For many sex addicts, infidelity is part of the addiction. Whether they are married or simply in a long-term, supposedly monogamous partnership, they’ve betrayed the trust of their significant other by “stepping out for a bit of strange,” so to speak. And for a lot of these sex addicts, the website AshleyMadison.com was a significant part of this little game. Put simply, the site’s promise of secret extramarital sexual liaisons was just plain irresistible.
Suddenly, however, Ashley Madison’s memberships and behaviors are no longer secret, thanks to a recent hack and data dump. Even for site members whose lives are not being splashed across the front page of tabloid newspapers — a la Josh Duggar of the reality TV show “19 Kids and Counting” — the information is available for public consumption, and if/when a member’s long-term partner wants to find it, he or she can do so. As can the cheater’s boss, neighbor, frenemy, grandma and pretty much anyone else on the planet.
So are you feeling a bit of anxiety about your Ashley Madison affiliation? If so, you’re not alone. So far, at least two suicides have been attributed to the data dump and millions of other members are living in fear of exposure — to their spouse, their kids, their neighbors, their church and the general public. The simple truth is that millions of marriages and families are in jeopardy and anyone and everyone who has ever visited Ashley Madison is feeling the heat. In response, many of the site’s members, regardless of whether they are sexually addicted, are now asking what they should do moving forward. To address this, I’ve provided an “AM FAQ” below.
Q: I’m on Ashley Madison and similar sites almost constantly. Am I sexually addicted? If so, should I seek treatment?
A: Simply being on a website like Ashley Madison is not, per se, indicative of sexual addiction. There is more to the equation. Essentially, the three main indicators of sexual addiction are:
- Preoccupation to the point of obsession with sexual fantasies and activities (porn, webcam sex, affairs, prostitutes, cruising for sex either online or off, etc.)
- Loss of control over sexual fantasies and activities, generally evidenced by multiple failed attempts to quit or cut back
- Directly related negative life consequences: relationship woes, trouble at work or in school, anxiety, depression, isolation, loss of interest in nonsexual activities, distancing from loved ones, financial problems, etc.
With sexual addiction, the pursuit of sex becomes the individual’s number-one priority and the rest of life gets shunted aside. Sure, sex addicts go to work, pay the bills and go through the motions with friends and family members, but they’re far more focused on sex than any of that other stuff.
If you’re unsure about whether you might be a sex addict, take one of the anonymous self-tests for men or women. If you believe that you are in fact sexually addicted, treatment with a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) is advisable.
Q: My spouse doesn’t know yet. What should I do?
A: A lot of Ashley Madison’s members are holding their breath and hoping things will blow over without their spouse or partner finding out. This is especially true of active sex addicts, who want to keep their addictive sexual behavior under wraps so they can continue with them unabated. Nevertheless, disclosing infidelity is a much better option for those who want to stay in their primary relationship. I don’t, however, recommend tackling disclosure alone. It is best to seek out a couples’ therapist trained to help couples deal with infidelity in a healthy way. This impartial advisor can help you prepare what you need to say and to present this information in the best possible (least hurtful) way. The therapist can also help you deal with your spouse’s response. Later, after disclosure, the counselor can walk you and your spouse through the process of healing the relationship and rebuilding trust. If you are sexually addicted, it is best if your couples’ therapist is also knowledgeable about sexual addiction.
Q: My significant other wants to snoop through my computer, my phone and all of my other devices. What should I do?
A: If you want to stay in your current relationship, you should listen to what your partner wants, trying to empathize with what he or she is feeling (and fearing). In terms of rebuilding trust, honesty is the best policy, and that means NO MORE SECRETS, STARTING RIGHT NOW. That said, if there is a lot of incriminating evidence on your various digital devices, it might be wise to say something like, “I understand what you want to do and why you want to do it and I am willing to let you, but I would like this to occur with the assistance of a couples’ therapist who can help us work through the issues that are going to come up.”
If you feel strongly that your spouse does not have a right to invade your privacy in this way, then you either don’t care enough about your relationship to work on saving it, or you don’t want to stop engaging in your secretive sexual activity. Neither bodes well for the long-term health of your relationship.
Q: Is divorce inevitable?
A: No. The vast majority of couples who want to stay together despite infidelity are able to do so. Generally, I suggest to couples, after cheating is uncovered, that no major decisions be made one way or the other for at least six months. This provides a cooling-off period and an opportunity for each person in the relationship to decide whether he or she wants to do the work of healing and rebuilding trust. You may find that you and your partner need some time apart so you can clear your heads. If so, one of you will need to temporarily move out of the house. Either way, if you want to stay in your primary relationship then ALL EXTRACURRICULAR SEXUAL ACTIVITY MUST STOP IMMEDIATELY. The lying and secret-keeping must also stop. And eventually you will need to disclose the full extent of your cheating, as discussed above. Once again, it is best to disclose only with the assistance of an experienced couples’ counselor.
Q: Can I ever re-earn trust, or will I forever be in the doghouse?
A: It is possible to restore relationship trust, but this probably won’t occur as quickly as you might like. Of note: This newly built trust won’t look or feel the same as pre-infidelity trust. But that is not a bad thing. In fact, your new level of openness and honesty will likely become a two-way street, allowing you and your partner to become more emotionally (and perhaps physically) intimate than ever.
Generally speaking, after you and your spouse begin the process of uncovering the issues in your relationship and working toward healing, it will take around a year for things to settle down. In the interim, your partner may want you to abide by all sorts of seemingly onerous rules – being home at a certain time, calling if you are going to be more than five minutes late, returning all of his or her phone calls within 10 minutes no matter what, checking in at various points during the day, accounting for every penny that you spend, installing filtering and accountability software on your digital devices, etc. If you want to re-earn trust and save your relationship, you need to let this happen. And no, you can’t buy your way back into your betrayed partner’s good graces with flowers, chocolates, trips, increased sexual attention or anything else. The only way to save your relationship is to become fully accountable for every single aspect of your life until your spouse begins to trust you again.