Like a moth to a flame, single women are drawn to a man in a relationship, and are sometimes successful in poaching someone else’s mate. Mate poaching is a term coined by David Buss in his book entitled Evolution of Desire. It describes the behavior of men and women who purposely seek out people who are already in committed relationships. A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that of the single women in the study who were told their “match” was currently in a romantic relationship, 90 percent said they would pursue the man knowing he was not single. Although the practice of mate poaching is commonly depicted in movies, television shows and tabloids, this study provides the first empirical confirmation that most single women actually do or would engage in mate poaching.
The practice of mate poaching appears to be prevalent worldwide, with one study* suggesting that as many as one in five long-term relationships began when one or both partners was already in a relationship with someone else. As a professional matchmaker, I often get to work with clients who are living with the aftermath of a mate poaching scenario, sometimes as the poacher, sometimes as the “poachee”. In either case, the psychological and emotional impacts are real, have often caused significant pain, and rarely live up to the expectations of the persons involved.
So why are single women more interested in men who are attached?
There are probably several reasons why single women engage in mate poaching. Some possible reasons include: A taken man may be seen as more of a challenge, women may be socialized to compete with other women for men’s attentions and this chase for a taken man’s attention is thrilling. Or, they may see themselves as “saving” the man from an unhappy relationship. Plus, taken men have already proven they have resources and are willing to commit. Here are some other possible reasons:
1. Women want what’s off limits
In the Garden of Eden, Eve sinks her teeth into the one piece of fruit that God instructed her to avoid — so began a long line of women who wanted, oh so badly, what they could not have. We see the same trend continue today with women staring longingly at designer shoes, fawning over limited-edition jewelry and above all, chasing after already spoken-for men. Be it human or handbag, the more tantalizingly out of reach it is, the more appealing it becomes.
2. Power and Control
Some women will say they Mate Poach because they like being the “one in control” of the relationship…that they can “leave it anytime they want” and there are no “strings attached”. The truth is that when a person must feel like they are in “control” of a relationship, it is usually because they have a fear of abandonment or commitment. They may have a need to feel safe because they have been abused or hurt in the past and so they think if they “control” a man, they feel safe. In reality, the woman engaging in “Mate Poaching” is controlled by the desires of the married man. He is the one who chooses when to see her, if he will leave his wife, and is usually the one who ends the affair.
3. Low Self Esteem
For women who base their self-esteem on their appearance, they may use mate poaching as an attempt to protect and restore self-esteem. A woman who successfully lures a man away from his partner may use this “success” to convince herself that she is more attractive, more desirable or just generally better than his current partner and it may be that these feelings of superiority provide a boost to her self-esteem.
4. Women want an ego boost
Man or woman, the ultimate ego boost is the knowledge that you’re not just hot, but irresistibly hot. Consider this: If a man risks his entire relationship— commitment be damned — for one exceptionally steamy night with another woman, that other woman will go home feeling like she has one-upped Helen of Troy. That’s bragging rights to the max. A shot of confidence like that could make up for a long dry spell of celibacy or jump-start a love life. Plus, if she’s unable to win him over, there’s a net to catch her: “Of course he’s not interested in me; he’s in a relationship.”
5. Women see taken men as having desirable qualities
To help you further understand how women perceive the dating pool, think of men like parking spaces surrounding a popular restaurant on a Friday evening. The best ones, meaning the ones closest to the restaurant, will be occupied almost solidly until closing. But as one gets farther from the front door, the parking spots aren’t as good, so they open up with greater regularity or, in some cases, remain open permanently. In short, women believe that men who are single are single for a reason. Backward as it may sound, the ones who aren’t available may feel like they are the ones worth going for.
6. Women like a challenge
Women who demonstrate the right combination of warmth and affection can bag a single guy like candy on Halloween. Taken men, on the other hand, are tougher to get. For starters, they’re probably content with their current girlfriend and not too keen on gambling that relationship. You’d think this would deter an aggressive girl, but no. With two hearts that stand to gain (and only one to be crushed as collateral damage), the stakes are too high to back out. Also, what if he’s not as happy as he looks? Women know a man loves to be fought over, and there’s potential that his girlfriend under-delivers. Hello, window of opportunity!
7. Women can be ultra-competitive with other women
Then there are those women who simply have it out for their own gender. In grade school, they pulled pigtails; now that they’re older, they pull boyfriends. Some are out for revenge, others make a sport of seeing if they “can get him,” whatever the emotional cost. Women size up their competition and somehow rationalize that her boyfriend is begging to be with a real woman — no offense to the tramp he’s with. Remember, too, that women aren’t always down with waiting patiently for a taken man to free up. They want results, and they want them yesterday.
8. Taken men have confidence
The next time you go out, take a look around. The most confident guy in the room isn’t the one usurping attention or emptying his wallet on drinks for the gang. When a man has a beautiful successful woman on his arm., what better proof exists that he is successful, intelligent and endlessly charming? Men who enjoy this luxury are infinitely more natural, comfortable and cool. They worry little, stress out even less. This all adds up to a man with incredible romantic gravity who pulls women into his orbit.
So now, we have explored some of the reasons why women tell us they mate poach. What this study didn’t address are the consequences of this behavior. And the consequences can never be “Happily Ever After,” because, no matter what, someone is going to get hurt.
For instance, consider the woman who is attracted to the taken man because of the competition for someone else’s guy? While the competition may be stimulating, what happens when you get the guy? Kind of like the car-chasing dog that doesn’t know what to do when he finally catches one, the Competitor Poacher may find herself right back out there looking for the next conquest, since it is the thrill of the hunt that gets her going. Or what about the woman that poaches to boost her self-esteem? Or to convince herself she’s “still got it”? What happens when the poached man decides to stay with his mate, or move on? What will that do to her ego then?
And what about the woman who believes that a taken man has all the qualities that make him desirable? Since someone else took him, he’s worth taking? How do you reconcile that assessment with his willingness to walk away from that commitment to be with someone else? A “taken man” who won’t stay taken is missing some of the key qualities that my clients put at the top of their list when looking for a mate, namely honesty, integrity and loyalty.
Regardless of the reason, Mate Poaching can lead to emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual pain and/or harm for the women engaging in the behavior as well as the married man and his family. While this study gives some credibility to the idea that it happens in real life like we see on TV, it doesn’t make it right. As I often counsel my clients, you should first be the kind of person you are looking for. If you value honesty and integrity, you should be honest and behave with integrity. And if you keep that in mind, mate poaching will stay where it belongs…..on the Lifetime movie of the week.
Julia McCurley is a Professional Matchmaker , Relationship Coach and CEO of Something More, Austin’s premier Matchmaking service. After a successful career in the IT staffing business, she decided to take her headhunting skills and transfer them to be a headhunter for the heart. She has been creating happy couples in Austin since 2009 and has helped hundreds of singles on their journey to finding love. Julia has been featured in many media outlets such as ABC, NBC, CBS , and Fox TV affiliates, Bustle, and the Huffington Post. She also just published her first book, Game Set Match: A Professional Matchmaker’s Advice on How to Win At the Game Of Love.