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Heavy Meddle: My Ashley Madison Nightmare

I just found out my spouse had an account on the adultery site Ashley Madison. Alas, that’s not the end of the story. (Lee Jin-man/AP)
I just found out my spouse had an account on the adultery site Ashley Madison. Alas, that’s not the end of the story. (Lee Jin-man/AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions via email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I just found out my husband had an account on the adultery site Ashley Madison. After the email addresses of users were made public, he fessed up. He claims he heard some buddies talking about it, and signed up out of curiosity. He says he partook in some relatively innocent cyber flirting, but never followed through on anything physical. Of course, I have no way of knowing whether or not that’s true.

Alas, that’s not the end of the story.

When my husband was digging around to find his own name online, he happened upon the name of a friend and neighbor. He told me about it as part of his confession, and I don’t know what to do. Should I tell this man’s wife? Or should I keep my mouth shut? She’s a friend, but we’re not close. Does that matter? The information is out there for the taking, so it’s not as if I am the only potential conduit. I want to do the right thing but it all feels so murky.

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Also, do you think potential employers are going to include Ashley Madison data as part of their vetting process? And if so, should an applicant do anything preemptively?

Signed,
Knows Too Much

Dear KTM,

Let’s start here: your situation is a rough one. Most of America has been happy to rubberneck the whole Ashley Madison mess. But now that some of this “hacked data” is public, we’re seeing the very real fallout — actual human beings with actual human hearts (and sometimes kids!) who are suddenly cast into the public roles of betrayer and betrayed.

I’m happy to try to address the two specific questions you’re asking. They’re both good ones. But they shouldn’t distract you from the more important and scary question: which is what led your spouse to sign up for the site, and what his voluntary-yet-prompted disclosure says about the state of your marriage?

That’s a discussion, or a series of discussions, you need to have with one another — potentially with the help of a marriage counselor. I recommend this not simply to make your husband feel like a cad. But because you’ll be able to get closure here only if you get a full accounting of what he was up to — complete honesty, not the hovering ghosts of doubt.

Just as important, both of you need to express all the feelings a betrayal of this sort awakens. What matters most of all here is the meaning of his actions. What was he seeking by signing up for this website? And, by painful extension, what was missing from his life with you?

If you haven’t already, I recommend that you and your husband check out this talk by the brilliant relationship therapist Esther Perel. Her basic point is that we tend to reduce infidelity to a crime, or a cruelty. We focus on the immorality of the acts rather than their emotional, psychological and erotic meaning.

humans have been violating their marital vows for as long as we’ve been uttering them ... What matters is the complex question of why people are driven to seek love and sex and attention outside the bonds of marriage.

Having said all that, let me offer a few words about your other concerns. As to your friend, the question is whether you have a moral obligation to say something. Nobody can answer that, I’m afraid, but you. I’d keep in mind a few things. First, given that you’re not “close friends,” I’m guessing you don’t know the state of this woman’s marriage. She may already know about this betrayal — or about others — in which case telling her may have the effect of further humiliating her. Second, you should recognize that in offering this information, unsolicited, you might well be altering the course of her life, and that of her family. This isn’t an argument against disclosure, but it’s a risk you should bear in mind.

If this were a close friend who came to you with doubts about her husband’s fidelity, I’m guessing you’d feel duty-bound to say something. But this situation feels a lot murkier. My own sense is that your impulse to intervene in her life isn’t just about distracting yourself from your own discovery, but sharing the anguish of it with another.

As to your final question, about whether Ashley Madison data will be used to vet employees, that’s also quite a murky question. At the moment, this massive (and intimate) data breach has forced American employers into terra incognito. So there’s no simple answer here. But clearly, companies such as Disney, whose brand is about projecting “family values” to its customers, would be the sort who might blackball a former Ashley Madison client. The same is true of faith-based organizations. And, especially, the Catholic Church.

It also depends on how public someone’s job is going to be. A major corporation doesn’t want their next vice president or head of human resources to be a known adulterer. That’s a PR nightmare waiting to happen. But if you’re applying for a job running a forklift in the warehouse, or as a shipping and receiving clerk, or any of the other millions of jobs where you’re not in the public eye, I imagine the screening process is going to be a lot less rigorous.

In the end, this whole Ashley Madison imbroglio feels to me like a modern, corporate incarnation of "The Scarlet Letter." It represents the triumph of cheap voyeurism over private and sacred introspection. We’ve misplaced our priorities as a culture, and as individuals.

After all, humans have been violating their marital vows for as long as we’ve been uttering them. (That’s why infidelity is the only sin to which two Commandments are devoted.) What matters is the complex question of why people are driven to seek love and sex and attention outside the bonds of marriage.

Ultimately, that’s not the Internet’s business. It’s our own.

I wish you courage and patience as you sort all this out.

Steve

Author's note: Another bruiser! I wonder if there are readers who are navigating the same rough waters, and would care to offer an opinion. Please leave comments below and, of course, send your own questions along, the more detailed the better.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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