People...I indulge in schadenfreude as much as the next person. I often take great delight in the misfortunes of people I have arbitrarily deemed to be my enemies (I'm looking at you Moon)! However as I draw closer to my twilight years I am becoming more philosophical about the suffering of others. I'm beginning to see how easy it would be for their pain to be mine, how little separates us on the cosmic scale of life.
You may have heard of the Ashley Madison hack. You may not. The simple facts are that a website that encourages and enables users to have affairs has been hacked and the hackers are threatening to release the personal information of over 30 million people who signed up to the service. Contrary to popular opinion, the hackers are not doing this solely out of a sense of moral outrage at extramarital affairs. They’re reportedly also doing this out of a sense of moral outrage that the company (Avid Life Media Inc) charges its users a fee to delete their profile and stored information and even after payment of this fee, the data is still retained. The hack has raised a number of ethical questions regarding cyber-security for large corporations and what their responsibilities involve when it comes to data retention.
The hack has also raised the eyebrows of many economists who predict a large social impact if the list of users is published. Marriage counsellors and divorce lawyers are licking their lips in anticipation, while private investigators are already reaping the benefits of the hackers threats.
With around 900,000 Australian users and 3.7 million U.S users, the impact of this list being released could be far bigger than anyone could anticipate. Consider all of the political leaders, celebrities and social role models who are statistically likely to end up on that list. Then consider the impact closer to home. How many people might you know who are listed? How will that affect your relationship with them? It becomes even more disturbing when you consider the social effect that other people’s breakups can have on your own relationship (spoiler alert: it’s not good). Additionally there’s the likelihood of an increased suicide risk for people who are outed, because sadly our society is not kind to people who are caught out in their infidelity.
But strangely none of this is what has been dominating the conversations at water-coolers around the globe. Every man and his dog feels compelled to weigh in with their opinion on affairs and why these ”cheating dirtbags” deserve what’s coming to them. Opinions on cheating are often vehement and tending towards violence, with people not just stopping at “I think cheating is wrong” but going on to describe what they would do to their partner if they ever caught them being anything other than completely monogamous and devoted.
For some of these people I feel it’s a case of “they doth protest too much”. For others though I suspect it comes from a deep seated fear that one day it could happen to them; because for most people if a partner cheated it would be a relationship ender. The fear of a partner cheating is also the fear of a break up and confirmation that the person you love doesn't love you back. But while that might be the case in a few relationships, it’s far from the whole story.
The boundaries of each relationship vary wildly. What constitutes cheating in one relationship wouldn't even raise an eyebrow in another. There are relationships where one partner looking at porn is enough to create an emotional rift. For others it starts with physical contact with someone else. For many it’s anything more than a kiss, and for some it’s considered cheating once you’re naked with someone else. Think about where you draw the line. Is it cheating if it’s all online and they never meet? What if there’s no dirty talk and it’s purely conversation? What if your partner got incredibly drunk one night and slept with someone and they can’t even remember it? What if they think their drink was spiked? See how each detail can completely change the context of the situation. Drawing arbitrary lines in the sand about what is and isn't cheating is creating a relationship built on ultimatums that ultimately serve no one. Cheating should always be contextual. There shouldn't be a black and white answer to whether or not it’s acceptable. It’s about the situation and the people in it.
People cheat for any number of reasons. Some people use cheating as a lazy way of ending a relationship. They’re playing relationship chicken, waiting until their partner finds out and dumps them so that they don’t have to be the bad guy and end it themselves. This isn't okay. If someone has made themselves emotionally available to you and you don’t have the human decency to give them a conversation when you end the relationship, you’re not just a coward but a pretty shitty human being as well. Other people cheat because they want something that they aren't getting from their partner, whether that’s physical or emotional or intellectual. Some people cheat because they have a compulsion to chase the excitement and rush that comes from having a new partner and from having a relative stranger validate them in ways their partner may no longer be capable of. There are people who cheat purely to hurt or punish their partner. There are people who cheat because they don’t want to be in the relationship they’re in, but they also don’t want to end it, whether because of children or financial security or just inconvenience. Cheating can be an act of opportunity, someone who is otherwise completely faithful might succumb to temptation given the right set of circumstances. The reasons for cheating are as varied and nuanced as the people who do it. There is no one reason, no one cause for a person to cheat.
For many people it’s not the physical or emotional act of their partner being with someone else that hurts them, it’s the betrayal of trust. It’s learning that the person you love cares so little about you that they are capable of doing something that hurt you so much. Obviously that scenario can apply to a LOT of things that don’t involve having an affair. A partner hurting you and betraying you can come about through any number of different scenarios, and each of them can be just as hurtful and emotionally damaging. But for some reason we often hold cheating to be the worst form of it. Personally I would much rather a partner cheat on me than steal money from me, or abuse me physically or verbally. Those would be far greater betrayals in my eyes. When we look at a partner who has cheated on us, it’s important that we localise the part of the act that actually hurts. Is it the physicality of it? Or is it the lying, the deception and the betrayal of trust. Because depending on the circumstances, it’s possible to cheat without actually committing any of those relationship sins.
In the wake of the Ashley Madison hack many people are asking if cheating is wrong? There’s no real answer, only a litany of opinions. Everyone thinks they know how they would react to cheating, but in reality most of our opinions on the matter are informed by social conditioning, not by any real critical thinking. We’re taught from a very young age what constitutes an acceptable relationship. This is reinforced to us by every Disney movie, every teen drama and every Hollywood Rom-Com and blockbuster. We read it in every novel and comic book, and see it on every advertisement, in every magazine. How many mainstream movies have you seen where the action hero saves his boyfriend from the evil villain? Never, because only heterosexual relationships are valid. How many times do we see the protagonist have to ‘choose’ who they want to be with, in a classic love triangle? More than I can count, because monogamy is the only relationship option available. When a protagonist is cheated on by their partner, how often do they forgive them, repair the relationship and move on with their lives? Pretty much never, because being cheated on should never be tolerated. So maybe our opinions on cheating aren't really informed by our own moral compass. Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate and decide for ourselves how we feel about it. I'm not saying that all forms of cheating are acceptable, or even that any forms are. But it’s up to the person who is being cheated on to determine that for themselves, not society at large to sit in judgement of the act of cheating.
Cheating is only as bad as well tell ourselves it is. You don’t have to leave a partner who cheats on you. You do have to ask yourself what you are and aren't willing to put up with in a relationship. If your partner loves you and you love them, then you need to ask what it’s going to take to change that dynamic. What’s going to make you stop loving your partner? If they have casual sex with someone, but they come home to you and they still obviously love you, is that reason enough to walk out? There’s no right or wrong answer, but if you genuinely value your relationship it’s important to disregard what you've been taught by society and instead determine for yourself what you’re willing to live with and forgive, and what you consider bad enough to walk away from someone you love.
If the Ashley Madison hack teaches us anything, it should be that there are upwards of 37 million people in this world who, for whatever reason, feel that monogamy doesn't suit them. What their exact relationship situation is, how they came to be registered on that site and whether or not they ever acted on their desires to have a relationship with someone other than their partner is absolutely none of our business. It’s not our place to determine what their punishment should be and whether they deserve it.
Cheating is not black and white. Being a judgemental asshole is.
That is all.
You may go now.