Ashley Madison and it's copy cat sites are still going strong

I actually wrote this article for a newspaper here in Australia back in July 2015 when this issue first occurred.  Those of you still in your pre-D-Day bubble of this could never happen to me may not have even noticed this worldwide event.  I know I probably wouldn't have.  Anyway I thought I would share this here before the website it was on disappears. The newspaper did not end up publishing it - I think I finish a bit strong...read it and see.

Nearly a million Australian ‘Married Daters’ are set to be publicly outed as affair-facilitating website Ashley Madison was hacked by a faceless group, The Impact Team, threatening to release the personal data of Ashley Madison’s members.

Interestingly, the hackers are not asking for money – they are demanding the site disappear. Personal gain – unlikely. Disgruntled user? Betrayed spouse? It is easy to surmise that the hackers have in some way had their lives destroyed by the services this website facilitates. Perhaps the hackers are going for it in the name of public good – to prevent any more people and families going through the pain that the discovery of the infidelity causes. Or maybe they just want the fame and notoriety of having hacked the second largest paid “dating” website in the world. Who knows?

In North America commentary has gone straight for the money shot- interviewing divorce lawyers about how they are going to make a killing if this information gets out. A Toronto lawyer (quoted in CNN Money) suggested that divorce lawyers would be raising their fees if it came out – nice one!

As a mental health professional specialising in couples’ relationships and affair recovery I view this from a different angle. I am not overstating it to suggest that the impact of this, should The Impact Team follow through, will be huge and far reaching.

In Australia in 2011, there were 10.1 million people living as a partner in a couple relationship, accounting for 45% of the population. Ashley Madison claims to have 910,000 members in Australia. If the hacked data is leaked that would mean 9% of these 10.1 million relationships could be adversely affected - a staggering total of 1.8million individuals.

The discovery of a partner’s infidelity is a major trauma for the betrayed spouse. Symptoms are immediate and include anxiety and panic attacks, depression, uncontrollable emotions including anger and grief, ongoing symptoms of post traumatic stress including triggers, obsessive thoughts and ruminations, flashbacks, nightmares and often suicidal thoughts. Sleep is totally disrupted and usually there is also either the inability to eat or conversely over eating- all related to the stress of the trauma experienced. And this is just the start. The research has shown it takes on average 2 years to heal and that is assuming you get the right help – this is one wound that time does not heal by itself.

The betrayer doesn’t get off scott free either – assuming they didn’t sell their heart and soul to Ashley Madison when they signed up, they are rarely unaffected by the damage their behaviour has caused. Whilst they may never have imagined they would get caught – when they are, they are usually shocked and distraught at the level of pain they have caused their spouse and family. They too suffer symptoms of depression and anxiety and suicidal thoughts, amongst others.

So that’s the potential impact on the ‘married dater’ and their betrayed partner- approximately 1.8 million of them. However, that doesn’t count the fact that 54% of the 10.1 million relationships include children. As the debris is sorted through and relationships either survive or end, children become witnesses to their parents’ pain. This can show up as anything from serious mental health issues to behavioural issues and other signs of distress.

Now just looking at one of the symptoms, depression.  The social and economic costs of depression in Australia are well known. According to Beyond Blue, depression costs the Australian economy approximately $12.6 billion per year and accounts for up to six million working days of lost productivity (www.beyondblue.org.au), The majority of the clients I work with have had anything from days through to months off work as they sort through the remnants of their lives. Imagine the potential impact of increasing Australia’s depression statistics by an extra 1.8 million people within a few days. And given the price of Ashley Madison’s services I can only imagine that corporate Australia will be the hardest hit here.

Businesses that promote behaviour that leads to the damaging consequences I have outlined cannot be left alone to the market place. We cannot continue to ignore the Ashley Madisons of the internet. Mr Noel Biderman, the founder and CEO of the parent company of Ashley Madison says he is offering a service that “is at the cutting edge of what society needs”.

According to Mr Biderman he provides a service that saves marriages. As someone actually working with families and couples in the aftermath of services such as those provided by Ashley Madison, this is in the same category as claiming smoking cures asthma or a diet of french fries will keep you healthy. The evidence is not there and in fact, just as smoking and a bad diet have serious consequences for your physical health, having an affair affects the mental health of all involved. The big difference is that governments around the world would be swift to penalise anyone who tried to make outrageous claims about smoking and in many instances diet but relationships are left for the private domain to manage. The Ashley Madison’s of the internet flourish unhindered.

Ashley Madison has been quietly collecting members and expanding it’s services since 2002. It is even considering a stock market float. If The Impact Team achieve anything my hope would be that it raises the awareness of the real danger of these websites beyond the potential for personal information to be leaked. The real danger is that the behaviour they facilitate does not fix any problem and instead, destroys individual and family health and wellbeing and that is something we should all be paying attention to.

Catriona Lightfoot

22 July 2015