The allure of Ashley Madison: I understand how easy it could be to have an emotional affair

Hackers threaten to expose clients of the extramarital dating site—but many aren't even there for sex

Published July 27, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Lee Jin-man)
(AP/Lee Jin-man)

Every morning, I ask my boyfriend the same question: “How did you sleep?”

And every morning, I receive the same answer: “In a bed.” Wait—that’s not exactly right. Now that he has a fancy new Sleep Number, he’s adjusted it to “In a bed that goes up and down.”

It was funny the first few times I heard it, but quickly grew as tiring as hearing him say “Fine” when I ask how his day at work went. These are not our only linguistic battles.

Having never lived with a partner before, when I moved in with him two years ago, I assumed that we would talk about anything and everything, since we’d see each other much more often. What I didn’t take into account is that we have very different thresholds for what’s worth sharing. Whereas I am likely to blurt out every thought and emotion as they enter my mind, he plays his feelings much closer to the vest. I have to ask very pointed, specific questions, read his vocal cues, and often, simply be patient—and accept that sometimes I’m just never going to get him to tell me what he’s thinking or feeling. It’s taken a long while to accept this as part of his makeup, not a personal affront, or a sign that he doesn’t trust me. I’ve never been in as serious a relationship, and most of my previous ones have been with people who were more forthcoming. I don’t mean to imply that he never tells me what he’s feeling, just that it’s not such an easy thing for him.

This is often frustrating, and it’s also made me more self-conscious about sharing my emotional ups and downs, because that leaves me feeling like our relationship is lopsided: He comforts me when, say, I’m having a panic attack about an international trip, as I was last night, but I rarely get to comfort him in the same way. I recognize that maybe it’s narcissistic and unrealistic to expect him to share anything I would share, because that’s just not how he operates. That doesn’t mean I have to like it, or that I haven’t wondered what it would be like to have a partner who did want to share in the same way I do. I’m fully aware that I wind up doing some of that sharing in writing, because that form of communication comes more easily to me than speaking, which is another way we’re different.

At the same time, I’m not always as present as I’d like to be; I cop to being constantly glued to my iPhone, trying to stay on top of work and the news and my friends. “You care more about your phone than me,” he’s told me, partly joking, partly not. That’s not true, and not the impression I want to give, but I understand how it does, and it’s something I want to change. Maybe if he felt like I was giving him my undivided attention, we would have deeper conversations.

For all these reasons, even though I have no intention of going on dating sites looking for a love, or lust, connection (though I have used them for article research), I completely understand the allure of using dating sites and apps to seek out that kind of closeness, to find someone who both wants to know all the things you’ve been dying to share and will in turn offer intimate parts of themselves back to you.

Even though, unlike hers, my relationship is in good standing, I related to this PTA mom who wrote about her time on Ashley Madison as her marriage was ending:

I wasn't looking for one-night stands. I wasn't looking to take anyone's husband. I wanted attention. And I got it.

I met a man who had three daughters and lived in a beautiful shoreline town. He met me at the beach with wine and cheese and candles. All he wanted to do was compliment me and talk about his kids. I never even kissed him. Like me, he was lonely. He wanted someone to talk to.

Clients for the extramarital dating site now fear having their identities (and nude photos, and sexual fantasies) publicized by hackers, presumably to shame them for seeking sex outside of marriage. But when we assume all affairs center around sex, we ignore people like this pair. Attention is an important commodity, and it’s not just about time spent in the same room. Certainly, you can be physically in a space with someone and feel completely removed. I often find myself feeling closer to my boyfriend when I’m traveling than I do when we are both at home. Now, I take full responsibility for that; I want to find ways to bridge our conversational gaps, to better enter his world and find ways to bring him into mine. But the reality is, it would be very easy for me, without even stepping outside my door, to seek out someone else online with whom to share all the things I currently set aside, rather than doing the more challenging work of finding a happy emotional intimacy medium at home.

In Melanie Gideon’s novel "Wife 22," about a wife, Alice, who begins an email correspondence with an anonymous survey taker, she quickly finds herself telling him things she doesn’t tell anyone else, including her husband. Their marriage isn’t bad, per se, but after almost 20 years, she isn’t feeling as close to him as she once did. Of her breathless responses to her surveyor, she declares, “This is easy. Too easy. Who knew that confession could bring on such a dopamine rush?” For some people, that rush may take the form of detailed postings on social media, or even vaguebooking, and getting off on those who ask probing questions in response, but I imagine most of us can at least understand that rush, and why it can feel addictive.

It’s surely not just women who wanted to be doted on a little more. I don’t want to back up the tired stereotype that women are looking for love, while men are looking for sex, because I think this goes both ways. Witness a woman who went on Ashley Madison looking for sex, but was somewhat disappointed, and certainly surprised, by the results:

Most of them weren’t the egotistical scumbags or players that I prepared myself for. They were loving, kind, hard-working family men. What impressed me the most about my communications with these men is that above everything else, they remained committed to staying in the marriage and continued to put family first. Most of them worked their asses off trying to make ends meet. They made sure they were at their kids’ sports games and band concerts and to mow the lawn on Saturday; some even went to church with their families on Sunday. I learned that what they were missing most wasn’t just sex — it was acknowledgment, appreciation, affection and love.

Whereas a physical affair seems relatively cut and dried—it either happened, or it didn’t—emotional affairs perhaps point to deeper issues. Of course we’re all going to have outside friendships, but where’s the line between what’s OK to tell someone else and what isn’t?

I don’t have a strict answer to that question, but am convinced we have to factor in emotional affairs and those who might be susceptible to them, and even emotional longing—when we talk about the appeal of sites like Ashley Madison, or even Tinder. Physical contact is one form of intimacy, but it’s not the only one; just because someone is on one of these sites doesn’t mean they plan to be unfaithful, at least in the ways we traditionally consider faithfulness. They may want someone to talk to, someone to dream about, someone to help them figure out what are reasonable expectations within a relationship, and what aren’t. It’s not fair to fault people for occasionally wondering, what would it be like if …? This is not necessarily a threat to the primary relationship, but perhaps a learning experience, a way to get close to the edge of something new and a little dangerous to the status quo, without toppling it.

As for me, I have a strong feeling that my initial inclination to wanting my boyfriend and me to automatically be the first people we tell about every bit of news about ourselves was a poor one. That way of thinking is a legacy of the myth of “The One,” the idea that this person should fulfill my every need because we are in love. That set me up to feel disappointed and slighted when that wasn’t how we communicated. So the next time you find yourself sneering at someone who’d dare have the gall to go on Ashley Madison, consider that they may not be doing what you think they are there.

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 70 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms" and the Best Women's Erotica of the Year series. She teaches erotica writing workshops online and in-person, writes widely about books, culture, sex, dating and herself, and Tweets @raquelita.

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