Well, the infamous Ashley Madison list is out. So it’s probably a pretty tough week for about 30 million people, who have some explaining to do. And also for a similar number of spouses, who may be spending this week-end feeling devastated.
I don’t know about you, but I was shocked at the number. Who knew that such a large percentage of Americans would be enrolled in a service like that.
Of course it’s natural to view this crisis through a moral lens, which has its own value. But as a psychologist and long-time couple’s therapist, my question is why? What will we see if we look at it through the lens of science? Is there any psychological research that can help us understand what it is about the human psyche that drives this level of clandestine extramarital activity?
So I did some digging, and found some pretty interesting explanations:
Study 1: Norton, Frost and Ariely (2007)
These researchers gave subjects a list of traits about a stranger, and asked them to rate how much they would like that person. Subjects were shown lists of either 4, 6, 8 or 10 traits, generated at random. Researchers anticipated that seeing longer lists would make the ratings higher. They were surprised by the results.
In fact, the more information the subjects were given about the random stranger, the LESS they liked them. The study was then extended, to try to determine why this might be. The finding was this: as soon as a subject discovered a dissimilarity between themselves and the stranger, they stopped liking them. Shorter lists were less likely to turn up a difference.
The Takeaway: We have a bias toward liking people we don’t know. We like people more before we get to know them. We like people less once we spot a way in which they differ from us.
Study 2: Moreland and Beach (1992)
In this study, four fake students were placed in a large college course. The fake students were very similar in appearance. Some of the fake students attended many of the class meetings, and others few. None talked or interacted with any of the real students.
When the course ended, the real students were asked to identify which of the fake students they most preferred. The winner, despite never having interacted with her, was the one who had attended the most classes.
The Takeaway: Being exposed to people MORE makes us like them MORE, with one big caveat — as long as we don’t actually get to know them.
So here we have the set-up for a large volume of extramarital affairs. We are naturally inclined toward liking people we know less, making a stranger more appealing than our spouse, who we know very well.
We stop liking people when we perceive a difference between them and us, which happens in virtually every marriage.
And to make matters worse: we like people more the more we see them, as long as we don’t find out too much about them. This is exactly what happens when two people meet online and have clandestine sex. Not much talking is necessary, and many people may not represent themselves accurately, even if they do talk.
In today’s world, we are naturally drawn toward what is immediate and easy. Both a surface feeling of “like” and physical intimacy (sex) are far, far easier to talk about and find than the true emotional intimacy that comes from working through differences together to make a successful marriage.
The most important word in the above paragraph is emotional. Liking someone is easy, and having sex is easy. Emotion, however, is a far different animal.
Emotion is required for resilient intimacy, and yet it is extremely complex. The process of building an emotionally resilient relationship makes us feel very vulnerable. And many of us don’t understand the rules that emotion follows, how to empathize with another, how to express what we feel, how to take in painful information, or how to argue.
How many of those skills do you have?
Chances are, your answer to that question is closely related to the type of family you grew up in.
Did your family understand emotion? Share their emotions, both positive and negative? Work through conflicts together? Notice what each other was feeling? If so, you grew up in an emotionally attuned household, and you probably learned a great deal of the skills necessary for a healthy, resilient, emotionally intimate marriage.
On the other hand, did your family discourage the expression of negative emotion? Ignore each other’s feelings? Avoid conflicts, allowing them to fester under the surface? Keep their emotions, emotional needs and problems to themselves? If so, you grew up in a household with Childhood Emotional Neglect, and you probably had little opportunity to learn how to do the required skills.
If this describes you, don’t despair. You can absolutely learn the skills now, as an adult.
Of course, it’s one thing to flounder in a marriage, and it’s another to have an extramarital tryst. We can certainly condemn the morals of those 30 million who walk among us. Or we can see this cultural crisis as a wake-up call:
Lets open our eyes and look at our husbands and wives.
Lets open our eyes and look at ourselves.
Lets pay more attention to our spouses’ feelings and emotional needs.
Lets start learning how to recognize, share, and manage emotions.
Lets stop avoiding conflicts, and start talking them through.
Only then will the ugly Ashley Madisons of the world finally die away.