“He’s taken? Tell me more!”
It’s a typical line dropped by fictional characters like Samantha Jones, that saucy publicist from Sex and the City. But these days, you’ll also hear it on any given girls’ night out, as single ladies swirl their cocktails and share tales of romantic pursuit.
They may not be joking. According to a new study, single women may be more interested in pursuing men who are already in committed relationships, a finding that suggests women are not just griping that “all the good men are taken” — they’re conspiring to get their share.
The study from Oklahoma State University looked at the impact of gender and relationship status on “mate poaching,” a sly tactic that’s constantly played out in the tabloids — Sienna Miller canoodling with married actor Balthazar Getty, LeAnn Rimes stealing movie co-star Eddie Cibrian from his wife, Claire Danes luring co-star Billy Crudup away from his pregnant partner, Mary-Louise Parker.
Melissa Burkley, lead study author and assistant professor of social psychology at the university, and PhD student Jessica Parker had 184 Oklahoma State undergrads (97 of them female) fill out a survey on their personal preferences, including what they look for in a romantic partner. Then the group was shown pictures of the person with whom they were “matched” — all men got the same photo and all women got the same photo. Half of the group was told their match was single, while half was told their match was “in a current romantic relationship.”
Given the option, 90 percent of women said they would pursue the attached man, while 59 percent said they’d go for the single one, Burkley says. Their findings are published this month in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
“We found that men were over all interested in this person, but it did not matter at all whether she was single or in a relationship,” she says. “(But) for the women, particularly the single women, it mattered very much. If he was single, they weren’t nearly as interested.”
Recent studies find that mate poaching among females is quite common. A 2004 study from Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. found 34 percent of women in 53 countries actively engage in mate poaching. A study from 2001 by the same researchers found mate poachers more likely to be low in agreeableness and conscientiousness than people who don’t pursue unavailable people.
“Some would argue that him being in the relationship means he has resources available,” Burkley says. “It’s shown that he’s able to commit … he’s already done it once, so he may be more likely to do it again.”
But he’s also more likely to be lured by another woman on the prowl, says Rachel Greenwald, the Denver, Colo. author of “Why He Didn’t Call You Back.”
A single gal’s acquisition will probably be short-lived, since a poached man is also more likely to keep an eye out for someone better to whisk him away, she notes.
“The reality is he’ll (be stolen) again because the illusion is someone even more perfect or terrific is just a mouse click away.”
A single woman’s motivations for pursuing an unavailable man can be all over the map, Burkley says, pointing to some unscientific studies that suggest some women see it as a benevolent act — a thread in the Jon &Kate plus Mistress storyline.
“Some women claim that it’s almost like an altruistic form of cheating, that they’re saving the man from a bad relationship, a bad marriage.”
Nicole Mather, a 22-year-old receptionist in Ottawa, Canada says she is occasionally interested in attached guys, many of who don’t divulge their relationship status until late in the game.
“A lot of my friends will say, ‘I think the only reason you’re flirting with this guy is because he’s already attached. As soon as he left his girlfriend for you, you wouldn’t want to date him,’ “ she says. “And most of the time it’s like, ‘No, I genuinely have an interest in these people.’ “
While she’s never actually “poached” a man, she sees the appeal of pursuing one who is proving his commitment.
“It’s kind of like an automatic relationship test, just the fact that someone else obviously thought they were cool enough to be involved with.”