Saturday, February 13, 2010

An Affair to be Billed For...


Unfortunately, infidelity is as old as the institution it undermines. As long as human connections thrive on loyalty and trust, they will susceptible to the decay of betrayal in whatever form it manifests itself. That being said, a broad commentary on the current state of monogamous relationships is beyond the scope of this piece. Instead, I wish to illuminate the efficiency with which our lapses in morality can be turned to profit, particularly on the Internet.
Although verifiable information on infidelity is scarce (not exactly something people are forthcoming about) most estimates are that between 30 – 60% of married individuals will participate in an affair during the course of the relationship. In the face of such sobering statistics, some have chosen to turn cheating into a recreational activity. Gone are the days when you need only concern yourself with threats posed by your spouse’s attractive coworkers (although interoffice affairs still constitute a sobering 36% of the whole) instead all of cyberspace has come into play.
Entrepreneurs like Noel Biderman have turned our propensity toward infidelity into a successful business model. As the founder and CEO of Ashleymadison.com, a moniker derived from the two most popular female baby names the year he started the company, he has turned affairs into big business. Boasting over 5 million active members, it is the Internet’s largest “married dating and affairs” web service. Their television spots are outrageous enough to be banned from the Super Bowl and the company reportedly offered Tiger Woods 5 million to be their new spokesperson.
The site makes money by charging you for “credits” which are used to communicate with potential partners. If you opt for the $249 high-roller package, they guarantee that you will have an affair or your money will be refunded in full. The idea seems to be popular as the site has reportedly produced profits in excess of $20 million dollars and continues to grow exponentially every year. Biderman, a former sports agent, got the idea after reading that up to 30% of all online dating profiles were married people lying about their status to seek out extramarital sexual partners. His philosophy is, “Why lie about it?”
When pressed about the ethical implications of his business, Biderman responded, “I’m not going to convince anybody to have an affair in a 30-second TV spot. I’m just cannibalizing a human behavior that’s been around as long as marriage itself.” Ironically Mr. Biderman is married with two children, and when asked how he would feel if his wife used his site he replied that he would be “devastated.” In short, Mr. Biderman feels that there is an important distinction between condoning an action and generating revenue from it.

Is Biderman justified in his ethical reasoning? Is there anything wrong with creating a more efficient delivery system for behavior that would continue to occur with or without his presence?

I asked an impromptu panel of my co-workers (all male) how they felt about these very questions and the response was mixed. About half felt that since the service was perfectly legal and the customers would not patronize the business if they had not already decided to have an affair, there was nothing wrong with making an honest living from it.

The other half disagreed and cited the possibility that the prevalence and convenience of the service might be the tipping point for someone who was on the fence about infidelity and otherwise might have remained faithful.

To be fair, Biderman’s site is not the only one in the game; his is just the most popular and well-marketed. There are hundreds of sites that provide the same services and were he to close up shop they would be more than happy to snatch up his table scraps. Perhaps even more telling is the fact that relatively benign social networking sites have begun to shoulder some of the responsibility concerning infidelity. A recent study published in the U.K. Telegraph found that 20% of recent divorce cases cited Facebook in their paperwork as at least a “contributing factor” to the split.  

Of course, it could be argued that we are reading the statistics backwards. That infidelity and marital decay are not caused by these websites, these websites just happen to be the current forum for pre-existing marital issues to manifest themselves. Perhaps the problems run deeper than that. Are the majority of marriages doomed from the beginning? Has the institution become hopelessly archaic and irrelevant?

Certainly the statistics are not encouraging:

·         43% of first marriages will end in divorce
·         60% of second marriages will end in divorce
·         73% of third marriages will end in divorce

It was interesting to note that once a person experienced the dissolution of their first marriage, any subsequent forays into the institution were even less likely to succeed. Why is that? Many of us would assume that in most cases of multiple marriages the initial union failed due to inexperience and immaturity of the participants. Maybe they married young and were ill-prepared to identify the qualities they needed in a long-term mate. Maybe their unrealistic expectations of a marital relationship doomed the pairing from the start.
While there are certainly instances where that was the case, the statistics indicate that such cases are in the minority. After all, if inexperience and immaturity was the issue I think we could safely assume that a person’s next wedding would be the product of intense scrutiny and careful deliberation thereby eliminating these culprits. Instead, in many cases it seems that once a person experiences their initial disillusionment with marriage any confidence in its long time viability is irrevocably tarnished. In other words, both participants start the marriage all too prepared for its demise.
Despite the grim outlook painted by statisticians and reality television, I personally believe that marriage is just as relevant and viable now as ever. For the past 6 ½ years I have had the privilege of being married to an amazing woman. For those of you who read these entries, she is the only reason that I am able to maintain even the thinnest fa├žade of grammatical competence. I say this because she proofreads every one of my ravings with a level of care that far exceeds their literary value, and for that, among countless other things, I am truly grateful. I cannot imagine my life without her, and I cannot imagine me without us.
Marriage is not and will not be easy, but the rewards of a committed monogamous relationship cannot be distributed under any other circumstance. It is a unique package deal, and one that is equally adept at causing the same wounds it can so miraculously heal.

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