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Mate Poaching / Mate Guarding


This refers to other people’s partners and preventing others from stealing your partner respectively.


Mate poaching is where one person tries to romantically entangle another person who is already in a relationship. There are probably many reasons for this, e.g., finding a long-term partner, being able to get away with it, etc. Some have suggested that males may try to attract beautiful, mated women, without necessarily getting into a relationship, and that women might prefer mated men with resources (Schmitt 2003). It has also been suggested that because so many people are mated, that the only reasonable way to pass on your genes is to mate with someone who is already in a relationship (Kohler 2013). There may be different motivations for the genders. Males could mate with many desirable women and have many children, whilst for women it may allow for genetically superior children. As poaching has consequences to the poacher and poachee, then it is often kept secret.


Students were investigated on their willingness to be poached (Schmitt 2003) -

  • Women have better success by enhancing their physical attractiveness.

  • Women who showed cues of sexual availability were successful in finding short-term mates.

  • Men had more success if they showed their resources and willingness to invest, but less successful if they showed willingness to invest in women and children.

  • Males showing cues indicating emotional commitment did not work.


When it came -

  • To short-term relationships, mated men tended to enhance the women, to be generous and humorous, while mated women also enhanced the mate and arranged easy sexual access.

  • For long-term relationship, mated men showed the above features, while women tended to show emotional closeness, mentioning they wanted a new partner and to be generous to the man.

  • Women may be more successful when they look for replacements, invite meddling, say negative or derogatory things about their partner. This might play into the male’s greater willingness to engage in extra-pair copulations. Enticement cues of waiting around, developing other social connections and prioritising new partners may be more effective for women.

  • The two most effective behaviours might be getting the potential mate drunk and being in a temporary break in the relationship.


There are costs to poaching, such as public ridicule, loss of resources, being left alone, etc. The fact there is a cost seems to a universal cultural experience (Kardum 2022). When heterosexual undergraduates in the USA were primed to expect either a lack of mates, they were more likely to compete with members of the same sex, to show more jealousy and to direct aggression to a potential poacher (Arnocky 2014).


An interesting cross cultural view of mate poaching looked at such behaviours over many different parts of the world (Schmitt 2004).


  • Up to 70% of males and up to 40% of females tried to short term mate, whilst the figures for long term mating were 40 to 65% and 30-50% respectfully. With males trying more than females.

  • Up to 80% males and 90% females reported success for short term mating poaching, with similar figures for long term mating.

  • In terms of number of poaching episodes, the genders were roughly equal.

  • For the prevalence of being poached, frequency of poaching attempts was roughly the same for the genders. With males more likely to being poached, especially for short term mating’s.

  • There was a positive correlation between success of poaching for short term mating’s and GDP.


The authors felt that poaching is a universal human behaviour, with a few leading to successful relationships.


Personality structure may be a little different in those poached and those doing the poaching, be they male or female. Agreeableness / conscientiousness lower the chance of people poaching, while extraversion, psychopathy and narcissism raise the chances. The targets of poaching may show more extraversion, openness, psychopathy and narcissism. But there does tend to some gender differences in how this is expressed (Kardum 2022).


In addition to ‘enticing mate poaching’ there is also ‘poaching enticement disguise’. This is using deception to cover up intentions and divert the attention of competitors away from resources. Such as lavishing resources and emotional commitment onto their partners, so that the partner and wider community feel that the relationship is a committed one and hence stable. Another is for people to deliberately downplay their own value as a mate, leading others to think that they are less of a danger to other relationships. This has been called “enticement – disguise’.  Poaching enticement disguise was investigated by (Schmitt 2003) and he found -


  • Women were more likely to discount their own physical appearance. To offer and have more sex with their partners to disguise their enticement attempts.  Keep matters normal, using their friends, lying about relationships and themselves, using isolation, becoming more independent and maintaining their routine.

  • Men were more likely to increase resources spent on their partner, to give greater emotional support, use work and spending less time with the partner to disguise their attempts. Also talking to the partner, paying attention to her, being emotional with her, being satisfied with her. He also does not talk about the new partner with anyone, so isolating her from the current partner and the rest of the community.


Mate guarding involves concealing mates e.g., removing them from sight of others, masking their scent, reducing mating displays, preventing others from interfering, visiting your partner unexpectedly, not letting them out of sight, attacking the supposed rival or partner, monopolising the partner’s time, displaying resources, etc.  Failing to keep a partner may lead to the loss of reproductive opportunities, loss of resources, a loss of face and rivals may gain information. Men tend to display mate guarding the more attractive their partner is, while women do the same when their partner has more resources (Buss 2002; Fisher 2009). In most groups of people, half have tried to find another sexual partner and about half of these attempts had succeeded, e.g., about 60% of men and about 40-50% of women in some studies. Poaching has been used to find a desirable sexual partner for long-term relationships (Buss 2007; Thomson 2007).


Sleeping after intercourse may be a sign of guarding behaviour with suggestions that women value it more and are more likely to initiate it (Hughes 2004). An interesting association between guarding behaviours and sperm (see sperm competition later) was found in males in heterosexual relationships. There was a suggestion that males who spent less time in mate guarding behaviours tended to produce sperm that were more motile, in higher numbers with more regular movements (Leivers 2014).


Males may guard their partners more when she is most fertile, as the risk of extra-pair copulations is perceived to be high and may seek more sex with their partner. Amongst a group of men in a sexual relationship, the level of intra-pair copulations correlated with male reports of guarding, vigilance over the partner, concealment of their mates and monopolisation of the partner’s time when controlled for age, the time since the last sex act, the time spent together and relationship satisfaction. A group of women who were in a sexual relationship found that their reports of their partners mate guarding was also associated with overall mate guarding, vigilance, concealing mates and time monopolisation, again controlled for age, relationship satisfaction, length of time spent together and length of relationship. So, it seems that mate guarding, and inter-pair copulations are often seen together (Shackleford 2005).


When it comes to paternity, many men are unsure if the child is theirs but as the child may be theirs, they may stick around. This helps females via protection, healthier children, resources, etc., which may have outweighed the risk of being deserted, losing resources, etc., if the infidelity is discovered. Uncertain paternal origin may allow several men to invest in the raising of the child, etc. This may partly explain why female fertility and early pregnancy is often hidden. Some feel that all this uncertainty is designed to get the male to invest in the female and her child (Wilson 1992; Hughes 2004).


Mate Value. There are those who value mating over relationships and may be more likely to engage in short-term mating. Mate value has been defined as “The total value of the characteristics that an individual possesses in terms of the potential contribution to his or her mate’s reproductive success”. Some have thought of this as an indication of an individual’s genetic quality, but this definition is defined in terms of an individual’s partner. Others have defined it as “The total sum of characteristics an individual possesses at a given moment and within a particular context that impacts on their ability to successfully find, attract and retain a mate” (Fisher 2008).


Heterosexual individuals were asked various questions about short- and long-term relationships, with ratings also being made using the Mate Value Inventory (MVI). The following was found (Fisher 2008).


Female -

  • MVI scores correlated to views of the opposite sex, sociability, parenting, looks and relationship history.

  • Self-perceived attractiveness correlated with views of the opposite sex, sociability, and looks.

  • The number of short-term relationships correlated with views of the opposite sex, relationship history, self-perceived ease of finding a short-term romantic partner and sex.

  • The numbers of long-term relationships were correlated with wealth, relationship history, self-perceived ease of finding a short-term romantic partner or a long-term marriage partner and sex. Relationship number did not correlate with MVI scores.

  • Short term mating, scores correlated with views of the opposite sex, sociality, parenting, relationship history and negatively with fear of failure. Finding a mate for marriage, scores correlated with views of the opposite sex, sociality and parenting.

  • MVI scores correlated with short-term romance and potential for marriage.


Male -

  • MVI scores correlated with views of the opposite sex, sociability, relationship history.

  • Self-perceived attractiveness correlated with views of the opposite sex, sociality, relationship history and negatively with fear of failure.

  • Number of short-term relationships did not correlate with any of the seven factors. The number of long-term relationships correlated with relationship history, self-perceived ease of finding a short-term romantic partner, and negatively with fear of failure and MCI scores.

  • Finding a short-term mate, scores correlated with views of the opposite sex, sociability, relationship history and negatively with fear of failure. Finding a mate for marriage, scores correlated with sociality and parenting. MVI scores correlated with short-term romance and sex.


Mate value may be reflected in the how we look after dependants, in that males with dependents are seen as more attractive. There is evidence that males looking for long term relationships, as opposed to short term ones, display more evidence of their dependents. Both genders were equally likely to display evidence of dependents when looking for long term relationships (Zinck 2022).


Mate value was investigated in the Himba people of North Namibia, a society with high female autonomy and an acceptance of extra-pair relationships. Males rated themselves as more desirable than females did. The more desirable people were viewed, the more selective their preferences especially more for males. People wanted to be with those of higher desirability scores. The more couples differed in desirability scores, the less the phone / sexual contact. Those with high desirability tended to have more partners and to think their main partner would be faithful (Prall 2022).


Ecological sex ratios are where the proportion of females to males is not in balance. In humans this can relate to wars that kill men, or infanticide where girls are often killed, etc. When males are abundant, there is often a move away from short to long term mates as there is less chance for sex, whilst females can then assert their preferences. Hence more marriages, less divorces, etc. When females are more numerous, they often take on a male pattern of short-term mattings, with fewer marriages and a greater focus on physical attributes. This may be more pronounced if people are of a low mate value (Maner 2020).


This finding that people with similar desirability tend to be together has been seen elsewhere. When we consider the general topic of similarities then this effect is repeated and called positive associative mating. It may reflect shared environmental as well as evolutionary factors (Versluys 2021).


Mate Effort – This relates to the energy invested in obtaining and retaining sexual partners. Amongst a group of 271 people, those who rated high in this were more threatened by cues of sexual infidelity, with a non-significant trend for high mate effort males being more upset but mate value was not related to threat from infidelity. With continuous measures, those high in MV were more upset about infidelity while those males with high ME tended to be more jealous. So those with high mate effort might find sexual infidelity more threatening, in keeping with short term-sexual access, and those low in mate effort may find emotional infidelity more threatening, in keeping with a focus on long-term relationships. Those high in MV were more upset by general infidelity, as they may not have expected it because of their desirability. Those high in mate effort may behave more violently to betrayal. Aversive emotional reactions may also predict punitive reactions to sexual infidelity; especially for those low in mate value, for females with cues of sexual infidelity and for those with high levels of mate effort, while those high in mate value were less likely to have impulses to act punitively. This is consistent with people with high mate effort being more tempted and likely to act punitively to prevent infidelity (Jones 2007). Those who rate highly in terms of mate effort may have many sexual partners, value sex more, more likely to be aggressive with same sex members and engage in mate guarding more at times of high fertility (Fisher 2008).

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