Be a good egg, darling

Be a good egg, darling

July 24, 2004

Research says 20 per cent of relationships involve a partner pinched from someone else. Kate Rew ponders the stolen kisses behind many a romance.

At the pretty English wedding, no one wanted to mention how the happy couple met - through his childhood best friend, who was also the bride's boyfriend at the time.

We like our love stories simple: boy meets girl, they fall in love and everyone is happy. But recent research has found that 20 per cent of all relationships, and the same proportion of long-term relationships, have murkier beginnings, leaving a spurned partner in their wake. In 5 per cent of marriages, both partners had to end relationships before they could be together (a move known as a co-poach).

"Poaching is much more common than we thought," says David Schmitt , the psychologist at Bradley University, Illinois, who conducted the study. "We surveyed 17,000 individuals across 53 countries and found the behaviour is pretty constant across age groups and nations, from East Asia to Europe and America.

"Overall, 57 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women have tried to lure someone away for a short or long-term fling, and around 70 per cent of both sexes report someone trying to poach them."

As surprising as the prevalence of the poaching is the blatant strategising behind it.

"Poaching tactics that are successful are similar to general romantic tactics: being generous to a person, confiding in them, getting their peer group to like you and boosting their ego," says Schmitt. "Men emphasise their status and dominance, because women don't tend to leave relationships for a guy without resources. Women emphasise their attractiveness."

While fancying your friend's boyfriend happens as soon as people are old enough to pair off in the playground, making a play for him is always taboo. Who transgresses this boundary? Extroverts and erotophiles (people who enjoy talking about sex) are the most likely to do it.

"One of the key ways that poaching seems to happen is that you get two people who are open to talking about their sexual feelings. It's a slippery slope," says Schmitt.

Amanda was poached from her rich live-in boyfriend by a mutual acquaintance. "Adam was always generous and attentive. There was a spark between us, and when Tim was away, Adam wooed me with dinners and presents," she says. "It wasn't just sex - Adam wanted to have a family. He was ready for all the things that I wanted. So I left Tim."

But can relationships that start with strategy, lies and scheming ever be honest? "I don't believe it's a case of once a cheater, always a cheater," says relationship counsellor Denise Knowles. "Unless there's a psychotic problem, most people have the ability to change."

Poachers and poachees have remarkably constant personality traits around the globe. As well as being open to new experiences, attractive and erotophiles, the most prolific mate thieves are also less agreeable, conscientious and faithful than others.

The people who succumb to their poaching attempts are "not a pretty picture" either, says Schmitt. They "tend to be high on self-esteem, but rate low on altruism, trust, straightforwardness and modesty. They also score low on conscientiousness, which means they are disorderly, lack high morals and tend to be late to appointments."

While these traits can spell a fraught future, they don't always. For some, it's a matter of leaving a dying or unhappy relationship in search of something better.

While condemnation from others doesn't always bother poachers and poachees, their own values may. Pete was poached from a long-term relationship and cut himself off from everyone he knew previously. More than a decade on, he does not feel completely at ease with his actions.

As our sexuality becomes more open, Schmitt predicts, poaching will be more common. But for those whose ideas about honour and romance remain old-fashioned, there remains one question: when you are living with someone else's sweetheart, will you still be able to live with yourself?