The Ashley Madison Hack: Surviving the Crisis of Discovery

The recent hacking of Ashley, a website dedicated to helping people seek out extramarital affairs, has raised much fear and anxiety among those who created profiles on the site. The data of over 30 million alleged members has been compromised. More people will surely be impacted. Many of these people have logged on out of curiosity. Others have sought something more. Troy Hunt, an Austrian Internet security expert, has created a website, Have I Been Pwned? that helps people determine if their online data has been compromised in a security breach. He claims that his email inbox is filled with hundreds of men and women worried that their online life will be exposed. Users of the site fear losing their families and facing humiliation by friends, co-workers and employers. Some reports attribute the suicides of two Ashley Madison members to the data breach.

The millions of users who have possibly checked out Ashley Madison does not surprise me. Do I think over 30 million people have had extramarital affairs? No, though some users clearly have. I believe millions have logged on out of curiosity. We live in an online culture that allows us to explore fantasies many of us have been curious about but we’re afraid to explore. The Internet with its anonymity makes exploration possible in what many believe is a secure, confidential environment. Ashley Madison has been marketed to break a taboo to seek sexual dalliances outside of marriage or a committed, monogamous relationship. After all the site’s tag line is “Life is short. Have an affair.” Taboos have been broken and boundaries crossed simply by creating an account.

This is a data breach with potentially devastating consequences. There are many victims in this hacking: those who have contemplated or entered into extramarital affairs and their traumatized spouses who have learned of their loved one’s betrayal. If you are reading this post you may have already logged onto Hunt’s site, typed in your spouse’s email and found that their data has been breached.  This discovery has probably felt like a kick in the heart or a tsunami rushing through your body and soul.

In this post I would like to offer the following guidelines to survive this man made disaster of betrayal. If you are the victim of the breach you have been betrayed by your faith in Internet security. If you are a victim’s spouse, you have been betrayed by the person you love and trust the most.

For Spouses and Partners:

Assess Your Health Risk

If your spouse has disclosed, or you have learned of his or her indiscretion, you need to know if your health has been put at risk. I recommend being tested for STDs.

That being said, I caution you to not jump to conclusions. If you have entered your spouse’s email address into Have I Been Pawned? and it was cited as being hacked, it does mean he or she ever visited Ashley Madison.  There are some sources citing that even if an email address has been hacked, and is listed on Mr. Hunt’s site, it does not necessarily mean the email was used on Ashley Madison or is in any way connected to the site. Hunt has been running this site for a number of years. Your spouse’s email may have been hacked from another website unrelated to Ashley Madison.

Your Emotions Are Normal

If your spouse discloses, or you learn that he or she is a member of Ashley Madison, you may feel you are going crazy. You are not. You are likely having symptoms consistent with the trauma of betrayal. Many spouses who been betrayed by their partners experience shame, anger, fear, disorientation and grief. You may be in shock and feeling completely overwhelmed. However, do not let the emotions of the trauma sway your judgment and decision-making.

As time goes on you may notice that you are preoccupied with what your spouse is doing and also wondering what he or she has done. You will have many questions you want answers to. Be mindful that learning too many details, both physical and emotional, of what your spouse has done may further traumatized you and inhibit your recovery. Too many details include the content of emails or text messages, names of sexual partners (unless it is someone you know) and places where liaisons took place. One client I worked with learned that her spouse would meet sexual partners at a local bar. Every time my client drove by the bar she felt the tsunami of betrayal flooding her again.

Seek Support

You likely feel you need support. Yes, you do. Use good judgment and caution in who you trust to tell of your spouse’s betrayal. Even the best of friends may not know how to respond to your trauma. Some may not be able to keep your confidence. Friends have a hard time staying objective in these situations. That is why I strong encourage you to seek out support and guidance from a trained therapist or counselor experienced in working with infidelity. You may also want to consider couples therapy.

For Spouses Who Have Had Liaisons on Ashley Madison:

Regroup and Reflect

If you have been actively engaged on Ashley Madison you may possibly be fearing discovery and experiencing intense feelings of shame, guilt and remorse. If your spouse has learned of your activity, this emotional distress has been compounded exponentially. You may be worried about your future and the devastating losses you may suffer. This flooding of emotions may be affecting your judgment and causing confusion and disorientation. You may feel at some risk to harming yourself. I strongly encourage you to seek out a trained mental health professional experienced in working with people who have betrayed their spouses.

This crisis is an opportunity to reflect on what you have done and why. People have affairs for a range of reasons: anger at their spouse, a reenactment of past trauma, or curiosity and sexual excitement run amok. If the behavior was compulsive you may be struggling with a sexual addiction.

Be Honest

It goes without saying that you need to end all online activity. You also need to sever any and all ties with people you have met with or chatted with online. If they have your email address or cell number, request that they not contact you again. Whether your liaisons on Ashley Madison were real or virtual, both are betrayals of your spouse’s trust. The first step in rebuilding that trust is honesty. To lie, keep secrets, or omit information about what you have done is equally bad or worse than what you have done with another person.

Take Responsibility

Refrain from getting defensive when confronted by your spouse. Defensiveness is often rooted in fear and shame. Yes, you have much to be afraid of. You have done some shameful things. But becoming defensive with your wounded spouse only shows that you are not taking responsibility for what you have done. Taking responsibility is another significant step towards rebuilding trust. Acknowledge what you have done. Acknowledge that your actions have traumatized your spouse. Defensiveness will only deepen the chasm between the two of you. You will be subjected to a thousand slings and arrows and you will suffer their stinging pain if you want to resurrect your marriage. If you have been actively engaged on Ashley Madison and with some of it’s members, a large part of you has not been fully present in your own marriage. If your spouse decides to stay in your union, you need to show him or her that you have completely come home.

The Ashley Madison hack forces all of us to question not only our online privacy but also how we conduct ourselves on the Internet. If you are married and created an account on Ashley Madison or any of her sister websites or hook up apps, you need to look at what triggered you to live a virtual or double life. The more one lives a double life, the more one becomes detached from his or her reality and the person they have made a commitment to. Now is a time to heal the wounds your double life has created.