Ashley Madison: The psychology and impact of infidelity

Infidelity is a topic that has fascinated and troubled societies for centuries. With technology advancing, the landscape of cheating has evolved, making it easier to connect with potential partners outside of one's primary relationship. 


I watched the docu-series "Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal" on Netflix, which looks into the controversial affairs website and the infamous 2015 hack that exposed millions of cheating spouses. The series features interviews with various people involved, such as Christian influencer Sam Rader, offering a humanising perspective on the participants' motivations and consequences. This article explores the psychological motivations behind infidelity, using data and trends from Ashley Madison, and discusses emotional and psychological factors such as unmet needs, excitement, and relationship dissatisfaction.

Why do people cheat?

Infidelity can stem from many reasons, each as complex and varied as human relationships. Understanding these motivations is essential for addressing and mitigating the impact of infidelity.

Unmet emotional needs

Many individuals seek affairs because they feel emotionally unfulfilled in their current relationships. This lack of emotional connection can lead to loneliness and neglect, driving individuals to seek solace and validation from someone else. A study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy found that emotional dissatisfaction was a significant predictor of infidelity, particularly among women (Allen et al., 2008).

The desire for excitement and novelty

The thrill of new experiences and the excitement of a secret relationship can be other motivators for infidelity. This desire for novelty is often linked to a need for adventure and a break from the monotony of daily life. Ashley Madison's (Caldwell, 2024) own data suggests that many users cite boredom and a desire for excitement as primary reasons for seeking extramarital affairs.

Relationship dissatisfaction

Problems within the primary relationship, such as poor communication, sexual dissatisfaction, or unresolved conflicts, can push individuals toward infidelity. These issues might not be addressed adequately within the relationship, leading individuals to look elsewhere for fulfilment. According to a survey by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, 15% of married women and 25% of married men have had extramarital affairs, often citing dissatisfaction with their primary relationship as a critical factor (AAMFT, 2016).

User demographics and trends

Understanding who uses Ashley Madison can shed light on broader trends and motivations for infidelity. The platform's user base provides a snapshot of those most likely to seek extramarital relationships.

Most Ashley Madison users are between 25 and 44 years old – an age range in which individuals often face significant life stressors such as career pressures, parenting responsibilities, and marital fatigue. Web statistics reveal that 66.62% of the website's users are men, though the site has seen a growing number of female users in recent years (Similarweb, 2024).

Ashley Madison's core audience is primarily American, accounting for 61% of the traffic. Other countries are far behind, with Canada's users making up 9%, Australia 5%, and the UK 4%. Overall, visits increased by 21% last month, possibly due to the release of the docu-series (Similarweb, 2024).

Users often come from various socioeconomic backgrounds, but there is a notable representation of middle to upper-middle-class individuals. These users typically have the financial means to engage in affairs discreetly, which can involve expenses related to maintaining secrecy. Research indicates that individuals with higher income levels are more likely to engage in infidelity, possibly due to the increased opportunities and resources available to them (Greely, 1991). 

The psychological impact on individuals

Infidelity can have profound psychological effects on all parties involved – the unfaithful partner, the betrayed partner, and the third party. The person engaging in the affair might experience a complex mix of guilt, excitement, and anxiety. While the affair can provide temporary emotional relief or excitement, it often leads to long-term stress and guilt.

Studies have shown that individuals who cheat often suffer from guilt and shame, which can affect their mental health and well-being. This can be depression, anxiety or PTSD, supporting the idea that the initial thrill is outweighed by negative long-term effects (Fincham and May, 2017). Characters like Sam Rader in the Netflix series illustrate these complex emotions as they navigate the fallout from their actions.

The case of John Gibson, a pastor and seminary professor, is a poignant example of the devastating impact of such exposure. After his name appeared in the Ashley Madison data breach, Gibson took his own life. The docu-series tells his story, highlighting his deep remorse and struggle with depression, exacerbated by the public exposure. His wife, Christi, discovered his body and shared the profound emotional toll it took on their family. Gibson's story underscores the tragic emotional and psychological consequences that can accompany infidelity and its public revelation. 

The impact on the betrayed partner can be devastating, leading to feelings of heartbreak, anger and a significant blow to self-esteem. The discovery of infidelity can trigger symptoms of depression and anxiety and, in some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research published in The Journal of Family Psychology found that infidelity is one of the leading causes of divorce and can have long-lasting emotional impacts on the betrayed partner (Gordon et al., 2000). 

The series highlights several personal stories of individuals grappling with these intense emotions, such as Nia Rader. Nia, married to the aforementioned Sam, detailed the immense emotional toll the affair took on her and her family. As a couple who vlogged their family life on YouTube, the public exposure of her husband's infidelity was particularly devastating. The exposure brought intense scrutiny and embarrassment, compounding her feelings of betrayal. Despite the support from her family, Nia struggled to maintain her mental health and navigate the challenges posed by this public scandal.

Infidelity often leads to a breakdown in trust and communication, making it difficult for couples to repair their relationship. The road to recovery can be long and challenging, requiring both partners to address underlying issues and rebuild trust. A study in the Family Journal by Peluso and Spina (2008) found that while some couples can recover from infidelity with the help of therapy and open communication, others find the betrayal insurmountable.

Strategies for addressing infidelity

While the consequences of infidelity can be severe, Esther Perel (2017) explores some strategies couples can employ to address it in her book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. Firstly, she emphasises the importance of understanding the infidelity and the context in which it occurred. This involves exploring the state of the relationship prior to the affair and both partners' individual needs and desires.

She also advocates for open communication. After the affair, both partners must engage in honest and transparent communication. The unfaithful partner should be willing to answer questions and provide the betrayed partner with the information they need to understand what happened. Both partners need to express their emotions openly. The betrayed partner should have space to communicate their pain, anger, and fears, while the unfaithful partner should be able to share their reasons and feelings about the affair (Perel, 2017).

Perel (2017) further explains that trust needs to be rebuilt through consistent actions and accountability. The unfaithful partner must show reliability and a commitment to changing behaviours that led to the infidelity. Maintaining transparency about daily activities and interactions can help rebuild trust.

Finally, it is essential to identify and address the root causes that contributed to the infidelity. This might involve exploring unmet needs, communication breakdowns, or psychological issues. Seeking the help of a therapist can facilitate this process by helping the couple navigate challenging conversations and develop healthier relationship patterns.

Infidelityis a complex issue that can have far-reaching consequences for individuals and relationships. By understanding the psychological motivations behind infidelity, we can better address the factors that lead to it and implement strategies to rebuild and strengthen relationships post-infidelity. Open communication, maintaining intimacy, and seeking professional support are key components in promoting a healthy and faithful relationship.

The insights from the Ashley Madison platform and the stories told in the "Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal" docu-series underscore the multifaceted nature of infidelity. Individuals and couples can benefit from understanding the underlying causes of infidelity, such as unmet emotional needs, the desire for excitement, and relationship dissatisfaction. Recognising these factors is the first step toward healing and rebuilding trust.

Seeking the help of a therapist to address the root causes of the infidelity can facilitate this process. The journey to recovery is often challenging, but with commitment and the right support, many couples can emerge stronger. In summary, infidelity does not have to mark the end of a relationship. By addressing the underlying issues and working together to rebuild trust, couples can navigate the difficult path to recovery and ultimately create a healthier, more fulfilling relationship.


  • Allen, E. S., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2008). Emotional dissatisfaction and infidelity: The role of attachment, dependability, and social desirability. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 34(5), 456-471.
  • American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. (2016). Infidelity statistics. Retrieved from on June 9, 2024.
  • Caldwell, F. (2024). Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal (TV series) Netflix.
  • Gordon, K. C., Baucom, D. H., & Snyder, D. K. (2000). The use of forgiveness in marital therapy. In M. E. McCullough, K. I. Pargament, & C. E. Thoresen (Eds.), Forgiveness: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 203–227). The Guilford Press.
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  • Fincham, F. D., & May, R. W. (2017). Infidelity in romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 70-74.
  • Peluso P. R., Spina P. (2008). Understanding infidelity: Pitfalls and lessons for couples counselors. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 16, 324–327.
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  • Similarweb. (2024). traffic overview. Retrieved June 9, 2024, from

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, N11
Written by Claudia Behnke, MA, PG Dip, UKCP (Accred)
London, N11

A UKCP accredited transpersonal psychotherapist in North London, Claudia specialises in individual and couple's therapy. With a special interest in HSPs and neurodiversity, including ADHD, her approach is founded on warmth, authenticity, and a keen focus on interpersonal relationships. Sessions are offered both online and in-person.

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