Why do some women date married men? The science behind husband-poaching
Homewreckers. Mistresses. Husband Stealers. The Other Woman.

Women with an eye for married men are nothing new. There are all sorts of stories throughout history about these gals, who have no qualms about stealing someone else’s man. There are websites devoted to exposing them, ones that praise them, explain them, and vilify them. Women who pursue married men come in all sorts of flavors, from the ones who (falsely) believe that that particular guy is their soulmate, even if he does already have a wife, to the ones who just like the challenge of scoring a married man, or even the ones who are willing to be the long-term mistress of a man with a wife and family because they may want security without strings, or just sex or a bit of a thrill.

So what’s the deal? Why would any woman want to steal another girl’s man for a one-night stand or even years of a situationship? I’m sure there are as many reasons as there are women, but just like much of our love and dating behavior, it comes down to biology and the animal urge in us to find a mate and have offspring.

Yes, that’s right, it turns out that there’s a scientific reason behind this man-poaching behavior, and it’s called mate choice copying. Basically, MCC, as it is known, occurs in many species, including humans, when a female sees a male that has already been selected by another female, she may find this male especially attractive. After all, the other female already did the hard work of pre-screening him and now he’s showing that he can be a good solid provider and baby-maker. Biologically speaking, that ‘proven’ male is likely to be a good bet.

Be honest, isn’t the sight of a great guy being a loving father or husband really sexy? I’m happily married, and not interested in cheating, but still, there’s a little twang in my biology when I see those attentive, affectionate men. Something in my body responds to that display of being a great mate, even if my rational mind and faithful heart would never act on that ping.

According to Amany Gouda-Vossos and their team in a 2018 article in Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology (see, aren’t you glad I read this stuff so you don’t have to?), their study found that women were more likely to rate male targets as more desirable when presented alongside a female. It reminds me of how a group of toddlers with a room full of toys will fight over the one toy that someone else was already playing with.

In human societies, although this biological phenomenon is definitely in play, it gets a lot more complicated. There are degrees of mate-poaching from a one-night stand to being a long-term kept mistress. Additionally, landing another woman’s man is often a double-edged sword – we all know the old adage about how a man who cheats, will always cheat. Throw in marriages and divorces, broken hearts and traumatized children, lawyers and child support, and the situation can get very messy. But the fundamental evolutionary drive is still there.

Of course, in reality, most of us don’t think about other people in quite that clinical way. We don’t say, “Hmm, that woman found herself a good mate! I’m going to steal him!” Well, OK, maybe some girls do, but I suspect the majority of the women who date married men don’t think about it that way. They have rationales like preferring the lack of commitment, or the thrill of the chase, or even that it’s not their fault – the guy was perfectly willing and his wife ought to satisfy her man so he doesn’t stray.

And that’s the flip side of this biological quagmire. Females are evolutionarily programmed to seek a mate that will provide stability and resources (food, shelter, etc.) as well as healthy DNA to help her offspring grow up strong and able to produce the next generation. This is true whether she finds her own mate or poaches one already chosen by another female. Males, on the other hand are biologically programmed to deposit their DNA in as many mates as possible without having to provide said resources for their raising. In other words, females want a long term mate and males would rather have sex and leave.

This dichotomy creates a fundamental tension between men and women that is as old as our species, but human culture has found a way to strike a balance between these conflicting interests in the form of marriage (or some similar commitment) which ideally provides a stable environment for the children to grow up in, but which, in many cultures, turns a blind eye to the back-door shenanigans of the men who may be out getting sex from other women. This tends to be more acceptable as long as those ever-important resources are provided for the babies.

I’m not saying it’s ok for guys to cheat, I’m just saying that’s what happens, and as long as there are women out there who are drawn to those married men, there will always be plenty of opportunities for everyone to answer the call of their biology, whether they ought to or not.

But in the end, most of us are trying to follow the lead of our moral compass at least as much as the call of the wild. Science talks about this too. Anthropology has a concept known as the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ which points out that just because we have a biological urge or capability of doing something, doesn’t mean we should do it.

So, my DIVAS, find your own man, no matter how sexy that other girl’s man is or how hard your biology is hollering at you. Don’t be one of those women wasting her time on somebody else’s guy, even if he is willing. If you are looking for lasting love know that married man is unlikely to leave his wife for you — and even if he does, he will probably cheat on you in time. If you are just looking for sex without strings, find an unencumbered partner and take your chances. The smart DIVA won’t ever let herself be the Other Woman, she will walk away from that cheating cheater and find her own man.

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More Reading

For a fairly accessible scientific explanation of mate choice copying: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mate_choice_copying

Gouda-Vossos, A., Nakagawa, S., Dixson, B.J.W. et al. “Mate Choice Copying in Humans: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology (2018) 4: 364. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40750-018-0099-y

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