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Who Needs to Worry Most About Mate Poaching?

The more someone is pursued the less committed they may become.

Key points

  • Approximately 64 percent of men and 49 percent of women have tried to "poach" someone who was currently in a relationship, one study found.
  • The more mate poaching someone experiences, the less committed they tend to become to their current relationship over time.
  • When people are in a highly committed relationship, a successful poacher must be markedly more attractive and wealthy than their current partner.

We’ve all heard the song "Jessie’s Girl" by Rick Springfield:

Jessie is a friend. Yeah, I know he’s been a good friend of mine.
But lately, something’s changed and it’s hard to define.
Jessie’s got himself a girl and I want to make her mine.

Let's pause. So many things appear wrong with this situation. Jessie’s girl is already taken. She’s in a committed relationship with, of all people, someone who is supposedly a friend. And what changed, that’s so difficult to define, that would warrant risking a friendship for the possibility of a romantic relationship? If Jessie’s girl were to find out, do you think she’d be interested in someone who purposefully tried to break up her relationship?

For some people, the thought of mate poaching—or pursuing someone who is already in a romantic relationship—is a nonstarter. But some psychological research suggests this may not be the case for everyone. In one study, conducted by psychologists David Schmitt and David Buss, approximately 64 percent of men and 49 percent of women reported trying to poach someone who was currently in a romantic relationship.

Elle Hughes/Pexels
Mate poaching refers to pursuing a romantic relationship with someone who is currently in another relationship.
Source: Elle Hughes/Pexels

Is Mate Poaching Effective?

Those numbers may be disheartening to read. But what’s even more disheartening is that mate poaching can be effective.

In another study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers Edward Paul Lemay and Noah Wolf asked heterosexual people currently in a romantic relationship to answer questions about their relationship commitment, how attractive they found their current romantic partner, and how attractive they found a friend of the opposite sex (i.e., the potential mate poacher).

Researchers then asked the friend, who was not in the relationship, the extent to which they engaged in mate poaching. Examples of poaching included trying to stop the couple from spending time together and pointing out negative qualities of the romantic rival.

Luckily, most friends reported doing little mate poaching. But for those that did, the greater the mate poaching over time, the less committed their friend was to their current relationship.

Because this dyadic study was conducted over an extended period of time, the researchers concluded that mate poaching led people to rate their current partner as less attractive, and the poacher as more attractive, over time.

Who May Be at Risk of Mate Poaching?

In a different study, researchers Alastair Davies and Todd Shackelford asked heterosexual men and women to imagine being poached from a current dating, long-term, cohabitating, or marriage relationship. Then, they were asked to rate how much more attractive and how much wealthier would the poacher need to be for them to leave their current partner, using a scale from 1 (very slightly more) to 7 (vastly more).

In this hypothetical scenario, findings revealed that how much more attractive and wealthy the poacher would need to be than their current partner depended on their level of commitment. When people were in highly committed relationships, such as being in a marriage or cohabitating relationship, then the poacher needed to be markedly more attractive and wealthy than their current partner to have a shot at ending their current relationship.

Although the Davies and Shackelford study presented a hypothetical scenario, mate poaching may unfortunately, at times, be a reality for some couples. Those with greater mismatches in wealth or attractiveness, for example, may be at greater risk of being poached.

Facebook image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

References

Davies, A. P., & Shackelford, T. K. (2017). Don't you wish your partner was hot like me?: The effectiveness of mate poaching across relationship types considering the relative mate-values of the poacher and the partner of the poached. Personality and Individual Differences, 106, 32-35.

Lemay Jr, E. P., & Wolf, N. R. (2016). Human mate poaching tactics are effective: Evidence from a dyadic prospective study on opposite-sex “friendships”. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(4), 374-380.

Schmitt, D. P., & Buss, D. M. (2001). Human mate poaching: Tactics and temptations for infiltrating existing mateships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 894–917.

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