Dating & Relationships

The Science Of Mate Poaching: Why Stealing Someone Else’s Partner Probably Isn’t A Good Idea

October 2, 2014 by Justin Lehmiller

Stealing someone else’s spouse or lover is a common occurrence on television shows and in the movies. This phenomenon, known scientifically as mate poaching, is not just the stuff of Hollywood fiction, though–it’s incredibly common in the real world too. For instance, survey research on North American adults reveals that about half of them report having been poached successfully from a previous relationship [1]! So what comes of romances that begin with poaching. Can luring someone away from their current partner form the basis of a healthy, long-term relationship? According to a new set of studies published in the Journal of Research in Personality, not so much [2].

Across three studies involving heterosexual individuals in romantic relationships, researchers found that poached partners tended to be in more dysfunctional relationships and were less reliable mates. In Study 1, poached partners reported being less satisfied with, invested in, and committed to their relationships than their non-poached counterparts. In addition, poached partners believed that they had better alternatives to their current relationship and spent more time thinking about those alternatives. Over the 9-week period that this study lasted, the differences between poached and non-poached partners on these relationship dimensions become more pronounced.

Study 2 replicated most of these findings and also revealed that poached partners reported engaging in more infidelity. This study also found that certain personality traits appeared to explain these results. Specifically, narcissism (i.e., being self-absorbed) and having an unrestricted sociosexual orientation (i.e., having a greater willingness to have sex without love or intimacy) statistically accounted for many of the links between mate poaching and worse relationship outcomes.

A third study found further support for these results and also revealed that poached partners tended to score lower on the Big Five personality traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness. In other words, poached partners (perhaps unsurprisingly) were less nice and more irresponsible.

To sum it all up, stealing someone away from their romantic partner doesn’t seem like the best recipe for relationship success. Poached partners don’t seem to be as happy with or committed to their relationships, and they do not seem to feel as many qualms about cheating in the future. So, while the popular media might make mate poaching look pretty exciting and sexy, it doesn’t seem to be a good way of finding a partner who will stick around.

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[1] Schmitt, D. P., & International Sexuality Description Project (2004). Patterns and universals of mate poaching across 53 nations: The effects of sex, culture, and personality on romantically attracting another person’s partner. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 560–584.

[2] Foster, J. D., Jonason, P. K., Shrira, I., Keith Campbell, W., Shiverdecker, L. K., & Varner, S. C. (2014). What do you get when you make somebody else’s partner your own? An analysis of relationships formed via mate poaching. Journal of Research in Personality, 52, 78-90.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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