Q: What can Ashley Madison tell us about monogamous marriage?

A: The hacking of the Ashley Madison website and the leaking of user information has resulted in much commentary on the website’s service. According to some, users are guilty of infidelity, stupidity or both and are getting what they deserve.

But does Ashley Madison reveal something broader about North American society? Does it not fly in the face of Western-style monogamous marriage and present a threat to our values and way of life? To understand the implications of Internet facilitated infidelity, I suggest we turn a critical eye on the beliefs and practices associated with Western-style marriage.

The anthropological record is unequivocal that our shift from polygamy to monogamy was relatively recent and that Western-style marriage is only one of many institutions for establishing relatedness. We don’t know why monogamy appeared approximately 10,000 years ago, but currently it is the primary way we attempt to create social ties, regulate sex and raise children, especially in the West.

In this context, anthropology reveals many questions regarding how monogamy shapes people’s lives. There is the issue of choice. Do people choose monogamy? Apparently we don’t, not as individuals anyway, not fully. Monogamy is socially imposed. It is so normative that choosing not to be monogamous transgresses fundamental social norms, although this is changing somewhat.

This coercion is especially important when considering the close link, especially in the West, between monogamous unions and so-called legitimate children. Though the situation is better than it was, a child brought into our society outside of marriage is still different, and not in a good way, unfortunately.

Nor has monogamy been great for many women. (Importantly, anthropology shows that women can be the primary beneficiaries of plural marriage.) Within monogamous bonds, anthropologists describe persistent double standards. Women should be virgins (or at least not be too promiscuous) until married; women are judged more harshly over extramarital affairs. Men have it much easier in both respects despite being much more likely to cheat on wives. Monogamous marriages also exist, for the most part, in households wherein women shoulder a disproportionate share of domestic work, even when participating fully in the formal economy.

Marriage has also become increasingly commodified, which is to say that it is becoming something to buy and sell. Wives are literally purchased online or through recently emergent forms of marriage brokering. The wedding industry, furthermore, has gotten so out of control that couples in North America regularly go into significant debt trying to keep up with the Joneses. (Or is it the Kardashians?)

In short, it is obvious that Western-style marriage has at least as many weaknesses as strengths. It creates at least as many problems as it solves. This raises important questions about whether to protect it from threats like Ashley Madison. Is it worth defending? Why stand up for a potentially dysfunctional institution? Certainly, even before Ashley Madison appeared on the scene, the prevalence of divorce suggests that Western-style marriage has been in trouble for some time.

Given these observations, recent commentary by an anthropologist on “love marriage” is worth considering. Love marriage is contrasted with arranged marriage. The former is based on an emotion (a rather unstable one), and the other is not. Love marriage is about choice — about whom to marry, that is, and not necessarily of whether to marry at all. In the Western world, one is supposed to marry the person one loves most.

But Western-style monogamous marriage regularly is not sustained by love, at least not the romantic form that brings couples together. As a society, then, divorce seems to be as important an institution for us as marriage. And what does this say about us, about our primary form of relatedness?

Most of us need our society and government to recognize and make real what is very likely our most important (non-blood) personal relationship. We desire the socially and bureaucratically sanctioned permanence of the bond. Yet, we also desire the same assurance regarding the option to opt out of the bond.

We expect to have our cake and eat it too. And isn’t this why marriage and divorce have to be enforced by external entities (i.e. governments and societies)? Too much freewill erodes the likelihood of realizing our desires for lifelong bonding, but anthropology points out that our particular desires in this regard are more social fact than individual choice.

Oddly, as long as we are willing to admit as much, things might be OK. After all, no type of forming relationships is the product of individual choice entirely. There has to be agreement between at least two people. But
if those forming the bond aren’t the primary architects of it, then it stands to reason it could easily fall apart.

Ashley Madison is unlikely a causal factor in any of this. It would appear to be playing a relatively minor role in the rather bizarre, socially imposed arrangement we’ve created for establishing and maintaining relatedness. North Americans tend to be rather quick to judge other forms of marriage. Perhaps it is time to look a little closer at our own.