Life is Short. Have an Affair. A Sociological Experiment on Steroids

The dating site for married people, Ashley Madison, has now been around for over a decade. What can we now learn about marriage and monogamy from this “sociological experiment on steroids"?


What's the Big Idea?

In the world of online dating there are sites for people claiming just about any sort of interest or identity, whether they are a dog lover or a conservative Christian, or even a married person looking to have an affair.

That's right, a dating site for married people, Ashley Madison, has been around for over a decade, an experience its founder Noel Biderman has described as "a sociological experiment on steroids." As you might imagine, Biderman gets beat up in the media quite often. His many critics, and competitors, have charged that he has built a business "on the back of broken hearts, ruined marriages and damaged families." 

I invited Biderman to appear on Big Think, after all, to have a dialogue about a subject that is very much out in the open, yet all too often needlessly clouded by hypocricy and false moralizing. Biderman, after all, certainly didn't create infidelity. Do we wish to make him the boogie man for our own failure to understand human nature? Biderman told Big Think:

My intent was to cannibalize a behavior pattern where people were going on singles dating sites when that wasn't the appropriate forum for them to conduct an affair or they were having in the workplace. So I always thought that I could move them into a social network of their own.  

So Biderman was unambiguously out to make buck with a clever enterprise. At the same time, a secondary outcome of Biderman's business has been a Kinsey-esque accumulation of data about marriage and monogamy. Biderman has found that people have become quite comfortable sharing personal information online, and this data helps his dating site better serve its customer. One of the most surprising discoveries, for instance, that Biderman points to in his data is that open relationships lead to "much less divorce." He tells Big Think:

I don't want to say that's a more successful marriage just because you didn't get divorced, but if their divorce rates are half that or even less than couples in monogamous relationships maybe we're onto something. Is this manmade contract we've created for ourselves setting us up to fail? I think a lot of people would argue yes, it is.  

Are all affairs the same? We don't know what happens behind closed doors, but what Biderman says his site offers married people is discretion.

Watch him in his own words here:

What's the Significance?

Biderman says that an affair can actually be a "marriage preservation device." How is that possible?

What do married couples value the most? Building a family. Having a great economic situation and the ability to own a home. Take vacations. While most people don't sign up for a life of celibacy when they get married, according to Biderman, sex is important, but it is certainly not at the top of the list. And yet, marriage is almost always defined by monogamy. 

However, through an affair, or "through a liaison, and even to some degree through the use of pornography and other things," Biderman argues, married people can find "these cathartic outlets that allow them to stay within that marriage and be that great partner, parent or however they see themselves." And technology offers them the ability to keep it discreet. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

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