Partner Poaching
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Partner Poaching

Lusting after another's mate? Could he or she be The One? Think twice before acting on it -- here's why.

Evolution at Work?

The usual story goes something like this: Boy meets Girl. Boy meets Girl's parents. Boy and Girl live happily ever after.

But more often than you might realize, there's another step in the story, another character in the drama: Boy meets Girl, Boy leaves Current Girlfriend for Girl, Boy and Girl live happily ever after.

Research by the International Sexuality Description Project (ISDP) suggests that up to 20 percent of long-term relationships start when one partner (or both) is dating, even married to, someone else. (Sixteen thousand people in 53 countries were polled for the study, which is based at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, and designed to explore the relationship between personality and sexuality and sex differences in mating preferences.) Evolutionary psychologists call this "mate poaching."

Who poaches and why? What happens to relationships when it does? Are you likely to fall prey to a poacher -- or become one yourself?

According to ISDP lead researcher David P. Schmitt, PhD, a psychology professor at Bradley University, approximately 60 percent of U.S. men and 40 percent of women admit they've tried to lure someone else's squeeze into a short-term fling. "When you look at the long term, the numbers become much more similar," adds Schmitt: 63 percent of men and 52 percent of women cop to trying to purloin a partner for a long-term relationship.

Seems that both men and women have a grass-is-greener gene. From an evolutionary standpoint -- which basically posits that everything we do stems from the drive to propagate our species with lots of big healthy babies -- it makes sense that at some level we'd always, instinctively, be on the lookout. Especially considering that, according to Schmitt, women seek particularly virile men when most fertile, a few days before ovulation.

Why We Poach

But what makes the difference between having ancestral poaching instincts and acting on them? "Many people are attracted to the opportunity for challenge," says Arthur Aron, PhD, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "Studies show that we are more attracted to people when we overcome obstacles to get them than when we don't."

Interestingly, though, poachers tend to rank low on ambition, according to Schmitt. His speculation: they like the quick-fix challenge of landing a relationship, not the real challenge of keeping one. "If they had real ambition, they'd find their own relationship," he says.

But not all poachers seek challenge just to play games or rack up points. For some the urge is more nuanced and deeper-seated. "My dad was a cheater," says Connie, 30, of Greenwich, Connecticut, who poached her husband as well as a boyfriend before him (no physical cheating occurred, just flirting until the guy left his current girlfriend to start something with her). "I always wonder if that contributed to my being a poacher. Having been left for greener pastures -- he left my mom, but it still felt like rejection to me -- did I set out to prove that I was worth leaving someone for?"

Some poaching is also less sinister than it sounds because, let's face it, life does not always have perfect timing. Sometimes people meet The One while they're with Not The One, and there's nothing to blame but pure chance.

Olivia, 37, met Alan, 38, 10 years ago through mutual work friends in San Francisco. "I didn't mean to fall in love with him, honestly. He was not my type. I just knew I wanted to hang out with him and be friends because the moment I met him I thought he was amazing," she recalls. "The crush totally sneaked up on me." Then came an angry phone call from Alan's about-to-be-ex-girlfriend ("My boyfriend's had a crush on you for a year!"), and not long after that, a marriage proposal from Alan.

To Poach or Not

Not every messy beginning has as happy an ending as Olivia and Alan's. So if an opportunity to poach (or be poached) presents itself, it's essential to see the situation -- and the relevant relationships -- for what they are. Keep in mind that:

  1. Poachers aren't a great bet. Relationships that are a result of poaching don't have a great long-term prognosis. "Poachers rate low on conscientiousness, kindness, and past fidelity -- which doesn't bode well for marriage," says Schmitt.
  2. Your relationship may never seem "perfect." The desire to stray -- to poach or be poached -- may come from a skewed perspective on your current relationship. "You want many things in life, and any partner can offer only some of them," says Aron. "Even if you're in a good relationship that offers you lots of X, if someone comes along who offers Y, you take the X for granted, and the Y starts to look really good." Start by focusing on the relationship you're in and the skills you bring to it. Is there a way to add more "Y" (spontaneity, for example) and make sure you appreciate the "X" (security, maybe? ) that you do have?
  3. Relationship hopping may not offer instant happiness. If your current relationship seems unsalvageable, simply trading in for the new one idling outside is likely not the answer. Melissa, 26, an American living in London, left a dull marriage with an amiable husband for a more fiery liaison with her boss. That lasted two years -- much longer than it should have, she says. "I don't think we wanted to admit that we'd made a big mistake and caused ourselves and others a lot of pain for something that wasn't going to work. We both had a grim determination to keep our relationship going, despite all the signs that we were wrong for each other."
  4. Feeling unsettled? Look inside first. Overall, when you're not happy, in a relationship, it's most important to evaluate not your partner, but yourself. Melissa didn't just need to find the "right guy" -- at least not yet. First, she needed to look at what was making her put up with, even fight for, less than she wanted or deserved. "Mainly what determines your satisfaction is not your partner, it's you," says Aron. "There's a good chance that if you're unhappy and anxious in a relationship, jumping to a new one will make you happy in the short run -- but in the long run, you'll feel the same." Melissa now admits that in the past, she'd been over-equating drama with passion, and also looking for her relationship to define her. "My husband was the carefree guy and my boss the hardworking company man. My own personality is between those two extremes, but I played along with who they wanted me to be because it was easier than figuring out who I was." She's now seeing someone new, and taking it slow. "Now I make sure that my relationship not a source of drama, and also that it's not the only thing in my life," she says.
  5. A little self control goes a long way. If you don't go for this person now, you probably won't "miss the chance of a lifetime." Remember: patience is all the virtue that poaching is not. "He told me he'd be with me if it weren't for his girlfriend," says Rachel, 31, of Nick, a guy her age and also from D.C. Despite their attraction, the two survived some intense situations -- even driving cross-country to grad school together -- without incident. When his relationship finally ended and the two started dating, Rachel says, "I had this wonderful feeling that if he wasn't poachable when he was with her, then he wouldn't be poachable when he was with me. After all, I knew from experience."

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