You Never Know the Workings of Other People's Relationships (and Why Should You?)

The Ashley Madison data breach is a debacle for a site that advertised itself as a place for people who broke promises. But I've been watching the response from a range of people—those I know well, acquaintances, random folks on Twitter, opinion writers, bloggers, news coverage, etc.—and there's a lot of sniggering and moralizing going on.

You can never know what the inside of a relationship looks like unless you're one of the people involved. Further, it's none of your business, either. If you think otherwise, I'd like to understand why.

In countries in which eras existed or still do in which religious strictures bind people up, then marriage or similar institutions are enforced by the state. Some American states still have adultery laws on the books, although it's extremely likely none would pass a constitutional challenge today, given the privacy rights in the bedroom established by the Supreme Court.

In America, marriage is an institution that may be a sacrament of or endorsed by a religion, but it's also (or some an increasing number, solely) a legal structure for the state, which is often defended as a way to ensure stability, safety, and security for children and clarity about property ownership. This, in a time in which an increasing number of people born in America never get married and have kids or get married and choose to not have children. (Immigration remains an engine of population growth for the U.S., and a vital one when you look at what's happening in Japan.)

So the response to Ashley Madison disturbs me whenever it borders on judgment and prurience. Where public officials, members of the military, or public moralists are involved, one can argue there's a case for examination and exposure. Some could have been blackmailed (hard to do so now that the information is out there in searchable form); some could have privately traded information, money, or favors for sex; and those who decry a decaying morality while participating in acts they condemn and often try to get legislation enacted about have to deal with the consequences of hypocrisy.

That's a very, very small percentage of the many millions of accounts created.

Not everyone using Ashley Madison was married or in committed relationships (or ever did more than window shop). Of those who were, not all were lying to their partners or breaking promises. Polyamory is more widely practiced than a lot of people know or would like to admit: it's the open acceptance and even encouragement of people in romantic relationships to be non-exclusive. It manifests in many forms, like sets of two or multiple people all involved with each other. There's monogamish, which is maybe a subcategory of polyamory or maybe just a less-formal but honest acceptance of sex (but not relationships) outside a partnership. There can be a primary relationship for two people who have other partners, or a lot of more complicated arrangements.

I talked about polyamory with Sarah Mirk, author of Sex from Scratch: Making Your Own Relationship Rules, for an article and podcast at Boing Boing a year ago. In the book, she looks into being poly and many other kinds of relationships people form in a society in which old dogma has been stripped off, and people are trying to be true to themselves and others—hence the "scratch" part.

(I talk a bit in the article and more in the podcast about the particulars of being polyamorous, something I don't keep a secret, but like anything related to personal and sexual identity, it's not something I, you know, put on a business card. It involves a lot of honesty and self-reflection, and it doesn't seem easier or harder than monogamy. There's a lot more scheduling involved.)

But even those who lied: that's a matter for them and their partners, and at the extreme case, anyone else who relied on them to keep that promise. Some religious congregations and other groups do practice a public morality, and if a member privately breaks it, that member agreed to chastisement. That's a very small portion of all people who are part of that commitment, though.

You could argue that someone lying to a partner means they could lie to other people about anything. But romantic relationships are special, from how they change our brains to legal structures surrounding marriage or co-domiciling. If you read some of the many anonymous and some credited stories about people who used Ashley Madison, it goes far beyond "cheaters."

Glenn Greenwald, best known as a national-security reporter who helped Edward Snowden disseminate some of the information he obtained while working at the NSA, has written very kindly and subtly about the topic. In a piece today, he published an email from a woman in a loveless, sexless marriage, whose husband is dying from cancer and despairing. I like what this other Glenn wrote:

As I argued last week, even for the most simplistic, worst-case-scenario, cartoon-villain depictions of the Ashley Madison user — a spouse who selfishly seeks hedonistic pleasure with indifference toward his or her own marital vows and by deceiving the spouse — that’s nobody’s business other than those who are parties to that marriage or, perhaps, their family members and close friends.

I try not to judge anyone in life, except those people who are cruel or amoral, and misuse their power or time to inflict harm on others. I stay away from them if they're merely bad; shine a light on them as much as I am able when they target people.

Nearing 50, I know many people who have had relationships outside a committed relationship in all sorts of combinations, many times betraying their partner. Some people are hedonists, of course, but every person I know, the reason was pain not a pursuit of unbridled lust. There was something they couldn't give to their partner, get from their partner, or say to them—they were sad, empty, and depressed, and a connection with another person (or more than one) helped them get through life. It allowed them often to avoid admitting something to themselves. Some of my absolute dearest friends across my life have been on either side of this (or in some cases, both partners were); I love them, I accept them, I help when asked to be part of them getting to a place where they are happy with themselves.

That's not a knock on their partner or partners: it's not a criticism when someone finds something missing in themselves. When you're lucky, all the people in a relationship recognize when things have gone wrong and admit it on the path to resolving it. The exceptions is perhaps in the remote case in which a partner is torturing the other person emotionally. In which case, that person should leave that relationship if they can, and that's not always possible for financial, geographic, family, or other reasons. (I'm not even getting into physical abuse or intentional emotional abuse, which is a whole other category of not judging the person who is being abused.)

Rather, we are complicated people, and it's unclear whether monogamy is the right answer for most people or not, or at least not all the time or with the same other person forever. Look, the not-really-a-secret secret in America is that most people in relationships either once ever all the way up to daily "cheat"—somewhere from 25 to 75 percent, depending on the study, the gender, how a question is asked, and even the definition of cheating (does it have to be physically in person? does webcam sex count? how about an emotional relationship with no physical contact?).

I make no assumptions about you, the person reading this. Statistically, if you were, are, or ever find yourself in a committed relationship with one or more other people, you might or are very likely to be inside the scope of many people using Ashley Madison. And I would ask you if you forgive yourself or needed to, and whether you would accept the judgement of other were they to find out?

I suspect the Ashley Madison breach reveals the empathy of the person discussing it, as well as their life experience. For me, people's relationships are never my business, and all I know is what they choose to tell me.