The whole concept of fidelity has been hacked
Published 22/08/2015 | 02:30
No matter who you are or what your views on fidelity or infidelity may be, you have to be flabbergasted by the Ashley Madison 'affair'. If ever there was a story that you just couldn't make up and be believed, this is it.
In a world desensitised to the salacious, where social media overload consigns most revelations to nanosecond scandal, the Ashley Madison story has stuck a chord that goes beyond water-cooler conversation into deeper consideration of who we are and whether there is any honesty left in relationships at all.
It is not just the Ashley Madison database that has been hacked, the whole concept of marital fidelity has been hacked and so everyone is processing the overwhelming disclosure that literally millions upon millions of people could intentionally, premeditatively sign up and pay to be unfaithful on an infidelity website.
With an estimated 115,000 Irish alleged subscriptions, one suspects that lots of confessions and contrite admissions have been taking place to pre-empt discovery by partners here. There will also be a lot of grieving partners, because infidelity is a traumatising betrayal and the emotional response is usually one of grief with anger: a lethal emotional combination for anyone to have to deal with out of the blue and in public. The reason why Ashley Madison has brought such a response is perhaps the sheer staggering scale of it. Western thinking has generally presumed legally recognised marriages to be monogamous, based on attachment, commitment and fidelity. And while easy access to divorce may have diluted the security of vows of life-long love, there has been a belief that when a couple stand together formally and publicly to declare their commitment to each other, it is not their intention to part. Fidelity has tended to be the cornerstone of that commitment. In traditional heterosexual marriage, it was designed to give men surety of paternity and women and children protection during vulnerable years. But regardless of children, fidelity is about agreeing that a bond will not be broken and so the scale and visibility of the rupture of relationships has taken everyone by surprise and made people ask if monogamy and fidelity are but temporary undertakings rather than for life.
Infidelity has been psychologically well researched in terms of 'secrecy', 'emotional intimacy' and 'sexual chemistry'. But with Ashley Madison, all the gender research about what constitutes fidelity and infidelity; about whether men or women are more promiscuous, more duplicitous, more prone to stray, less faithful in thought or deed, act or emotion, with deceits of omission or commission; about men's fear of women's sexual betrayal and women's fear of men being emotionally unfaithful; about single-sex fidelity; all have taken on new meaning.
We are just beginning to recognise the extent to which technology through sex websites does double disservice to marriage by objectifying the body, normalising disloyalty, promoting relationships of intimacy with strangers, commodifying sexual options, commercialising sexual practices, customising sexual proclivities, making sexual menus attainable at the click of credit card details, providing a sense of false anonymity, cutting people off from real sexual intimacy with vicarious cyber-substitutes, preying on the insecurities of the vulnerable and feeding the deviancies of the psychopathic. Technology has facilitated a world in which intimacy, commitment, sexuality and relationships are being compromised and redefined.
Whatever the euphemisms used, infidelity is betrayal, because whatever form it takes, it is an acute abuse of the belief and assumption that a spouse has the right to make - that their husband or wife is being faithful.
Perhaps this is why the responses to Ashley Madison have been so intense. There have been the statements of utter glee that the cheats have been exposed, named and shamed.
There has been indignation at any moral policing of private predilections but this has in turn made many react about the extent to which we have allowed a culture based on individual rights over personal responsibility and community obligations to dictate ordinary living. There have been slogan statements that 'real men don't cheat' and 'cheating is not cool any more'; there have been questions about whether the hacking normalises infidelity; whether it will stop cheating or cause social norms to be redefined.
There have been a few acts of public apology by those verifiably caught in flagrante delicto, which in turn has prompted exchanges about whether the only immoral act in this age is to get caught - an idea which in turn opens up debate about public and private morality and if there is any ethical compass guiding anyone any more.
The Ashley Madison hack has, of course, renewed recognition of the flimsiness of internet security; about the one eternity people can be sure of being the indelibility of cyberspace shame. But it does also ask real questions that we need to address about whether we have become a society based on entitlement rather than responsibility and whether as a cultural norm we promote whatever makes the individual feel good regardless of the impact on others.
The fact that a cheating dating website could be set up to generate millions of bucks for its designers and successfully have in excess of 33 million subscribers prepared to cheat, also begs the question if fidelity is but an unrealistic aspiration, a concept that we retain while rejecting its practice; a quaint term for a noble but outdated ambition now that technology can sedate our every need.
It asks us if there remains in our world anything approaching true love; if honour, romance and fidelity in good times and bad, richer or poorer, together forever is but an illusion to which we aspire but do not genuinely commit. It asks if weddings are mere social events; if anyone who genuinely vows fidelity can have any faith that the person to whom they commit, equally believes in the ideals they sign up to when they say so. It asks if empathy is dead or if our relationships with technology trump our love for each other.
This is what has made this story resonate for everyone, because everyone at least knows someone who has been betrayed and because from a psychological and sociological viewpoint, we now have to ask ourselves serious questions about truth, honesty, culture, values, commitment, loyalty and decency; and what, if anything, still remains important to us in life and in relationships.
Dr Marie Murray is a clinical psychologist @drmariemurray