No one likes a cheater. At least that’s what we’ve been told. But data suggests that more of us than we might assume have strong connections to that world. Today, Ashley Madison, the social network designed for adulterers, has more than 54 million users. The company claims to have attracted 5.7 million new users in 2018 alone. According to their analytics, they see around 20,000 new sign ups everyday. With numbers like that, it’s safe to assume you’ve crossed paths with someone from that side at one point or another. In fact, it’s possible you know them even more intimately than that. Sometimes, you can find a cheater seated across the dining room table. And sometimes, you can find them starring right back at you in the mirror.
Dr. Tammy Nelson has been working as a sex and relationship counsellor for almost 30 years. In 2013, she wrote a book designed to help couples more forward in their relationship after infidelity. This year, she decided to revisit the subject, only this time, she decided to pivot the focus onto the individual adulterers. For this, she spent time on Ashley Madison, examining the reasons why both men and women have affairs. “Most books about affairs are written for the person who’s been cheating on. There are really no other books out there that are geared towards the person who cheats,” she tells Fatherly. That book, When You’re The One Who Cheats goes deep into the world of infidelity within American marriages. We spoke to Dr. Nelson about what she learned about infidelity, how to handle affairs with integrity, and how couples dealing with the fallout from an affair can figure things out.
Why did you decide it was time to expand the conversation concerning infidelity?
There’s so much confusion when you’re in an affair because you’re so emotionally confused. But it lends clarity to stop blaming other people, to take the focus of the responsibility and make some decisions. I think this book will help people with that. I mean, we can talk about the person who’s been cheated on all day long, but until we talk to and about the person who’s actually having the affair I don’t think anything’s really going to change. My mission in this book is to talk about the truth, the truth about what’s going on in our marriages, the truth about what you really want within a relationship and how to handle either end your affair or move forward in your marriage, and how to do those things with integrity.
What kind of research did you do before starting in on the book?
I had the opportunity to create a profile on Ashley Madison both as a man and as a woman. I set it up so that I didn’t have any personal information listed about myself, I didn’t post any pictures, I didn’t state what I was “looking for.” I didn’t interact with anybody. But I received a lot of responses.
What kinds of messages did you get on your female profile?
Men would send pictures of themselves fishing, climbing mountains, pictures of them with their dogs… Really, they wanted to know if I was interested in an actual relationship. They said they weren’t going to leave their wives, but they were interested in a longer-term relationship. They wanted an emotional connection. They would ask me really personal questions about what I wanted in a man. It was really all geared towards emotional affairs. And I found that fascinating.
And on the male profile?
There were a lot of boob shots. Women were sending photos of themselves in bikinis, in lingerie… They were all looking for casual sex. That’s all they wanted. They didn’t want to hear about any complaints. They said I had a wife to do that with. They didn’t want to work that hard. They just wanted hot sex, preferably during they day when the kids were at school. They didn’t care about meeting more than once. They just wanted the 50 Shades of Grey stuff. They were actually very specific.
How did you make sense out of these different experiences?
It sort of flipped the script about what we know about affairs. We hear all this stuff about how men cheat for sex and women cheat because of emotions, but that’s not what I found at all, and I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I mean, it wasn’t a scientific study, but it certainly was enough to make me pause and ask what’s really going on with infidelity today. Because I don’t think we’re telling the truth about affairs and I don’t think we’re telling the truth about marriage.
What do you think really draws people into an affair?
Well, people in long-term marriages, or long-term partnerships, can sometimes become a little less curious about their partner. They can stop being adventurous, or stop growing in their erotic lives. Something happens in affairs where it’s easier to share your fantasies; it’s easier to find curiosity about what they want, or what you want. It’s easier to talk about these things. A lot of people get into something like Ashley Madison because they want to experience something new, they want to feel those butterflies, they want to fall in love again. It’s incredibly exciting to feel that kind of intrigue again, especially when you no longer feel that way towards your partner.
So why bother staying in the marriage?
I think less people than ever want to get divorced. A lot of us have grown up in a generation where our parents got divorced after cheating on each other. But at the same time, it’s hard to stay married to someone for half a century. We don’t have a lot of the skills needed to do so.
What might resolution look like, then?
Part of getting back together is reevaluating the vision of what you want going forward. For some people, that does include a conversation about a new kind of monogamy. That could mean a more open relationship or even polyamory. No matter what, you have to have a conversation about the continuum of monogamy. There are a lot of implicit assumptions about what monogamy is. I mean, you get married to someone, you promise to love and honor them and never sleep with anyone else.
But what about the promise to tell you every time you develop a crush on a Facebook friend, or about every time you masturbate in the shower, or every time your ex contacts you on social media? What about emotional affairs, or having a work spouse? There are a lot of micro-cheating behaviors that we never talk about, so you have to create this new conversation about what your monogamy will look like. You can’t go back to your traditional vow because you broke that vow. So you need a new kind of agreement.