A surprising number of relationships are the product of "mate poaching", the ethically dubious practice of stealing someone else's partner. Though common, nearly nothing is known about the quality of the ensuing relationships. New research now suggests they suffer both in the short- and long-term.
Mate poaching is defined as behavior intended to attract someone who is already in a romantic relationship. Incredibly, nearly half of North Americans say they've succumbed to mate poaching attempts at some point. One estimate suggests that 63% of men and 54% of women are in their current long-term relationships because their current partner stole them from a previous partner.
To date, most of the scientific research on the subject has been conducted by evolutionary psychologists, who argue that we're evolutionarily primed to seek mates in this way and that we often engage in these behaviors in an unconscious way. Some even suggest we form friendships for this express purpose. Like most of evo-psych, these convoluted theories are difficult to prove, and are often clouded in cultural biases. But what's easier and more practical to study are the consequences of mate poaching and the prospects for relationships that form in this way.
A new study by social psychologist Joshua Foster, which now appears in the Journal of Research in Personality, sought to find out if these relationships — by their very nature and on account of the personality/behavioral types involved — might exhibit certain tendencies compared to other types of relationships. They also wanted to know if mate poaching could predict future relationship outcomes. Their suspicions were correct.
After conducting three distinct studies, Foster observed reliable evidence showing that
individuals who were poached by their current romantic partners were less committed, less satisfied, and less invested in their relationships. They also paid more attention to romantic alternatives, perceived their alternatives to be of higher quality, and engaged in higher rates of infidelity compared to non-poached participants.
Ouch. Here's how he came to these conclusions.
In the first study, which involved 138 heterosexual participants (so yes, this is a heteronormative study), volunteers were tracked from zero to 36 months. Both men and women who were poached tended to start off reporting less commitment to their existing relationship, felt less satisfied in it, cheated more, and were actively seeking romantic alternatives. Over time they reported progressively lower levels of commitment and satisfaction in their relationships. Contrast that with participants who were not poached, who showed less interest in romantic alternatives over time.
A second, smaller study confirmed these results. But this sample group did not show deterioration in their relationships over time (likely because the study was too short-lived, or because the deterioration has already bottomed out).
Across the three studies, between 10 and 30 percent of participants said they had been poached by their current partners.
Writing in BPS Research Digest, Christian Jarrett says:
It makes intuitive sense that people who were poached by their partners showed less commitment and satisfaction in their existing relationship. After all, if they were willing to abandon a partner in the past, why should they not be willing or even keen to do so again? This logic was borne out by a final study of 219 more heterosexual participants who answered questions not just about the way their current relationship had been formed, but also about their personalities and attitudes.
Indeed, personality factored into the equation significantly. According to the study, people who have been poached tend to exhibit the following traits:
- Lower agreeableness (lower empathy, less concern for others' well-being)
- Low conscientiousness (less motivated, lower impulse control, less organized)
- Narcissism (selfishness, self-absorption, concern for self over others)
- Avoidant attachment (minimize intimacy, maintain emotional distance, easily feel trapped)
- Unrestricted sociosexual orientation (more willing to engage in casual sex or sex outside of a committed relationship)
- Low extraversion (less socially involved, reserved, lower energy)
Gender was not a predictor of poachability.
What's interesting here, therefore, isn't necessarily the poaching itself, but the fact that people who possess these traits typically don't fare well in long-term relationships anyway.
As the researchers conclude in their study:
To summarize, the results of the present analysis suggest that individuals who were successfully mate poached by their current partners tend to be socially passive, not particularly nice to others, careless and irresponsible, and narcissistic. They also tend to desire and engage in sexual behavior outside of the confines of committed relationships.
Wow, harsh. Those are some big claims for a study so limited in scope. But as the researchers themselves admit, more research is needed to better understand how these relationships function. Take these generalized findings with a grain of salt.
Check out Christian Jarrett's entire article at the British Psychological Society's Research Digest. You can find the scientific study at the Journal of Research in Personality: "What do you get when you make somebody else's partner your own? An analysis of relationships formed via mate poaching".