Ashley Madison: Why Cheating Is Not The Solution

Have you guys heard of Ashley Madison before? It’s an online dating service targeted at married people or people in relationships.

Meaning, it’s like Match.com, but instead of being for singles, Ashley Madison is for people already married or seeing someone. It is essentially a service that facilitates cheating and extra-marital affairs. (It even has a slogan, “Life is short. Have an affair.”)

Ashley Madison website

Ashley Madison’s website, with a model wearing a ring on her ring finger

While I disagree with Ashley Madison (hereby referred to as “AM”) and what it stands for, I decided to park aside my feelings to take a deeper look at AM and the bigger issue that is extra-martial affairs.

Looking Up Ashley Madison

I first knew about AM in 2013, as it was planning to launch in Singapore in 2014 but promptly got blocked by the local authorities as it was deemed as a flagrant disregard of family values. This ban was made public in the local news.[1][2]

I was immediately confused and bewildered by the idea of a business promoting extra-marital affairs — it just seemed really irresponsible to endorse and facilitate cheating — and thought that it was probably used by very few people. Upon some research, I quickly realized I was wrong and the Ashley Madison site actually enjoys high traffic around the world!

Some facts and figures (updated in April 2021):

  1. According to Alexa (a third-party tool to check a website’s popularity), AM is the 10,214th most visited site globally. Looking up SimilarWeb (another tool to check traffic stats), AM shows an estimate of 10 million visitors a month, which is huge.
  2. They claim to have reached 70 million users as of 2020.[3]
  3. It has members in 53 countries including the U.S., U.K., Ireland, Germany, France, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong, and India.[4]
  4. What’s even more astonishing is its quick growth in places like Hong Kong and Japan. It was the #104 most visited site in Hong Kong and #1,288 most visited site in Japan in Oct 2013, even though it was launched there four and two months prior respectively.

    Ashley Madison local country ranking

    Ashley Madison’s ranking in each country in Oct 2013, in terms of its website’s popularity, according to Alexa. (Note in 2021: I don’t have the updated data as Alexa no longer provides this data publicly.)

So who’s using it?

After seeing these stats, I thought, If their site is so highly visited, that has to mean that many people are using it. But who?

I found this in-depth coverage of Ashley Madison by a GQ journalist, who signed up for AM as part of his assignment to write about AM’s female users.

Here are the profiles of some women he met:

  1. One is almost 40 and a high-power career female. She has been married to her husband for almost two decades with several children. She describes her household as “really happy and functional,” but has been cheating since two years into her marriage with both men and women. She has been corporeally disloyal in relationships since she was 16. She considers her affairs a favor to her husband because [her] marriage would be in shambles if [she] wasn’t playing [doing so].”
  2. One is in her early 30s and has a forensic-science degree. She married young to appease her religious parents, has been married for 10 years, and finds her life and sexually unadventurous husband “suffocating.” The first man she met via AM — a Muslim — had sex with her at her house while her husband was away on a trip. She says, “It’s so hypocritical—all this holier-than-thou stuff.”
  3. One is in her early 30s as well. She has been with her unambitious husband for around a decade, and is sexually uninspired and no longer in love. She lives by a conservative and professional demeanor that she seems confined by and speaks about liking being a “deviant” and being “bad.” A week after her interview with the journalist, she left her husband; a few weeks after that, she quit her corporate day job to be a writer.
  4. Another is in her late 40s, had two long-term affairs with male colleagues, and has been with “publishers of magazines, CEOs, politicians, managing partners at law or investment firms” through AM. She wants to fall in love again but doesn’t see the need to leave her husband — yet, as there’s still love that holds them together. She finds lifelong passion extremely rare and doesn’t believe any one person ever fulfills a person’s needs, though she acknowledges feeling guilt about making outright lies (to her husband) whenever she sees someone.

Except for the first one who claims to be open with her husband, the rest are either, by their own admission, deeply unhappy or deeply dishonest with their spouses. Even with the first lady, I’m doubtful about some of her claims as they are contradictory (she claims to be in a really happy household, yet she actively seeks out affairs; she does not take responsibility for her affairs but instead says she’s doing them as “a favor” to her husband.)

General Stats on AM users

Here are some facts from GQ:

  • Percentage of Americans who believe that an affair is always wrong: 81.7%
  • Percentage of people who have had an affair and believe it is always wrong: 62.7%
  • Most common career field of male cheaters on Ashley Madison: Finance
  • Most common career field of female cheaters on Ashley Madison: Education
  • Percentage of people who classify their marriage as “very happy”: 62.5%
  • Percentage of those people who have cheated: 10%
  • Most popular day (in 2012) to create an AM account: June 18, the day after Father’s Day
  • Second-most popular day (in 2012) to create an AM account: May 14, the day after Mother’s Day

Noel Biderman, the CEO of Ashley Madison, said, “The women’s movement into the workplace was the first massive jump into unfaithfulness. The more financial independence women have, the more it correlates to how unfaithful they’ll be.”[5] (Biderman has since stepped down as CEO in 2015.)

While I can understand the correlation, I don’t think it’s a causal relationship — as women (or men) earn more money, it addresses their basic needs of money and security, where they are no longer dependent on their spouse for security. They are now in a position to explore higher-order needs as a human — like figuring out their self-identity, and pursuing personal fulfillment and happiness. For some, this leads them down the path of cheating. But clearly, financial independence doesn’t turn people into cheaters — something else does.

What Drives Infidelity/Adultery

What is this something else? Well, it depends on the individual. But some reasons could be

  • Unhappiness in the marriage
  • Feeling neglected, abandoned in the marriage
  • Feeling unloved by the partner
  • Feeling unappreciated
  • Sexual emptiness, frustration, incompatibility
  • Mismatch in personality, values, or life goals with the partner
  • Falling out of love with each other (if there was even love in the first place)
  • Deep feelings of emptiness that are to do with the individual, not the partner
  • Deep feelings of self-hate
  • Sex addiction — a compulsive desire to have sex
  • Inherent mismatch with the nature of monogamy. A constant desire for excitement, change, adventure that a single partner cannot fulfill (that or that they’ve just not met the right person).

For the first lady mentioned above, she may be inherently incompatible with monogamy, given that she has been a serial cheater since she was 16. This may be true for the fourth lady as well. For the second and third ladies, it seems like a combination of being unhappy with themselves/their lives, and falling out of love with their partners (if they were even in love in the first place).

Ashley Madison's Netherlands website

Ashley Madison’s Netherlands website

For the adulterer, there are basically voids he/she is trying to fill, and an affair is being sought out to fill these voids.

Whatever these reasons are, they would be there whether the woman (or man) is financially able or not. In that sense, money is simply an enabler, not the cause.

Cheating = Not the Solution

Yet, whatever these issues or voids are, affairs will never solve them. Sure these affairs may fill whatever gaps are present right now.

  • If you are unsatisfied with your martial sex life, seeking playmates outside of marriage may satisfy your sexual appetite — for now.
  • If you feel unloved, having a third party shower you with attention, sweet-nothings, and gifts may make you feel valued. As one of the interviewees from the GQ article said, she felt “like an expensive toy.”
  • If you are unhappy with life, such as feeling bored or stifled or empty, cheating may give you an adrenaline rush, a feeling of newness.
  • If you feel a sense of emptiness, having an affair may fill you up — for that moment.

But these effects are temporary. No sooner do these affairs end, would you be back facing your original voids. Some may look for new affairs to get into. Some may return to feeling empty/frustrated. Some may bury themselves in other things — food, drinks, work, retail therapy — to avoid facing the problem. But these do not change the fact that the voids are there and have to be tackled — not filled with a patch like an affair — for permanent closure.

The Solution

How do they get tackled?

If the issues are inherent to the marriage: Trashing things out with your spouse. Deciding if the issues are salvageable — if yes, working together to fix the issues; if not, divorce. If divorce is not an option due to the marital laws in the country, deciding whether to live as a separated couple, or have an open relationship (where both parties agree to see other people).

If the issues are with you and not your partner or marriage: Doing internal work to address the issues. Taking steps and making the necessary changes, be it a career shift or making a life change. Hiring a coach/counselor/therapist to help you out. Talking to your partner, and working together on the problems. Deciding if your partner and marriage fit who you are today, and who you wish to be, or if being alone or being with a different partner is the answer. Deciding if the nature of a marriage — a monogamy, being with someone for life — is compatible with you and your values.

I have written many articles on addressing inner voids, some of which can be found here:

Whatever it is, an affair isn’t the answer. When someone has an affair, they’re basically committing an act of dishonesty, and lying to the one person they should be the most truthful to — their spouse. This is the one person whom they’ve made a personal promise to — to be faithful, to be with them through thick and thin, and to be with them forever.

Whatever professional or social exterior they may live by, it doesn’t change the fact that they (the adulterer) is lying every single day by having the affair. The lying that comes with an affair isn’t just during the times when the adulterer makes up an excuse to see their lover (unlike what the fourth lady in the GQ interview says) — it’s all the time, from the moment the decision to have an affair was made.

To quote the GQ article,

“Monogamy may defy certain biological imperatives and may not make as much sense for modern eighty-year life spans, but that’s the contract you sign up for; if it isn’t for you, then opt out or marry someone new.”

As for those who are just inherently not compatible with monogamy, then don’t get into a relationship or a marriage to begin with. If that’s too late and you’re already in one, then the next best thing is to break up / divorce and seek a better solution, such as being in an open relationship or to stick to non-committal encounters.

As for Ashley Madison

As a business owner myself, I found it strange and disappointing that there are businesses like AM that are built on cheating and dishonesty. I just don’t find running a business like AM meaningful or something to be proud of even if it is raking in large profits.

In an Australian TV interview, Biderman defended his company by saying, “I would rather see people pursue [an affair] and stay true to their families,” which probably explains his underlying philosophy behind starting Ashley Madison.[6]

But I think this argument is missing the point altogether, which is that (a) having an affair isn’t “staying true” to your family. “Staying true” means to be completely honest and faithful to. Cheating is as far from “staying true” as it can be.

And (b) if someone has to seek out an affair to stay in the marriage, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with the relationship to begin with. Maybe the couple is fundamentally incompatible with each other. Maybe the relationship is not meant to be. Maybe the person is not meant for monogamy.

Whatever it is, it’s more damaging to both parties to stay together in a loveless and unhappy marriage, than to actually divorce and pursue their own happiness. It’s even worse if there are children involved.

Shame and despair

As business owners, the answer is to help the person address their internal struggles and achieve a resolution, whether it’s by divorcing or by working things out with their spouse or changing things about their life, NOT create a portal for affairs.

Update: Ashley Madison Hack (Aug 2015)

In August 2015, AM was revealed to have been hacked, with personal data of its 33 million accounts dumped online. Amongst the data are 10,000 email addresses belonging to government officials or workers with .gov addresses.[7]

Sadly, according to the hacker collective that hacked the site, this hack revealed that the site had thousands of fake female profiles, and that 90-95% of actual users are male. Meaning, these are men who signed up to cheat, but never got to. There have also been a separate lawsuit of an ex-employee of AM who revealed that she was hired to type up many fake female profiles.[8] For a business that bases itself on dishonesty, it may not be all too surprising at the end of the day.

It was also revealed that Biderman himself had several extramarital affairs over the course of his marriage[9], despite publicly claiming in interviews that he does not cheat.[10] His wife had previously stated that she would be devastated if she ever found out her husband was cheating.[11] I guess for a person who built a business based on cheating and disloyalty, it is not too surprising that he turned out to have been lying about his loyalty to his spouse.

Perhaps now Biderman finally understands the repercussions of having an affair, and that as much as one may try to morally justify to themselves that having an affair is okay, at the end of the day it hurts the one person whom you’ve pledged to be with, who loves you the most.

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