Why would someone cheat on their spouse? Would it surprise you to learn that according to Johns Hopkins University and Ashley Madison (yes, that Ashley Madison), the answer is not as simple as wanting more sex or being dissatisfied in the relationship.
New research tells us that the reasons vary from emotional connection to ego boosting to seeking adventure. But wanting to break up with a romantic partner often doesn’t factor in at all. For many people, the answer to “what if you love your significant other but want to experience other forms of sex?” is not to end the relationship — but to have a discreet affair.
Paul Keable is the chief strategy officer for Ashley Madison, the world’s leading married dating website available in more than 50 countries and 15 different languages. With more than 7 years of experience working for the Canadian-based company, Paul currently oversees the brand marketing and communications division of the business. In the past year alone, the company had steady growth with more than 4.4 million new male and female global registrants, representing more than 12,200 new members joining daily. The company also recently hit the 80-million member milestone since its inception in 2002.
Our host, Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to the show, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and calling in today we have Paul Keable. Paul is the chief strategy officer for Ashley Madison, the world’s leading dating website for people who are already married. Ashley Madison is available in more than 50 countries and recently hit the 80-million-member milestone. Paul, welcome to the podcast.
Paul Keable: Well, Gabe, thank you so much for having me on. I appreciate it.
Gabe Howard: Well, we appreciate having you as well. Now, our podcast is not a tabloid-style show, but rather a medically reviewed educational offering to help people better understand mental health and psychology. So, I have to imagine that the listeners are going to wonder the factual basis for this episode. Well, it all centers around new research coming from Johns Hopkins that seemingly debunks societal beliefs about affairs and their motives. The Johns Hopkins study revealed that 84.5% of Ashley Madison members who had an affair felt satisfaction and not regret. Now, Paul, I’m betting these findings didn’t surprise you at all.
Paul Keable: No, not at all. One of the things that I love about my job is that while people might think I’m out there promoting infidelity, that’s not really what we do. We’re trying to help people understand what’s actually going on behind the scenes when it comes to affairs. And the science behind it reveals that much of what we believe, based on what we see in Hollywood or our religion tells us, is quite different from reality.
Gabe Howard: Now, if we go back to the Johns Hopkins study, just to give a little context for that, they had three separate groups. They had a group of 1680 people, a group of 600 people, and a group of 260 people. And all of them had successfully used Ashley Madison to have an affair. Now, there was a mean age of 51.48 years and they were 85% men. Now, keeping those numbers in mind, wouldn’t a better conclusion be that middle-aged men don’t regret having affairs? Do you think that we would see similar results if we interviewed 85% women, or even if we just dropped the mean age to 25 years old, for example?
Paul Keable: Well, I think at 25, you don’t find too many people, particularly in this day and age, married, quite frankly. And the reasons and rationales for why an affair crop up in a relationship take time. The concept of the seven-year itch actually does have some validity, but for different reasons, not simply time. And so, I don’t think you would get necessarily a same back in the 20s. But from a gender perspective, absolutely. You know, I speak to and my team speaks to members at Ashley Madison on a regular weekly basis. And what we hear from the women is quite the same thing that comes through in this research from Johns Hopkins about why people are cheating and the motivations behind it.
Gabe Howard: The Johns Hopkins study is that one of the questions they asked was, why are you having an affair? Why are you choosing to have an affair? What were some of those answers? Were there any commonalities that came up during that that particular question?
Paul Keable: So, they asked the participants to rank their various motivations for having an affair and unambiguously over the different timeframes, and there was absolute a clear motivation that was the number one. So sexual dissatisfaction, either no sex or no orgasm, was the number one above everything else. And we’ve seen that as a consistent response from men and women. We had a different study done with the University of Missouri by Dr. Alicia Walker and more than 80% of the female respondents in that survey, that research, said that lack of sex or lack of orgasm were the primary motivations for their affair. But interestingly, for the men in that research, it was emotional validation was the primary motivation for their affair, which was something interesting. How that manifested was through a physical, intimate act. Which I really do find fascinating because that flips the script in terms of how men and women are perceived. You know, horny, lustful man who can’t control his libido. And, whereas women are these emotional wrecks and they’re cheating for revenge or for all these other different motivations where it turns out it’s the opposite. Women want to have good sex, not just sex, but good sex. And men want to be wanted. It isn’t the physical act for men in and of itself. It’s the idea of being wanted, being desired.
Gabe Howard: Do you think that the public is shocked that men would have an affair in order to receive emotional validation? Because it does seem like the general public just believes that men are frankly, quote, horny critters, unquote, that just can’t keep it in their pants and that emotions or intimacy or acceptance or feeling validated has no part in the sexual process for them.
Paul Keable: It’s funny because we live in a world with so much cognitive dissonance. We have heard, or I have, these stories from sex workers who talk about men procuring the services of, you know, prostitute, an escort however you want to frame it and how they often just want to talk. And we’ve heard these stories and we always sort of say, yeah, yeah, sure, sure, sure. Well, turns out, now that I’ve been working with this Ashley Madison for more than ten years, it is so true. It is the emotional validation. And yes, people don’t want to believe it because we want to believe in this ideal manhood where I can control my emotions. I am stoic. I am powerful and lustful and all those amazing things that men are supposed to be. And women are supposed to be docile and demure and they don’t have these urgings because, you know, we want women to be good women until they’re married. And then we need them to be really good in bed. But where they learn that from, we’re not supposed to know about. So, yeah, people are shocked when we tell them that men seek emotional validation. You know, on the flip side, while we’re the number one married dating service in the world, we’re also the world’s largest marriage counseling service in a way. Because if you don’t want your spouse to join Ashley Madison, you should listen to us when we tell you why people are having affairs and not discount it because these are real motivations. These are real insights about people around the world and they’re rather universal. And when we come to understand and we can understand why so many people are choosing us. Now, listen, I’m not in the business of trying to eradicate my, my, my revenue stream. My bosses would be very disappointed if I did that. But I don’t think that’s going to happen because human behavior is hard to change.
Gabe Howard: Let’s talk about your business model for a moment, because Ashley Madison famously said life is short, have an affair. And I’ve seen in your marketing materials that you actually offer up an affair as a form of self-care. I have to admit, when I first saw those billboards up, when I first heard that slogan, I did chuckle. I laughed. But I still think there’s a lot of people that hear that slogan, Life is short, have an affair, and they immediately think, wow, this company is wrecking homes, tearing apart families and hurting people. How do you how do you balance those two perspectives out?
Paul Keable: Well, the rationale for seeing affairs as self-care goes back to understanding the motivations behind having an affair. And the outcomes from Johns Hopkins Research was interesting because it showed that people predominantly in this survey and this research were very happy within their relationships and their primary relationships, and that the affair did not impact their feelings towards their primary partner. So, listen, if you’re sitting there with your spouse of 20 years and you look at her in the morning over your cup of coffee and you love her unambiguously and your life is perfect and your two beautiful kids are running off to school, you’re happy, except you’re no longer having sex for reasons that can span a whole different study. Conventional wisdom would say, if I’m unhappy with that aspect of my relationship, that I either have to compromise and give up on my sex life despite it being important to me. Or choose divorce, which can be costly, stressful, lead to all sorts of feelings of resentment and anger. And we offer a third solution by offering discretion to help people have what we call a successful affair, an undiscovered affair. We allow people to scratch that itch, have the physical intimacy that they’re missing from their primary relationship. And invariably, we hear this week, over week after week, women come back to us members on our site and say, because of my affair, I am a better lover, a better mother and a better wife, and I am happy. And this allows for the primary relationship to continue. And that is how we see us offering a form of self-care to our members. We allow them to maintain the life that they’re looking for without disrupting everybody else to get what’s missing.
Gabe Howard: It really sounds like you’re saying that a lot of people who are in happy marriages are seeking out affairs, which is it’s counterintuitive. I think many people believe that affairs are led by disliking your spouse, being unhappy with your significant other or having some sort of malicious intent. But it sounds like what you’re describing is quite the opposite.
Paul Keable: Absolutely. The vast majority of the members that we’ve spoken to over the years. And listen, as you mentioned earlier in this interview, we’ve had more than 80 million people join Ashley Madison since we launched. So, this is not some small subset of our population. We have more than 22,000 people joined every day right now. So, we’re really coming from this from a large sample size of people who are obviously admitted adulterers or at least admitted interested in adultery. And not everyone fits under the same banner, but the vast majority, well over 70% of the people that we’ve spoken to over the years have said, listen, I love my spouse. I don’t want a divorce. Everything about my life is working except for this one area. And I think part of that is a failure of the modern world to adapt monogamy because we are told that our partners are supposed to be our best friends, our best lovers, our financial partner, our co-parent and fulfill other sorts of aspects of our lives every aspect of our lives. And that’s a grand burden for one individual to take on. And when you walk into a marriage and you’re down the road ten some odd years and you put this burden on this other person, the likelihood of one individual being able to carry that weight and provide all of those needs for you is unlikely. And so sometimes we feel it in other capacities through friends and parasocial relationships. But for some, they’re not going to get all those needs met, and it’s going to lead to a deep dissatisfaction with a part of your lives. And through having an affair, that need is met.
Gabe Howard: And we’re back with Ashley Madison’s Paul Keable talking about how affairs can save marriages. I’m thinking about the statement that your spouse has to be your best friend. I grew up in the 80s and I remember first hearing that in a rom-com, right? You know, happiness is being married to your best friend. I think it was When Harry Met Sally where they were buddies and then they started dating and, and it really played out on screen to be very beautiful. I mean, pop culture will do that to you. That’s what romantic comedies are for. Now, I’m married and full disclosure I have been divorced and my wife is not my best friend. I like hard stop. And I will tell people this all the time. I’ll be like, Oh no, my wife’s not my best friend. And they’re just like, Oh, right. There’s like this audible gasp, like, I’ve done something wrong. And they’re like, But why not? And I’m like, well, because I have a best friend. And then here’s the second audible gasp. I point out that my best friend is a woman. It’s a she. And then people just they’re just like, okay, well, we don’t know what’s going on over there in the Howard household, but clearly it is wrong on every single level. And I bring up this whole entire story because many people look at that and they think, well, that’s wrong. Or they say things to my wife like, look, just remember we told you so. We warned you about this, and nobody really knows what they warned her about. But the message is clear that something is amiss in all of this.
Paul Keable: You know, so much of that perception, that behavior that you have experienced from, you know, the outside social circle that you have comes from our culture that informs us. And it’s actually been interesting the past 6 or 7 years we’ve seen. A part of our culture shift very much to the right, to the conservative side. I’m not sure if you’re aware of the Franklin Rule or the Graham Rule when it comes to men and women?
Gabe Howard: I’m not. I’m not.
Paul Keable: So, it’s a really interesting dynamic and it’s somewhat informs how these people are behaving. The Graham Rule is in reference to Franklin Graham, a very famous preacher in the United States, that a lot of evangelical Christians followed. And this rule and it was interesting because your vice president, Mike Pence, followed this rule apparently. A married man can never be alone with a woman who is not his wife in a meeting, at a lunch, at a dinner because it constitutes something wrong. The idea being that women are lustful and cause men to act inappropriately. And, you know, he’s removing all risk by never being alone with a woman. So, a lot of that thinking is inherent in what you’re talking about in your in your relationship, because the idea, dear God, that you could be still friends with your best friend. And so, our right-wing conservative culture is shifting us to think in an almost backward way to the idea that women are the cause of our problems and we have to categorize them and push them out into these, spaces where we can’t be inappropriately approached or conditioned to act in a way that’s going to cause us to breach our obligations to our spouse, for no good reason.
Gabe Howard: you’re, you’re right. There is this inherent misogyny about these affairs that they feel that women are more culpable than men. Is this still the case if men cheat? Do people still blame the woman and is that improving? Is that shifting? And I know this is going to be somewhat generational. It’s a bit of a quagmire of a question. But what are you seeing out there? Because it does seem like all roads lead to find the nearest woman and blame her.
Paul Keable: I think, you know, that falls into the framework that Western society still uses women as scapegoats. We still have a misogynistic society where we view women differently or judge women differently compared to the same behaviors of men. And so, in the world of infidelity, yes. I mean, the Scarlet Letter isn’t that long ago. And we haven’t completely removed it. Even in cases where the man is cheating. Yes. People will find ways to, quote-unquote, blame the women. And that’s the reason again, I said I’m out here doing what I do. It’s not to say that affairs are the best thing for everybody because they’re not. But let’s understand really what’s happening around the motivations for cheating and more importantly, the outcomes from cheating. And so, the last thing I’ll say in terms of just that misogynistic viewpoint that so many people have in our culture is that men cheat unambiguously. Who are all these men cheating with? So, we need to understand the dynamic that’s happening before we jump into finger-pointing and shaming, because women have as much rights to their happiness as men. And that is really what is driving motivating factor for infidelity more than anything else.
Gabe Howard: It’s really fascinating to me that you brought up who are these men cheating with. Now we’re going to assume heterosexual cheating for the purpose of this next question. But when I looked at the study and I saw, well, 85% of men, the first thing that popped into my brain is, oh, that’s really weighted. That’s a lot of men. And everybody knows that that men do this, right? They just men are terrible. They’ve been terrible for years. So, is this really all that interesting? That that’s sort of what popped into my brain. But yeah, you’re right. Clearly, the women they are cheating with are okay being involved in this affair. Now, we don’t know anything about their partners. They may be married. They may not be married. But we do know this, they are okay being part of an affair. And again, I know the numbers aren’t going to come out exact, but it’s still a much bigger number than you would think at first blush.
Paul Keable: Absolutely. I mean, step back and look at, you know, how many men are active on our site and how many women are active on our site. And that gives you a better perspective in terms of what’s really happening. So, for every one active paid male, because men have to pay to communicate with women on our site, you’re going to have about 0.8 females. So, it’s not perfectly gender balanced, but it’s pretty close. And a little side note, interestingly, in a lot of our South American countries, we have two active females for every one active paid male, which is a really interesting dynamic. And that is the basis for, quite frankly, why our site is successful, because it wouldn’t matter if I had a million men joining every day willing to pay for with their credit cards if there were no women on our site connecting, communicating and creating these affairs and working with these men, that just wouldn’t happen. We wouldn’t be around 20 some odd years later. So, all these numbers show, based on what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard from our members in this research from John Hopkins crosses both genders.
Gabe Howard: There’s a very popular song, I believe it’s by The Weeknd. And in the lyrics, he basically says, hey, he heard a rumor that is that his significant other, the woman is cheating on him and that’s fine but keep it on the low. Like don’t tell me about it. The lyrics are actually keep it on the low. I don’t want to know. And as it goes through and you listen to everything, he’s very much saying, look, we’ve got a good thing going. I love you. And as long as you keep this a secret, I’m cool. And this is not some, you know, rogue song that nobody’s heard of. It’s playing constantly at McDonald’s right now. Have you seen societal viewpoints of affairs and the acceptance and understanding of them change?
Paul Keable: Well, absolutely. You just look through pop culture on a regular basis and see how it’s portrayed on TV. We increasingly see more and more content related to that and not in the scandalous way that it was in the past. And so, we still view it as taboo because we lack understanding, but it doesn’t have the same weight to it as it once did, because our values are shifting. Our understanding about monogamy is shifting.
Gabe Howard: As I was reading the Johns Hopkins study, a really powerful quote that jumped out to me was, quote, “Society needs to consider nuanced approaches to understanding infidelity. This study is among the latest to suggest that infidelity is psychologically subtle and in some cases paradoxical. We suggest that many common assertions and assumptions about links between infidelity and poor relationship quality are not consistently supported by available evidence. We observe that people tend to struggle with moral consistency in intimate contexts in the sense that they endorse values that would ostensibly prohibit infidelity while also engaging in infidelity themselves,” unquote. It really seems to me that it’s very clear that what we are led to believe about affairs is largely manufactured by society and that we really do need to broaden our understanding.
Paul Keable: What I find fascinating about the business that I’m in and marriages and monogamy in general is we stand at the altar on our wedding day and we commit to a faithful relationship. But the vast majority, you know, we’ve spoken to our members and I think it was over 90% of our members have told us they never had a discussion with their partner as to what constitutes cheating. What actually is cheating? And that actually is a fascinating part of, you know, this dynamic because for a lot of people, we all understand that if I go out and have sex with another woman who’s not my wife, that is unambiguously cheating. Okay, we got that. Can I go out to lunch with her but not tell my wife? Is that cheating? Is it cheating just to sign up on Ashley Madison, but never, ever communicate with somebody? Or what happens if I communicate but never meet? And all these nuances tell us that we’re afraid of these conversations, or more importantly, we don’t understand them enough to dive in and really have that conversation with our partner. And it’s really important that we do, because if I feel like masturbation is part of my normal life, but my partner thinks that’s a form of cheating, dear God, we’re going to have a big problem in our relationship.
Gabe Howard: Paul, thank you so much for being here. I really hope this episode drives some conversations between, well, general society, but also amongst romantic partners, intimate partners, spouses, husbands, wives. I hope that the conversation does not end when this podcast does. Now, Ashley Madison, of course, can be found at AshleyMadison.com. And do you have any other tidbits or bits of information for our listeners before we head out?
Paul Keable: Well, first and foremost, thank you so much for having me on. I really enjoyed the conversation. And the only thing I would say to anybody who’s considering having an affair is make sure you understand what you’re looking for and most importantly, don’t have an affair at work because that’s going to make you lose your job and potentially your partner.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much, Paul, and thank you to all of our listeners as well. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m an award-winning public speaker and I could be available for your next event. I also wrote the book “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which you can get on Amazon. However, you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me just by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is 100% free and hey, can you do me a favor? Recommend the show. Share it in a support group. Share it on social media. Share it at work. Hell, send somebody a text because sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast from Healthline Media. Have a topic or guest suggestion? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Previous episodes can be found at psychcentral.com/show or on your favorite podcast player. Thank you for listening.