Stole Your Man or Woman: Mate Poaching is Related To Psychopathic Traits, Research Finds

Mate poaching or partner poaching is when someone deliberately and knowingly pursues those who are already in a committed romantic relationship. Now research is showing this behavior is associated with darker personality traits. We’ve all heard the phrase, “A real man (or woman) can never be stolen.” While that may be true, that doesn’t mean partner poachers won’t try regardless of whether or not their intended target reciprocates.

Imagine this: you and your handsome boyfriend are at a dance club for a night out on the town. You are tenderly gazing into each other’s eyes when a woman out of nowhere approaches your boyfriend and starts hitting on him in an unsettling manner, throwing you smug looks while doing so. Your boyfriend seems disgusted at her pick-me tendencies and quickly wraps his arms around you, turning his back on her. What just happened? This was a failed attempt at what researchers call “mate poaching” or partner poaching. This partner poacher knew the man she was approaching had a girlfriend he was clearly invested in, yet still possessed the bizarre audacity to “make a move.” What would motivate someone to do such a thing, especially in public?

What is Mate Poaching?

Mate poaching or partner poaching is when someone deliberately and knowingly pursues those who are already in a committed romantic relationship. Although it was long thought that men were more likely to be mate poachers than women, some studies suggest that it is actually single women who are more likely to increase their efforts toward pursuing a partnered man rather than a single man. Yet it is evident that female narcissists who are already in relationships can also ardently pursue the partners of others as a way to try to “one-up” women they are envious of. It’s also clear that both men and women can engage in this unsavory behavior. While the various motives for this behavior have been discussed, listing everything from seeing a partnered man as more “relationship material” to low self-esteem and trauma, research reveals darker reasons that may be at play for mate poaching. One of those reasons? Psychopathic traits.

Mate Poaching is Related to Psychopathy for Both Men and Women, Studies Find

A 2022 study conducted by Kardum and colleagues of 187 heterosexual couples revealed that men who engage in poaching the mates of other men tend to do so due to low conscientiousness and high Machiavellianism, goal-directed behavior related to being manipulative, insincere, callous and self-centered. Men who were successful at poaching also showed higher levels of psychopathy and lower levels of agreeableness. Meanwhile, women who poached mates successfully tended to be more extroverted, psychopathic, and exhibited openness. Men’s psychopathy and Machiavellianism also most consistently predicted poaching experiences in both men and women. Darker personality traits can also affect whether someone is more likely to be more receptive to mate poaching and be more “willing” to be poached. Another study by Kardum and fellow researchers (2015) used a sample of 819 university students to investigate whether Big Five or Dark Triad traits (narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism) predicted mate poaching behaviors. It discovered that Dark Triad traits predicted mate poaching behaviors, especially poaching success in men. Dark triad traits also predicted being targeted by a poacher for women, whereas it better predicted being successfully poached in men.

Mate Poaching is Part of a Larger, Extensive and Harmful Pattern

Mate poaching is not limited to a few incidents of indiscretion: another study by Belu and Sullivan of 653 adults exposed that those who were in a “poached” relationship had a more “extensive history” of poached relationships and that these poached relationships tended to be of lower quality than that of non-poached relationships. We’ve all heard the phrase, “A real man (or woman) can never be stolen.” While that may be true, that doesn’t mean partner poachers won’t try regardless of whether or not their intended target reciprocates. Let’s be real: when an affair occurs, both the person who cheated and the one they cheated with (if they knew about the relationship) are at fault, especially the one who betrayed their own relationship. But when it comes to an individual who has a pattern of partner poaching, even if the person they pursue doesn’t return their affections, they will continue this destructive pattern with others.

It is clear partner or mate poaching is not a one-time steamy crush, a rare incident of uncontrollable lust, or an embarrassing mistake: for partner poachers, pursuing people already in relationships gives them a sense of power, a rush of control, a feeling of sadistic pleasure and victory that they’ve one-upped their perceived “opponent,” even though that person was never competing with them in the first place. Psychopathic partner poachers may attempt to infiltrate the relationships of others in disturbing ways, escalating with a boldness and callousness that has no regard for the spouse who is terrorized. They may even attempt to flaunt their newfound romance in the victim’s face (thankfully, research confirms it’s bound to be a low-quality relationship if the partner is successfully poached). Mate poaching is a pattern of harmful behavior that is morally transgressive and can be invasive and violating for the innocent parties who are victimized. It should be taken seriously and all parties who participate should be held accountable for their behavior.

Shahida is a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University. She is a published researcher and author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse and Breaking Trauma Bonds with Narcissists and Psychopaths. Her books have been translated into 16+ languages all over the world. Her work has been featured on Salon, HuffPost, Inc., Bustle, Psychology Today, Healthline, VICE, NYDaily News and more. For more inspiration and insight on manipulation and red flags, follow her on Instagram here.

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