Brandy knew she wanted out of her marriage.
She’d married young, at age 20, and signed up for the Air Force, leaving her small town in southern Georgia for tours overseas in Germany and placements across the country. After the birth of her second child, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and retired from the military at 30 years old.
“We had to move home,” Brandy says, “My husband really resented that, and we were already on the road to divorce. Our sex life was never very good, and he was uncomfortable talking about [sex] or doing it.”
So Brandy turned to the website Ashley Madison, where married people looking to have discreet affairs can connect with one another. (The site gained notoriety in 2015 after a data breach revealed users’ personal information.) An affair would boost her own happiness and sexual satisfaction, she rationalized, thus keeping her family together. Brandy, who asked that MarieClaire.com refer to her by her middle name, sought out men from nearby towns, refusing anyone who lived in the same small town she did. They’d meet regularly, often checking into hotels and taking turns paying for the rooms. She’d stay only a few hours—never the night.
Alicia Walker, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at Missouri State University, recently authored a study that found that many women who use Ashley Madison share Brandy’s motivations. For her research, published last week in the Journal of Sexuality and Culture and first reported on MarieClaire.com, Walker surveyed people who had affairs through the Ashley Madison site and found that women reported increased life satisfaction at a higher rate than cheating men did.
And the affairs did make Brandy happy...for a time. Cheating allowed her to stay in her marriage longer, which she says was a priority for her, and it gave her the sexual connection she craved. Brandy estimates she had five different rather satisfying affairs over the course of two years.
“Females having affairs are more likely to be happy than men,” reports Walker. “It’s the ‘monogamy malaise.’ Existing research shows the longer women are in a sexual relationship, the more their desire drops over time, and they become less and less interested in having sex with their primary partner. However, if they take on a new partner, their sexual desire returns to its previous high level.”
Jean, too, was unhappy in her three-year relationship. Her partner suffered from mental health issues, and Jean saw him through different doctors, medication changes, and self-commitment to a psychiatric facility. She stood by him as he withdrew from prescribed opiates.
But even as he made progress, Jean realized she wanted a separation; she also wanted to delay doing so until her boyfriend was more stable. The last year of their relationship had “zero intimacy” Jean says, and she was unhappy. So she turned to Ashley Madison as a way to fulfill her sexual needs without hurting her significant other (who never found out, she claims).
“The whole ordeal is not something I post on highway billboards,” Jean says, asking that MarieClaire.com use her nickname instead of her full name. “But I'm not necessarily ashamed either.” For Jean, the affair made her happier, it provided a coping mechanism that led to no harm and positive results. “The moral objections are subjective,” she maintains.
“If women believe they have to have an affair to stay married, it increases the happiness,” says Walker, who has studied intimate sexual relationships and sexual behavior throughout her career, even receiving flack for her unconventional studies in the past, with one being abruptly canceled. Her most recent research also shows that, for both men and women, the happiness effect was stronger when the cheater had sex with their lover a minimum of twice a week.
Walker doesn’t think her findings are necessarily surprising, especially since Ashley Madison is a place where people come with a specific need to fulfill and a shared concern for discretion. “These affairs are spaces where women set the boundaries and the rules and they create them to focus on their own needs,” she explains. “They purposely vet partners and only get involved with men who will cater to their wants, needs, and desires. These are spaces unlike any others in their lives.”
“There is some bias in people’s response,” continues Walker, who, to set up the study, sent a survey link and got more than 1000 responses from people using the Ashley Madison site. “They think, ‘If I’m doing this, I am going to justify why I am doing this.’”
“This data shows that the reasons you choose to cheat greatly impact the satisfaction of your experience,” she explains. “The more satisfied you are in your primary partnership, the more satisfied you are in your affair.” Cheating is only going to make you happier if you're already somewhat happy in your marriage, and all you're doing is getting one small piece of it outsourced. “The data shows that you're going to be made happier by an affair if you’re cheating solely for sexual reasons,” as Brandy and Jean had done.
Still, for both women, the ultimate satisfaction came when they left their crumbled relationships, met someone new, and were able to start over. Neither have plans to return to Ashley Madison anytime soon.
Rebecca Gale is an award-winning journalist covering the nexus of politics and people in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Roll Call, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, and Health Affairs, among other outlets. Follow her on Twitter @beckgale
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