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The Truth About Why We Try to Steal Each Other's Partners

The principle of mate copying and how it can torpedo relationships.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

We need to discuss poaching—specifically, mate poaching, or stealing someone else’s partner (not ivory).

According to many sources, the international divorce rate has been rising, and continues to creep up year after year. It is not uncommon for a country-specific rate to exceed 50%. So it may be safer to assume that a marriage won’t last, than that it will. Are people not as committed as they once were? Are there more options these days? Do people feel the need to explore other possibilities, and if so, why?

This trend may alarm many people, but to say it is symptomatic of moral decay may not be accurate.

Finding the right romantic partner is one of our biggest challenges. Clearly, indiscriminate selection is problematic. Not just anyone will do—they need to be (generally) someone that you want to spend time with, and possibly reproduce with. Everyone on Earth today has descended from people who were able to effectively solve the puzzle of finding an appropriate romantic partner and reproducing with them. Your own parents, presumably, appealed to each other for at least some period of time, even if just moments, as did their respective parents, and their parents' parents.

This blog has previously explored the idea of mate copying—the idea that you adjust your opinion of an opposite-sex other according to their romantic history. For example, if you are a woman and your friend Jane is going out with a guy named Steve, you will probably consider that Steve has at least something going for him, romantically; after all, he appealed to Jane. Steve has something that appeals to Jane, and possibly to opposite-sex individuals in general.

To put it more simply, mate copying is basically a social popularity heuristic whereby those making choices about who to partner with "copy" the mate preferences of same-sex others.

Mate copying involves adjusting your romantic opinion of someone else, but not necessarily doing anything about it. Mate poaching, however, introduces action. Poaching involves two key elements:

  1. Pursuit. The pursuit of someone that is already in a relationship (and the poacher knows it).
  2. Intent. The intention to pry a person away from their partner.

Although conceptually alike, it should be stressed that there is a big difference between copying and poaching. Liking something after seeing someone else use it (copying) is reasonably normal. After all, imitation is a staple of human existence. All of us copy/mimic/emulate at some point. We might "borrow" or pay homage to someone else’s hairstyle, business strategy, or the way they dance. But seeing someone else’s wallet and then walking over and taking it (poaching), is very different from just admiring it (copying).

Have you ever had a girlfriend or boyfriend stolen from you by another? Have you ever been the object of someone else’s unsuccessful (or successful) attempt at luring you away from a partner? Or have you been the perpetrator in such a scenario? In any event, you have then experienced the phenomenon of mate poaching—an alarmingly common practice among 20-somethings, and among people in general, especially from Europe or South America. In fact, a study involving nearly 17,000 people from 53 countries found that:

  • Poaching is quite common in South America and in southern, eastern, and western Europe.
  • It’s comparatively more rare in Africa and in south, southeast, and east Asia.
  • Men attempt poaching much more often than women.
  • Poachers have similar personality characteristics, such as extraversion and disagreeableness.

There are strong social reasons not to mate poach: Trying to take someone else’s partner is dangerous—you may incur the wrath of an angry boyfriend or girlfriend and wind up getting your offense beaten out of you. You also risk becoming a social outcast if word gets around about your predatory style.

Although indications of a willingness to commit are often considered desirable in dating, a number of studies have found that women prefer single men to men in relationships.

As with any other practice, though, if the benefits of poaching seem positive enough, it will persist. The payoff of a new mate, and, potentially, new offspring, may be compelling. And yet the risks are substantial, and the consequences potentially devastating. It's certainly not a tactic for the faint of heart.

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