What is mate poaching? When it comes to romance, some folks see it as a competition. If they set their sights on someone, they will openly compete to entice them away from their current relationship. The term is “mate poaching” (Schmitt et al. 2004; Schmitt and Buss 2001).
Although both genders engage in mate poaching, I will be focusing on female mate poachers, because it is the most prevalent form of mate poaching we hear about in couples therapy.
In a research study conducted in 2004, 54 % of the women “poached” their current partner out of a previous relationship.
Researchers in the United States and Australia are learning more about how these relationships form and how they differ from relationships formed by those previously unattached.
Evolutionary psychologists are even more about the behavior of mate poaching. Research tells us that mate poaching is widespread and found across the globe.
It is a common interpersonal issue in most countries and cultures. According to an extensive survey of over 16,000 people worldwide, evolutionary psychologist David Schmitt believes that mate poaching impacts as many as 10 to 15 percent of all committed relationships.
Another evolutionary psychologist, David M. Buss, tells us that women have always competed against each other for the attention of Alpha males. Mate poaching is a common strategy. In societies where desirable men are hard to find, women will aggressively compete for them by poaching.
Forget notions of sisterhood. Another reason why mate poaching is so universal is that it’s a relatively safe strategy for women with little danger to its downside. Men directly run the risk of violence in mate poaching. But lethal force between female competitors is relatively rare.
Mate-poaching isn’t unique to humans. It has been observed among various species (Dawkins and Krebs 1978; Dewaal 1986; Trivers 1985) and across diverse human cultural groups (e.g., Schmitt, et al. 2004).
Stealing someone else’s spouse can be both difficult and dangerous (see Davies, Shackleford, and Hass, 2010; Schmitt and Buss, 2001). In the first place, the odds of being rejected are higher than average, mainly if the targeted potential mate is married or otherwise profoundly committed to their current relationship (Schmitt and Buss (2001).
Another problem is that mate-poaching is a high-drama endeavor. Strong feelings are in play. Mate-poachers and their targets may feel high levels of stress or guilt (Davies, et al. 2010; Schmitt and Buss, 2001).
Mate poaching may result can elicit acts of retaliation the cuckold defending their turf, or result in social disapproval (Daly and Wilson, 1989). Even if they succeed in temporarily capturing interest, the risk of being dumped is high. No wonder why mate-poaching tactics are sly, sneaky, and subtle.
How does a mate poacher set a trap? It typically starts with a covetous lingering gaze.
Other tactics may include flirtation, provocative body language or spying on the relationship through a shared to probe for signs of weakness or dissatisfaction that can be exploited (Schmitt and Buss 2001).
Mate poachers often draw attention to themselves by asking for help with a work-related question. Then they gradually build a Platonic friendship with their intended target.
It’s typical for mate poachers to shift the conversational content over time. Asking increasingly more intimate and exploratory questions is a very common strategy for the workplace mate poacher (Mogilski & Wade, 2013).
Many mate-poachers are themselves often already involved in a relationship. To carve out room to maneuver, they will manipulate or deceive their partner and act in unusual ways.
For example, researchers tell us the mate poachers who are already in committed relationships might act even more affectionately with their current partner to hide their efforts to poach another partner and avoid suspicion.
Research suggests that many mate poachers are high on a set of personality traits that are called the Dark Triad.
These are traits of Machiavellian intelligence, narcissism, and psychopathy (Jonason, Li, & Buss, 2010). Workplace mate poachers have inherently unstable intimate relationships. They have trouble holding on to partners and are often freely willing to be poached away as well.
We also now know that Mate Poachers are rated as being better looking than non-poachers ( Sunderani, Arnocky, & Vaillancourt, 2013).
They often present with style and allure. This makes sense, as their reproductive strategy is to entice a high-value partner into a relationship. Some mate poachers are openly provocative flirts, but many are more devious.
Josephs (2016) tells us that infidelity cannot occur without a “permissive environment.” A permissive environment is maintained by co-workers willing to have sex with you despite the fact that you (or they) are in a committed relationship.
The more people continue to work in co-ed settings, the more the mate poacher can assess the available inventory of seducible partners. Josephs (2016) reports that individual psychotherapy with mate poachers is challenging because the drama of the high risk/high reward brings the therapist along on a very bumpy ride.
Mate poaching, as a reproductive strategy, has the dopamine hit of the massive ego boost you get by slyly winning a highly desirable partner…or the sudden crash of becoming the cast-off third wheel. Neuroscience tells us this is the same neural reward-seeking circuitry that is found in problem gamblers (Joseph, 2016). It may be addictive to be a mate poacher.
It’s a fascinating phenomenon that mate poachers often enter individual therapy when they feel that the romantic tide is turning against them.
It is a puzzle of neuroscience that mate poachers are often unable or unwilling to tolerate defeat.
Researchers are still wrestling with the question “why would someone be committed to winning a fundamentally untrustworthy partner when honesty and trustworthiness are such preferred, desirable traits in a long-term partner?”
Is it because the mate poacher is addicted to the pursuit?
The mate poacher is ever hopeful for a desirable but spoken for, partner. They are perpetually looking to trade up. Or perhaps a mate poacher is in a bad relationship and cushions the blow with a workplace exit affair.
Mate poachers in therapy can present along with a moral continuum. Which is why therapists recruit such continuums at their own peril.
Who could blame a woman in an abusive relationship for being attracted to her kind, stable, but unhappily married boss? And yet at the same time, research suggests that a significant number of mate poachers have personality disorders such as narcissism or Borderline Personality Disorder (Jonason, Li, & Buss, 2010).
Successful men often perceive that they are entitled to enjoy the fruits of their labor by taking advantage of the women who are enamored of them.
However, the #Me Too movement has brought about a cultural shift. Employers are re-evaluating how “permissive” their work culture should be.
Unattached CEO’s are being fired for engaging in even consensual relationships with mate-poachers.
The common stereotype of the powerful man and the trophy woman is consistent with research findings across cultures and across time that men are attracted to beauty and youth, and women are attracted to power and resources. Research has sadly proven this cliche to be true.
“These prominent men are captivated by opportunities for the conquest of beauty queens who scorned them when they were young, awkward, and starting their climb up the ladder. What they usually fail to recognize or consider is that they become a trophy themselves when they take the giant step down from their lofty pedestal to engage in an illicit sexual relationship.” Dr. Shirley Glass.
It would be helpful for HR Departments to study clinical research on mate poaching. The HR problem with mate poachers and their prey in a corporate setting is the serial social havoc they incur.
We know that mate poachers have an aversion to cutting their losses when things get messy. That’s why mate poachers have been known to serially harass and cyber-stalk their affair partner’s wives, while HR departments wring their hands helplessly on the sidelines.
Cultural blinders are fascinating. We are living in a time of revelation and disclosure. HR departments have perfected sexual harassment training to a meme. The bad behavior of men is on display as never before. The floodgates of reproach have been thrown open.
Many mighty men will be crushed beneath the wheel of this cultural shift. This sometimes happens when consciousness expands. So be it.
Hopefully, at some point, our consciousness might expand once more to take in the phenomena of workplace mate poaching. HR departments are sorely in need of a comprehensive training fostering a family-friendly workplace culture with appropriate boundaries.
Thanks to the late Dr. Shirley Glass, there is preventive, teachable evidence-based research that could easily inform an HR workplace initiative mate poaching prevention program.
A permissive environment is not just created by the mate poacher. Corporate and workplace culture have a role to play as well.
“Secluded from the responsibilities of everyday life, the parallel universe of the affair is often idealized, infused with the promise of transcendence. For some people…it is a world of possibility—an alternate reality in which they can reimagine and reinvent themselves. Then again, it is experienced as limitless precisely because it is contained within the limits of its clandestine structure. It is a poetic interlude in a prosaic life.” Esther Perel.
Mate poachers thrive in permissive environments, which is why workplace culture has become increasingly on the radar. Many mate poachers prefer to transition from one relationship by seamlessly “trading-up” to another, and sometimes the best place to do this is at work.
This “trading -up” behavior has been called the Mate-Switching Hypothesis (Greiling and Buss, 2000). “Trading-up” means that the potential new partner is a higher-quality mate than a current partner.
Although “sperm of the moment relationships” are easy to find, most women want to see and maintain long-term committed relationships, and mate-poachers are willing to look at all available options and compete for who they want.
According to Schmitt (2004), 44% of women in his study reported that they have engaged in mate-poach to find a committed, long-term relationship. If the notion of spouse poaching morally unencumbers you, research tells us that your choice of a high-status man will result in more healthy children than you might have with a man of lower status (Bereczkei and Csansky 1996; Voland and Engel 1990).
Let’s talk about sexual attractiveness. Evolutionary biologists say, is a placeholder for higher sperm quality and fertility (Gallup and Frederick, 2010). Attractive partners…attract. They are more likely to be desired by others (Buss, 1989; Overbeek and Engels, 2010).
Some researchers believe that mate poachers prefer to rely on the taste and preferences of other women. This idea is called Mate-Choice Copying (Graziiano et al. 1993; Parker and Burkley, 2009). Waynforth (2007). These researchers suggest that mate poachers consider men in existing relationships as more desirable just because another woman already chose them.
Women typically employ the cultural expectation that women are more reliably faithful than men.“The Other woman” is often attacked as being a “homewrecker,” and a threat to community standards. However, some experts believe our views on marriage are changing. Community standards are sometimes only the lies we pretend to abide by.
Although it has been declining over the past few decades, the divorce is the U.S. is still robust enough to assume that a reasonable number of desirable men will become available again at some point in the future. Infidelity is not only as common as it ever was, it now reflects a level of an emotional intensity unseen in prior decades.
“slut-shaming” isn’t the reliable defense it once was. Relationships are complicated and shift over time. The cultural expectation that marriage is a “forever commitment” is wobbly at best. Extra-marital liaisons are losing their capacity to shock and offend.
In a recent magazine poll, 57% of women reported that they would respect a female friend to a lesser degree if they knew that she was with a married man. 77% of women would think less of a male friend involved in an affair.
While this indicates somewhat high rates of discomfort, the absolute social norm condemning “adultery” a century ago has been seriously undermined.
However, spouse poaching is still a riskier move than mate poaching. In some states, it’s even against the law.
The important take away is that while men are reporting a higher level of emotional involvement during the affair, research continues to indicate that after divorce, unions with affair partners are relatively rare and risky to the extreme.
A recent poll of 4,126 male business executives discovered that only 3 percent of those divorced did so because they became committed to their affair partners.
And 86% of male respondents to a recent magazine poll reported that they passed on their affair partner as their next life mate.
If you are a member of the small group that does end up married to your affair partner, you still have not beaten the odds.
The divorce rate for these couples within the first 5 years of marriage is 70%. The math doesn’t lie. Post-divorce bliss with an affair partner is highly unlikely. Mate poaching as a reliable, long-term life partner-securing strategy for women in the 21st century is dicey at best.
Researchers Davies, Shackleford, and Hass (2007) conclude that most men and women would prefer to pair bond with someone unattached. Mate poaching is typically a “Plan B” when all else fails. It’s risky, high drama, and success often comes at a high social cost.
But Mate-poaching is everywhere. It’s everywhere because for some people it works pretty well some of the time. They may have to kiss a lot of frogs, get their reputation dinged a bit, and yet mate poaching continues to interfere with marriages and committed relationships all over the world.
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Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.
We schedule three double sessions with you in total. You complete an extensive online relationship questionnaire. In that final meeting, we spend almost two hours with you explaining, from a science perspective what's working in your relationship, what's not, and how to fix it.
It's all done online, either week-by-week or over a weekend.