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The perils of partner poaching

The perils of partner poaching

By Lynn Harris

Poaching: when it comes to wild animals, it’s a violation of international law. It can upset ecosystems, endanger entire species. In other words, it’s a serious, widespread and downright destructive practice.

No wonder we tend to co-opt that term when it comes to romantic relationships. “Partner poaching” — in other words, “stealing” someone who’s already taken — can be disastrous, even affecting friendships. “I justified poaching a boyfriend because he and I ‘got’ each other, while his girlfriend didn’t even like our favorite band!” confides Noreen, a recent partner poacher. “We started sneaking glances at each other and rolling our eyes at her, then seeing movies together that she didn’t care about. Eventually, we hooked up. She found out and it all exploded in our faces. We didn’t last long, though. It turned out we liked the secrecy and scandal a lot more than we liked each other — and I lost a few friends in the process, too.” With less than stellar results to show for it, Noreen now regrets her decision to make a move without considering the long-term consequences.

Weighing the risks vs. rewards
Experts confirm the many perils of acting out on this impulse: “Poaching entails risks that would seem to make it a poor decision,” says psychologist David P. Schmitt, Ph.D., of Bradley University in Peoria, IL, who has studied poaching extensively, often from an anthropological standpoint. “Men and women have been killed for such behavior.” Despite its inherent danger, partner poaching remains fairly common. A survey conducted by the International Sexuality Description Project, founded by Schmitt, revealed that up to 20 percent of long-term relationships began when one or both partners were involved with someone else. In the U.S., 62 percent of men and 40 percent of women said they’d tried to mooch someone else’s mate; 47 percent of men and 32 percent of women were successfully stolen away.
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Does the end ever justify the means?
Sometimes, partner poaching can be completely successful. “My current husband blatantly poached me from my ex-husband while we were still married,” says Dalia. “He came after me with true tenacity, which I imagine is rare for a 37-year-old woman with a toddler and a figure to match. We were married a year ago, just as soon as the divorce went through, and we’re more in love every day.” We probably all know a couple like that. So, does the occasional happy ending justify the means? Is another person’s mate ever fair game? Officially, no. Ask any love expert (or poaching victim): someone in a relationship is off-limits. “You might think you’re pursuing true love, but you’re still taking something that’s not yours,” says psychotherapist and relationship expert Sharyn Wolf, author of So You Want to Get Married: Guerilla Tactics for Turning a Date into a Mate and This Old Spouse: Tips and Tools for Keeping the Honeymoon Glow.

Relationships built on shaky foundations seldom last
Poaching is also not the sturdiest foundation on which to build a lasting romantic relationship. A poacher typically acts out of unenlightened self-interest and the accompanying short-term ego boost that a successful theft can provide. “The fact that someone’s taken puts that person at a premium. Even more than chasing after someone single, poaching is about conquest; it’s a notch in your belt,” says sex and relationships counselor Ian Kerner, Ph.D., author of several books, including DSI: Date Scene Investigation. (While men are more likely to seek out and succumb to poaching when it comes to flings, there are insignificant gender differences in poaching aimed at something long-term, says Schmitt, although one limited study suggests that single women actually prefer taken men — perhaps because they have already demonstrated a willingness to commit to one partner.)

But is a poacher — or poachee — relationship-worthy? Not so much. As Schmitt notes, poachers and poachees — both male and female — are likely to have antisocial personalities, which isn’t exactly romantic. Not surprisingly, adds Schmitt, “poached relationships are less likely to last than others, probably because both partners are already prone to relationship instability.” Imagine that you’re the poacher: Would you really want to be with someone who’d abandon an established relationship to be with you? As a dramatic romantic gesture, sure; as a long-term partner, no way. “You want someone who’ll work on a relationship when times get tough, not someone who’ll simply walk out,” says psychologist Diana Kirschner, Ph.D., author of Love in 90 Days. “If it’s happened before, it can also happen to you.”

Of course, there are always exceptions. Anyone who warns against poaching also lives in the real world. It’s a world where we, like Dalia, meet great people while we’re in not-so-great relationships, and that’s where true love can have some tricky beginnings. “Real life does not come without complexity and baggage,” says Kerner. “In real life, people sometimes leave their spouses for something better. In real life, people sometimes need a catalyst to see what they really want.”

So what should you do if you’re tempted to poach — or be poached?

Always question your motives before making a move
First, ask yourself this question: Is this something that happens frequently? It is critical to be honest — especially with yourself — about your motives. “If you hurt someone because you’ve fallen for his or her partner, that’s one thing; but if you’ve hurt 25 people by falling in love with each of their partners, that’s different,” says Wolf. If you’ve stolen all your past loves from someone else, it’s time to talk to a therapist and get some insight into that grass-is-always-greener mentality.

If you really, reaaaaallly feel a special connection with someone — someone who is not the person you’re currently dating, that is — take a look at your own relationship first, suggests Wolf. Is this interest in someone else a sign that it’s time to break up, or merely an excuse to escape from other, more important issues? (Also, do a background check on the would-be poacher. If this person has a history of sweetie-stealing, beware.)

How to ethically express your attraction for someone who’s already taken
Finally, there’s poaching — and then there’s divulging your attraction to the other person like a responsible, ethical, can’t-live-with-what-ifs adult. “You can make a gentle move,” says Wolf, “acknowledging that you feel a connection, one you might like to act on if both of you were single.” After that, back off. That’s what Bianca did when her friendship with a guy got a bit too steamy for his girlfriend’s taste. “It isn’t as if I ran in, tossed him over my shoulder, and left,” Bianca explains. “His relationship was on the skids but he wasn’t doing anything about it.” She knew he was aware of her attraction to him, and she also suspected the feeling was mutual. So, Bianca waited — and, eventually, he chose her. “We’ve been together five years now and are best friends,” Bianca says. “I can’t imagine my life without my beloved.”

Nicely played, according to Kirschner. “It’s best to wait — and to date others, so you’re not hopelessly carrying a torch,” she says, noting that doing things the right way can make the poaching principle work in your favor: “Dating other people makes you that much more attractive.”

Lynn Harris (www.lynnharris.net) is co-creator, with Chris Kalb (www.chriskalb.com), of the award-winning website BreakupGirl.net. A longtime journalist, Lynn has written about dating, gender, and culture high and low for Glamour, Marie Claire, The New York Times, Salon.com, Nerve.com, and many others. She is currently the communications strategist for Breakthrough, a transnational organization that creates pop culture to promote human rights. Submit your dating questions for Ask Lynn via bg@breakupgirl.net.