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Facts of Life

Trust is the most tragic casualty of the Ashley Madison hacking scandal

A range of implications associated with the Ashley Madison hacking scandal have emerged over the weekend after hackers released private details identifying clients of the “cheating” website late last week. Duplicitous spouses have been outed, celebrity clients identified and pursued, extortion and blackmail attempted, law suits initiated and divorce lawyers instructed.

Some time ago researchers exploring privacy with respect to social networking sites identified the possibility of hacking, exposure of private data, and the consequences of a damaged reputation following the public exposure of stigmatised behaviours. The Ashley Madison scandal has transformed what was theoretically possible into global reality on a grand scale.

Despite appearances to the contrary in some popular culture and media “having an affair” is a stigmatised behaviour. Across the globe there is evidence of strongly disapproving attitudes towards extra-marital sex, or having a sexual liaison with someone outside of a committed relationship. Healthy long-term sexual relationships have been shown to have a number of well-understood characteristics including caring for the well-being of the partner, respect and admiration, sexual desire and intimacy, a commitment to being together, and yes – expectations of exclusivity.

Last year, findings from the Australian Longitudinal Study of Health and Relationships showed that most men (96%) and women (97%) in a committed relationship said that they expected that neither they nor their partners would have sex with anyone else. However, far fewer people had actually discussed these expectations explicitly with their partner – just over half the men and two-thirds of the women. Rather, they likely assumed that sexual fidelity was an implicit expectation of a long-term relationship, or relied on their spouse taking seriously their marriage vow to forsake all others.

In all the furore surrounding the Ashley Madison hacking scandal the impact on partners has not been a focus of discussion. The invisible partners of Ashley Madison clients may be confronting the breach of their trust in their assumed or explicit expectations of faithfulness for the first time. Those who are unaffected by the hacking of personal details can afford a wry smile or flippant comment about just desserts. But the shock and distress is palpable for trusting partners who have discovered that their previously unquestioned faith in their loved one’s fidelity is misplaced.

We certainly do well to remember that sex does not equal love, and that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to relationships. Intimate partnerships are often difficult to negotiate at the best of times, in private, and without the spectre of infidelity. The challenge is magnified for partners confronting the implications of a breach of trust played out in the public eye – and they deserve our compassion.

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