Okay, I haven’t weighed in on this, and I’m a week or so late. The Ashley Madison website–of which I’d never heard but exists for millions of eager married folks interested extramarital sex — was hacked. When I first read the story, the hackers were threatening to reveal the names of the prospective wandering wives and husbands.
It got me thinking: Can this marriage– between secret behavior and the worldwide web –be saved? I don’t think so. Among those millions of cheating hearts lies at least one who’s out for vengeance, either of the web visitors or the website itself.
Many years ago, when I was a guest on Oprah!, women all over the country who were having or who had had affairs were invited on the show to discuss a book I’d written,The Erotic Silence of the American Wife. In they came, thrilled to be flown into Chicago for their favorite daytime show. “Don’t you care that you might be found out?” I asked several excited young women when they arrived in the studio.
“My husband doesn’t watch daytime TV,” they answered.
But your friends and family?
No worries, they assured me. They would wear disguises–wigs and sunglasses and hats and other flimsy covers. Really? With a studioful of women in what seemed like fright wigs and groucho noses,we could have been on the set of I Love Lucy, watching Lucy Ricardo in her endless attempt to try to hide something from Ricky.
So much for secrecy. While secrecy is the engine that fuels affairs, I think these women were ambivalent about keeping their affairs a secret–or they wouldn’t have come onto a national TV show. To tell or not to tell?: That is the question, and mental health experts (like me) disagree wildly. Some advocate telling all; others, going to the grave with your mouth shut. These women, like those on the hacked website, feel two opposing impulses simultaneously after it’s over : the moral imperative to speak the truth to one’s spouse–being honest–and the moral imperative to hide it, so as not to hurt one’s spouse and jeopardize the marriage–being honorable. (Openness usually wins, for better or worse: it is the American way. Discretion–the European way–is not popular here. As a nation, we believe “discreet” to be more like “deceit.”) Beyond the guilt that affairs engender, there’s a deep, deep ambivalence about keeping the secret.
Just as the Oprah guests can’t have been entirely psychologically committed to keeping their affairs a secret, so must many visitors to sites like Ashley Madison be ambivalent–and in denial–about the security and privacy of any such site, no matter how impenetrable they imagine them to be. I have to believe that the millions of people willing to open their pocketbooks, fantasies and libidos to website managers and anonymous potential lovers are ambivalent–hoping subconsciously as much to reveal their secret desires for love and sex as to keep them. It is a push-pull toward and away from safety, toward and away from freedom, toward and away from moral rectitude. And it’s an ambivalence as old as marriage itself.
Tell me your thoughts. (But please, no moralizing! This isn’t about good people vs bad people!)