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Pretoria - Marriage isn’t dead. It is just being redefined as the “primary relationship” unfolding alongside a “cyber relationship” or three. If what’s happening on Ashley Madison, the site catering to married people wanting to have affairs, then there’s a chunk of truth in this statement.

The infidelity website signs up a new member every nine seconds, it has boasted, indicating that cyber infidelity is not only a strong trend, but that it might be the way modern intimate relationships are evolving.

Ashley Madison is one of the fastest-growing social networks outside Facebook and Twitter, claims founder Noel Biderman. It now has 18 million members in 26 countries. More than 135 000 of them are in South Africa.

Why is cyber cheating so rampant?

This question prompted Cape Town sexologist Marlene Wasserman (Dr Eve) to partner with Ashley Madison to research the phenomenon, and to set up her own research website,, inviting cyber cheaters to share their secrets. She’ll present her findings at the World Congress of Sexual Health in Brazil in September.

“I’m interested in the attitudes and behaviour around cyber infidelity. What has become apparent already is that, increasingly, people are seeking different forms of attachments to what has previously been accepted as the norm. I believe we need to rewrite the script of expectations of modern marriage and relationships,” says Wasserman.

And if you thought the trend was being driven by men, think again. There has been a huge increase in female infidelity globally, and the convenience of smartphones has facilitated this.

An entry from a woman on the Cybersecret site reads: “I started a Twitter account late last year. Almost immediately I received propositions of a number of much younger guys. Being a widow for the past seven years, I found this really flattering. Mostly it’s just flirting with a lot of sexual innuendo. But recently I got involved with a married man. It goes against all my principles but I can’t seem to stop.”

It’s also clear that Ashley Madison attracts as many singletons as it does married people, and that some women are drawn to the site in the hope of meeting men, married or not, who are not simply on the hunt for sex hook-ups.

One of the site’s member’s confides on “I am a single woman and struggle to meet nice men. I’ve tried lots of dating sites but find the men married or corny… The men (on Ashley Madison) are respectful, maybe cos they married, they like to chat and never pushy for sex. If a hook-up happens it’s cool. I don’t feel guilty that they’re married. I’m just having fun for now…”

What of the married people who have been devastated by their spouse’s sexy cyber relationships on finding out about them? Does a secretive online relationship constitute infidelity? Is it only when people meet and have physical sex that infidelity has happened?

Wasserman takes a libertine view. “We have shifted our perception of sex and commitment. We have to ask ourselves: What is commitment? The fact is that people are struggling to be enmeshed in tight relationships, and are frustrated with the ‘rules’. At the same time, people want to be married, so why break the institution of marriage? Anonymous, amorous cyber relationships can provide a wonderful distraction and actually put spark into your marital relationship,” she says.

Harm is caused if the cyber relationship is discovered, she concedes, but again, Wasserman questions whether we shouldn’t redefine the rules of engagement at the outset of our relationships. “In a few generations, there will be an evolutionary shift in what we consider normal in relationships. There will be a totally new ‘monogamy’,” she predicts.

As for the “rates of conversion”, as she puts it – in other words, people who convert the cyber infidelity to real-life infidelity – there are no statistics yet. What has emerged, though, is that among people looking for in-the-flesh hook-ups, women are just as keen as men.

“I have put up fake profiles of both a woman and a man, and it’s easy to see who is there just for the prospect of sex. And on this front, women can be as up-front as men. But I’ve found that most members of Ashley Madison are just nice people wanting some conversation and a bit of spice to their lives. Sex is just the by-product,” says Wasserman.

There has been a shift of attitudes towards infidelity, agrees psychologist Dorianne Weil (“Dr D”), but it is unlikely to ever receive blanket or long-term acceptance by either men or women.

“The fact is people do have a strong need to feel secure in their relationships, especially in the initial stages, and as long as we have these deep human needs, I can’t see ‘open’ relationships – however they play out – being sustainable. Certainly I’ve never seen open relationships work in the long term,” she says.

Secrecy, then, would seem to be as critical to cyber infidelity as conventional infidelity. Weil sees no harm in a bit of cyber flirtation – “most people have secrets, and flirting online is like occasionally wanting to wear the red high heels instead of your warm old slippers,” she laughs. The caveat, however, is that it should never encroach on your primary relationship.

“The danger lies when the cyber relationship becomes compulsive or addictive, which it often does, or when it prevents you working out issues, like lack of sex, in your marriage. It may be easy for people to rationalise that their cyber relationship is innocent, but it may be preventing them from having the courageous conversations that married people need to have, all the time, for the marriage to stay healthy,” says Weil.

And being discovered can have devastating results. “I had a client whose young daughter found out he was in an online relationship. She took it as a betrayal of her mother,” says Weil.

The stories of wives and husbands who’ve discovered their spouses on Ashley Madison also show that far from acceptance, it ignites feelings of insecurity, hurt and betrayal.

“Laura” posts on Yahoo: “Our relationship is doing OK. We’ve been together for 10 years, married for six, so there isn’t that usual spark there, but we do have sex 2-3 times a week, so he’s not lacking in that dept. Why would he do that, though?”

“Stanloo” writes on another site, after finding his wife on the site: “I was completely crushed. She tried to claim that she never had any intention of meeting someone… I know better than that.”

In other words, the easy, accessible attachments you can make in cyberspace are not simply about texting and sending saucy photos. The potential they have to erode the fabric of your real-life relationship is huge.

And if your marriage is important, that’s surely something to think carefully about.


l - Pretoria News