially related to discovery methods of unfaithful partner behaviors and the resulting consequences on the relationship. One group of researchers surveyed the reactions of individuals whose partners engaged in cybersex, focusing specifically on methods of discovery.1 Thirty-five individuals (85% female) who had discovered their partner’s cyber-sex behavior (e.g., participating in chat rooms, secretly viewing pornography), completed an online survey which explored their reactions to and the aftereffects of having knowledge of their partner’s behaviors.
Over 1/3 of respondents were confident that their partners’ cybersex activities were only online, whereas 32% reported the activities resulted in personal contact (and the remaining participants were unsure). About 2/3 of respondents discovered the online sexual activities by finding evidence on their partner’s computer, phone, or other device, though for 22% of respondents, the partner had disclosed this information directly to him or her.
Not surprisingly, trust was a significant issue when partners had engaged in cybersex,. Most respondents (71%) were not confident that they received full disclosures from their partners. Consequently, most (68%) investigated their partner’s behaviors on their own by going through their partner’s computer, smartphone, wallet, etc. The authors note that, “with the increasing universal use of portable Internet-based devices, partners appear to be having more difficultly ascertaining whether or not they have been told the whole truth about the user’s online sexual and romantic activity.”
Nearly all respondents (88%) reported negative emotional consequences resulting from their partner’s behavior. Half reported feeling like a trauma victim/ survivor after discovering their partner’s behavior. Says one respondent, “I have been traumatized by the repeated discovery of his deception and betrayal of me with these activities.” Another respondent said, “I can’t trust him and struggle to trust others in my life. I want to be angry yet find myself hurt. I am heartbroken, depressed at times, frustrated, and confused to sum it up.” Hurt and shame were also common, as evidenced by this respondent, “I was too ashamed, hurt, and angry to let anybody else know. I was isolated.”
So what does the existing research on reactions of learning about a spouse’s/ partner’s online infidelity tell us? First, merely dabbling in covert online sexual activity is enough to cause significant emotional distress in your partner, generate distrust, and shake the foundations of the relationship. Though this research was not specifically surveying people whose spouses had created an online profile explicitly looking for a secret affair, these findings indicate that these outcomes can occur even without known face-to-face contact with an alternative partner. Second, trust was key. When the individual either discovered their partner’s behavior by chance or did not believe that they had been told the whole truth, there were significant negative outcomes in terms of their emotional health.
By extension, this does not fare well for those in Ashley Madison-affected relationships. As profile owners have acted in secrecy, the have, by definition, violated trust, one of the most fundamental aspects of a committed relationship.
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1Schneider, J.P., Weiss, R., & Samenow, C. (2012). Is it really cheating? Understanding the emotional reactions and clinical treatment of spouses and partners affected by cybersex infidelity. Journal of Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 19, 123–139.
Marni Amsellem, Ph.D. (Clinical Psychology, Washington University in St. Louis) is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in health psychology. She is a research consultant with hospitals, organizations, and corporations, as well as a practitioner. Her research interests include how physical health and health-related behaviors affect individuals and their relationships, and vice versa. You can reach her via twitter @smartpsychreads.