The Ashley Madison Hack: A Golden Age for Divorce Lawyers or a Golden Opportunity to Reconsider Monogamy?

One of my favourite Valentine’s Day cartoons shows a lawyer dumping a box of randomly-addressed cards into a mailbox hoping to drum up some business for himself. The Ashley Madison hack is that in real life, and what a surprise it is!

Heads have already begun to roll; the ever-reliable BuzzFeed reports that Josh Duggar (yes, that Duggar) has confessed to a membership and has published staff rapporteur Ellen Cushing’s blow by blow confrontation, via text, with her cheating ex. The revelations, of course, don’t stop there. The Canadian Press, in an article posted on CBC’s website, says that the leaked data discloses:

  • 631 users with federal government email addresses, including 40 from
  • 142 users with municipal government email addresses from Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton
  • 224 users with email addresses from Fleming College, Sheridan College and Seneca College

In another article, CBC says that a whopping 189,810 users were registered from Ottawa, which, with a population of barely five times that number, makes the city “No. 1 for philanderers in Canada.” Thousands more users were registered from Washington, DC according to The Hill, which makes one wonder whether there’s something about capital cities which makes them inherently dull.

Thankfully, CBC also reports that brave Ottawa resident Eliot Shore has stepped forward as the representative plaintiff in a class-action suit led by Charney Lawyers and Sutts, Strosberg. The law firms’ press release graciously invites “former and current users” to contact either firm in “strict confidence and anonymity.” Hopefully the law firms’ servers are better secured than those of Ashley Madison.

Salacious hand-rubbing aside, the hack suggests something rather profound about human nature. According to CNN, the hackers claim to have posted the records of 32,000,000 users; the Ashley Madison website itself claims a membership of more than 39,000,000. Now I frankly don’t care about how or why people have affairs, and neither does the law since the introduction of the no-fault Divorce Act in 1985, but the sheer number of people involved in just this one hook-up website is extraordinary, and I question what the hack says about the human capacity for monogamy.

It’s not clear to me that monogamy is intrinsically good or something that people are hardwired to accommodate; it is indeed something with which I have struggled. Although monogamy most certainly is an artifact of Catholic dogma and the proscriptions of the Pentateuch, the increasing prevalence of stable, child-rearing polyamorous relationships in Western society intimates that it perhaps is not a necessary ingredient of meaningful, productive, long-term relationships between consenting adults.

Sadly, the bump in lawyers’ business resulting from the hack is likely going to be a highly conflicted bump, precisely because expectations of monogamy are endemic to North America and grossly obdurate. As I wrote in an earlier post, “Rethinking Family To Reduce Conflict,”

“It seems to me that the contortions into which family law twists itself largely result from efforts to address, accommodate and anticipate the vast array of psychosocial factors involved in family values and family breakdown. I wonder about the extent to which fault for these factors can be laid at the doorstep of certain social norms, especially the presumption that family relationships are enduring, fidelitous and either monogamous (a married relationship between two persons) or diamorous (an unmarried relationship between two persons). Specifically, I wonder about the extent to which the inability of existing processes to manage the process of family breakdown, and the difficulty of planning alternative processes, is attributable to the sequelae of conventional attitudes toward ‘family’. I further wonder whether changing those norms might resolve some of the more difficult aspects of adult conflict and promote a more child-centred approach to the resolution of their parents’ disputes. …

“I suspect that there are a number of important interrelationships between toxic reactions to separation and the circumstances that aggravate those reactions, on the one hand, and, on the other, social norms which stipulate that committed relationships be monogamous or diamorous in nature, heteronormative stereotypes and certain social baggage relating to gender roles and inequality between women and men. There are, for example, specific cultural values that support imbalances of power in opposite-sex relationships (parenting norms, women’s economic inequality) and exacerbate fears of external interference with the family unit (inviolability of the family unit, hypersexualization of women), and thus promote feelings of jealousy, possessiveness and a need for dominance which in turn support coercive and controlling behaviour.”

A golden age is indeed nigh, but it’s likely to be extraordinarily unpleasant for all involved.

I won’t go further into this line of thinking, you can torment yourself by reading the original post if you wish, but the Ashley Madison hack seems to reveal a fundamental weakness of the social norms supporting monogamy. If so many of us can’t or aren’t interested in accommodating exclusive romantic relationships, perhaps it’s time for us as a society to be more embracing of alternative arrangements, ranging from the sort of open but binary relationships websites like AdultFriendFinder and SeekingArrangement seem to be designed for, to more enduring polyamorous relationships. I suspect that family law disputes would be far less destructively adversarial as a result.

As I concluded in that earlier post, it seems to me that a cultural attitude more embracing of polyamory and less insistent on monogamy, might be “less likely to accommodate jealousy or possessive attitudes, power imbalances, controlling and coercive dynamics, or emotional, mental or economic abuse, in all families, whether diamorous or polyamorous.” Such an attitude, I speculated,

“… would be more likely to promote a holistic view of parenting, and the other responsibilities involved in family relationships, while preserving the independence, self-determination and self-interest of the individual adults. It would be more likely to encourage child-centred thinking, ensure that an adult’s relationship with and obligations to a child did not end upon leaving the cohabiting family, and give children a critical continuity of care, regardless of how their family has changed. It would be more likely to promote positive communication skills and minimize the negative fallout when one or more adults leave the cohabiting family. It would be more likely to improve adults’ capacity for empathy, to improve conflict resolution skills and to reduce family members’ need to resort to courts to resolve family disputes.”

Is it perhaps time to adapt to the frailties of human nature and reconsider our compulsion toward monogamy?

John-Paul Boyd is the executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family. The Institute is a federally-incorporated charity established in 1987 and is affiliated with the University of Calgary


  1. Having looked at the data dump myself, some of the numbers as reported by the media are misleading. Many of the e-mail addresses are double counted due to duplication (possibly multiple accounts?) and thus inflate the reported numbers. This is particularly noticeable for law firm addresses (all the 7 sisters are represented — this may be due to law firms using the site to investigate others, or may speak to lawyer’s faith in e-security). Many addresses are public e-mail addresses (e.g. several of the addresses). As a data set, there is not much that can be directly presumed without making questionable assumptions. There are many reasons an e-mail address might be present: curiosity, lack of faith in one’s partner, investigation, or another party registering one’s own address, as is likely the case with some public addresses, such as “”.

  2. There are, I understand, also allegations of a significant number of fake accounts purporting to be from women.

  3. “ensure that an adult’s relationship with and obligations to a child did not end upon leaving the cohabiting family, and give children a critical continuity of care, regardless of how their family has changed.” – this should occur no matter what type of relationship the adults are in. If you can’t take care of your children because of the potentially conflicted status of your relationship with the other parent, you shouldn’t be a parent at all.

    While I agree that maybe polygamy and other non-traditional forms of relationships should be more widely accepted by society, I don’t think that this should be an excuse for people cheating on their spouses. No matter what type of relationship you’re in, you and your spouse should be 100% aware of your intentions in the relationship. If you know you won’t be faithful for the rest of your lives, your spouse deserves to know that in advance. If you’re not willing to commit to one relationship for the rest of your life, that’s fine, too. As long as your spouse understands and is ok with that. There is NO excuse for cheating on your spouse. None.

    Being in an open relationship is a different story. If you don’t want to have one sexual partner at all times, maybe you should stay single, or find a partner who is on the same page.

  4. That’s fair enough and is more or less in line the point I was trying to make. I think that the course a relationship takes should be chosen jointly by both – or all – involved, or much pain and hurt will inevitably follow. It just occurred to me that perhaps Western culture might benefit by taking a less hidebound approach to relationships. That doesn’t change the idea that everyone involved needs to be on the same page, but it might help if more people perceived that there are alternatives to monogamy and diamory.