“Mate poaching” means that you take a partner from another person. A man who seduces (what an old-fashioned word, neh?) a woman, someone who already has a committed relationship with another man, has poached.

It works both ways, of course.

One large 2004 study estimated that 63% of men and 54% of women are in their current relationship because their current mate poached them from their previous partner.[1] That tells us that women are just as likely-perhaps a bit more likely-to poach an attractive man as men are likely to try to steal a woman they find intriguing.

A new study by Joshua Foster and associates[2] finds that men or women who have been poached are less committed and less happy in their new relationship. They are much more likely to cheat and be looking for better partners, in spite of appearing to be committed to their current situation. If you steal a mate, your prey seems likely to keep looking, instead of enjoying the current relationship.

Foster also found that the new partner became less happy over time. His survey covered partnerships in poached and non-poached conditions. They interviewed the couples six times over a tend week span, and they found that the poached individuals became progressively more disconnected and continued to cheat on their current partner.

It seems that if you were poached, you are still in the market for the next new thing. You are still unhappy.

I suppose that says “you should not poach if you want a happy relationship.”

But look a bit deeper.

While Lord Acton famously quipped “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” someone once replied, “No, it is that power attracts corruptible people.”

I imagine that people who end up being poached were giving off subtle cues that say “I am available.” They are not good at fidelity. They haven’t practiced making decisions with the frontal lobes, and instead let their limbic system, the emotional brain, guide their behavior. They see rules about loyalty and fidelity as robbing them of happiness. If their current partner were better, they suppose, then they wouldn’t have to cheat to be happy.

The word itself conjures up images of disgusting people spotlighting and shooting deer. Poach means taking a prey illegally. But is the man or woman who gets poached a prey, or rather an eager participant? Perhaps the so-called prey in this situation is equally guilty? Perhaps their rationale is “My current mate fails me. I am justified?”

A simple thought experiment: Two men are married. One to a beautiful model, and another to a rather plain woman. Both men are equally attractive. Does it shock us when the one married to the beautiful model cheats? Only if we are terribly naïve. A famous model once endured public humiliation. Her husband was caught cheating on her. We were watching a TV program, and the commentator wondered out loud, how anyone could cheat on such a beautiful woman? My son snorted derisively. “What, like plain women deserve to be cheated upon? That is pretty stupid!”

(Yes, I am bragging about my son.)

If we extend a “pass” to the man married to a plain woman, we are saying that it is her fault that her husband cheated. She just isn’t attractive enough.

But that isn’t true at all. Fidelity is a decision, not a reaction. Perhaps the man married to the plain woman simply has a higher standard that he holds himself to? Perhaps his ethics make it impossible, or at least extremely unlikely for him to cheat? (If he does cheat, under any conditions, he wasn’t really committed to his ethics.)

Am I letting the poacher off the hook? Not at all. I just think that Foster seems to put much more emphasis on the poacher. I take that as an error, ethical obliviousness. As they say, “You can’t cheat an honest man.” We think that the poacher is worthy of blame since he or she stole someone who was already committed. There is truth there. But again, look deeper.

Can we say that the cheater and the poacher deserve each other? Can we argue that neither deserves a higher quality of relationship, because they aren’t willing to make the commitment? Can we suppose that what the cheater or the poacher would call the intolerable sacrifice that fidelity demands is instead a wise decision that yields far greater happiness and security?

Can we say, “Frontal lobes rule!”?

I think so. Duty and loyalty yield happiness and joy. The Golden Rule still works.


[1] http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2004-12052-004, this study is behind a paywall, so you will need a library-pass from your college or university to see it.

[2] http://tinyurl.com/pr2ap3u; note that if you track down his website, it doesn’t have anything beyond 2010 so we cannot see the actual study yet, at least without emailing him for a copy of the paper.