One reputable, sizable study (done in 2009) found 90 per cent of single women were interested in a man they believed was taken, while a mere 59 per cent wanted him when told he was single.
There are plenty of unsavoury reasons why both men and women indulge in ‘mate-poaching’.
Some do it for a narcissistic ego-boost (if I can tear him away from his wife and kids then I must be really special), others do it because they have intimacy issues (if the person can’t commit to you then you don’t need to commit to them).
People are competitive and some can’t resist a challenge regardless of the destructive fallout (I bet I could get you to leave them if you could have me instead).
Then there’s the Ashley Madison reason of simply wanting no-strings sex and figuring someone who’s married is far less likely to want anything other than sex from you if they’re have someone who loves them at home.
Far more fascinating, though, are the decent people who confess to finding married people attractive – often the spouses of their close friends.
While these people would NEVER actually act on the attraction, they will admit it’s definitely there – and feel horrendously guilty and ashamed about it.
What’s the psychology behind someone nice finding someone who is already taken desirable, when it’s clearly not a very nice thing to do?
Is it really true that ‘all the good ones are taken’ – or are there more innocent reasons at play?
Happily, the answer to that is yes.
1. Animals do it
It’s called ‘mate-choice copying’ or ‘mate poaching’: females of certain species (including animals, fish and birds) prefer males who have been seen with other females or mated with other females.
2. Both sexes are guilty – for different reasons
A 2010 study found women are much more likely to fancy attached men than men are attached women.
But it’s not because men are morally superior – they’re simply attracted to women whether they’re single or married.
Contrary to popular opinion, men aren’t immune to the ‘wedding ring phenomenon’ and are much more likely to actually act on the attraction.
In one study, 60 per cent of men, compared to 38 per cent of women, admitted to attempting to sleep with someone who was already taken.
Men are far less discriminating in their search for sexual partners generally and will pursue women regardless of their relationship status.
3. Married people have proved they can commit
If a man’s already married, it’s solid proof he isn’t a commitment phobe and can actually follow through on promises.
If you’ve just been dumped by yet another guy who didn’t want to be ‘tied down’, a man who is married is highly appealing because of this demonstrated capacity for commitment.
He’s proved he’s stable and reliable – likely to stick around when the going gets tough.
These are hugely attractive qualities to women who’ve been let down by flaky men who can’t even be relied on to turn up, let alone stand by them in a crisis.
4. If you know him well, you’re seen first hand how devoted he is
If you’re a close friend of the couple, you’ve seen this man in action.
If he’s a nice bloke, this means helping her with the dishes, spooning baby food into their toddler’s mouth, looking after her when she’s sick, doing the chores.
You’ve heard from her how supportive he’s been and how all-round fantastic he is.
If hubby senses you have a bit of a crush on him, he’s on best behaviour while you’re there – not for dodgy reasons but simply because it’s flattering to be admired.
If he has children, he’s even more appealing: you have proof he’d be a great father.
5. He’s become your confidante
It’s quite common for the husband or male partner of a good friend to become the person who deciphers all the confusing male behaviour a single girlfriend struggles with.
He not only sheds light on what’s going on in the murky male psyche, he invariably presents himself as one of the nice guys who would never behave like the b*****d you’re complaining about.
He has to: his wife or partner is nearly always there as well!
It’s very easy to start idealising and wistfully thinking (If only I could clone Mike/Dave/John. Why aren’t there more men like him!).
6. He doesn’t have ulterior motives
Taken men are also appealing because they’re not just saying those nice things to get women into bed.
His compliments seem more genuine – making him more likeable.
7. Married people are grown-ups
When I met my fiancé, I was even more attracted to him when I found out he had a daughter from a previous marriage.
Single dads who share custody for their children are far more likely to be responsible adults than men who haven’t had someone dependent on them.
It’s the same logic with married men.
Almost all the statistics on single men vs married men fall in the married man’s favour.
Married men are healthier, more likely to be employed and more responsible: infinitely more appealing than some guy who still lives at home with his parents, gets his washing done by mum and is still ‘finding his feet’ career wise at the age of 35.
Attached people are also more confident and happier.
He’s far less needy and (over) eager to please if he’s already landed a fantastic partner who loves and supports him and confidence has always been magnetic.
8. If he’s making someone we really like and admire happy, he must be special
Ironically, the more you like your friend and the happier you think she is, the more likely you are to see her partner as attractive.
If she’s great, then he must be amazing to keep her satisfied.
This is especially likely if you also think your friend is very attractive.
According to one study (2010), the better looking the man’s partner, the more appealing the man is.
The reverse also applies: even men with model good looks lose points if they’re with a woman who isn’t attractive.
It makes us suspicious – is there a fault that isn’t apparent?
Why has he ended up with someone who isn’t as good looking as he is?
With all of these perfectly plausible reasons to explain why you’d fancy someone who is taken, why then don’t most (decent) women act on the attraction?
Most people don’t male-poach for even better reasons.
1. You have morals
You love your friend and value the friendship: why on earth would you consider doing something that would devastate her?
2. Who wants a cheat?
If the guy’s going to cheat on his partner with you, he’s probably going to cheat on you with someone else.
‘Mate poaching’ is a contradictory phenomenon: you’re attracted to someone because they’re capable of commitment but if you’re able to seduce them, they’re clearly not capable of behaving in a committed way.
Honestly, trust, respect – all of these are high on most people’s list of wants in a partner and all are immediately struck off when you/they are unfaithful.
3. You have way too much confidence to settle for someone else’s leftovers
A 2007 study found women who were confident men found them attractive and who’d had more sex partners, were less likely to fancy attached men, let alone act on the attraction.
Which makes perfect sense.
Why would you choose all the destruction and drama of stealing someone else’s man, when you are perfectly capable of attracting a desirable available person?
4. Fantasies are generally best left as fantasies
Most relationships that begin from an affair don’t last – and not just for the jealousy factor of knowing you’re both capable of cheating.
Few people live up to our fantasies of what we think they’ll be like – especially if you live with someone 24/7 – with most ending up disappointed.
In short: be careful what you wish for.