One day hanging out on the grassy knoll freshman year at college, a free-spirited woman on roller skates approached my boyfriend, who was sitting right beside me. She handed him a note and then floated away mysteriously, her sundress rippling in the breeze behind her. It read: Will you go out with me? Yes or No. I was aghast.
One: She was mysterious and appealing in an au natural, boldly confident way that was quite the opposite of me. Two: DUH, this was obviously MY boyfriend. He was sitting right beside me! We were clearly together! What the hell did she think she was doing? I should mention here that to make things additionally eerie, I later found out that her last name was identical to mine and her first name RHYMED WITH MINE. This was some kind of batshit parallel universe, and I was not faring well.
My first thought was this bitch is trying to steal my man! My second thought was oh god what if he likes her more. And why wouldn't he? She was on roller skates for Christ's sake — it doesn't get more spontaneous and fun, AKA, good at sex.
My boyfriend was pretty sheepish about it, obviously flattered, and maybe or maybe not interested. I, on the other hand, was jealous, mad, insecure, and it sent my 19-year-old brain — newly introduced to the tenets of feminism thanks to women's studies classes —into overdrive. I couldn't really live in the space between all these ambiguous possibilities. I wanted this resolved.
But I thought about the way women are regarded when it comes to their appeal out in the world. Attractive women are seen as vixens, temptresses, weaknesses for men, and assorted other phrases that call to mind sexually threatening creatures who cannot be trusted — who, as if by design, stalk, connive and conspire to take good men away from unsuspecting women. The culture is lousy with such depictions of men and the women who corrupt them, from Marilyn Monroe in The Seven-Year Itch to discussions of Kristen Stewart and her fling with director Rupert Sanders.
And I thought of Dolly Parton — "one of the prettiest, singin'est, songwritin'est little blondes in country music" and her brilliant song "Jolene," a song whose narrator asks not her man to be faithful, but rather that Jolene, the other woman, spare the narrator the heartache of taking him, even though they both know she could if she wanted.
I thought about the fact that, growing up, I had never heard the term homewrecker used to refer to anything but a woman, as if by sheer virtue of existing and being attractive, a woman is a threat to the sanctity of the happy home, and that your job as a wife or girlfriend is to guard your relationship against this temptation that your man will not be held responsible for succumbing to or be truly expected to resist. Women are supposed to be more civilized.
And I thought about the fact that this is probably how people get together all the time. They are in unhappy relationships and they meet someone else and it becomes the catalyst for moving on. It is common, and it is pretty ubiquitous and it is also shitty. In a perfect world, relationships would run their course, people would split, take the time to heal, and then get back out there. But we all know what happens.
Still, leaving someone for someone else is never a good idea — this we know intuitively I think. Though I certainly understand the appeal —something new and shiny is always going to look newer and shinier at first — it's a devil's bargain. You're trading a set of issues you know for a set you don't, and whatever is appealing about the person, there is another side, another story. And, btw, if karma exists, this would be the perfect time for it to demonstrate its power, no? When you tempted fate so callously? It's like you asked for it.
What's more, you are all but guaranteeing that the new relationship inevitably crumbles under the weight of the pressure to be great enough to justify the unethical way it began. Researchers call this charade "mate poaching." In a recent piece in io9 on the subject, George Dvorsky writes:
A surprising number of relationships are the product of "mate poaching", the ethically dubious practice of stealing someone else's partner. Though common, nearly nothing is known about the quality of the ensuing relationships. New research now suggests they suffer both in the short- and long-term.
Mate poaching is defined as behavior intended to attract someone who is already in a romantic relationship. Incredibly, nearly half of North Americans say they've succumbed to mate poaching attempts at some point. One estimate suggests that 63% of men and 54% of women are in their current long-term relationships because their current partner stole them from a previous partner.
To date, most of the scientific research on the subject has been conducted by evolutionary psychologists, who argue that we're evolutionarily primed to seek mates in this way and that we often engage in these behaviors in an unconscious way. Some even suggest we form friendships for this express purpose. Like most of evo-psych, these convoluted theories are difficult to prove, and are often clouded in cultural biases. But what's easier and more practical to study are the consequences of mate poaching and the prospects for relationships that form in this way.
The piece goes onto explore the results of a new study from the Journal of Research in Personality that concluded what we all could've guessed: Relationships that begin this way don't flourish. People who were poached weren't as happy later on. They were also less committed. The relationships are plagued by the idea that if you could ditch on someone once because someone else looked more appealing, what's to say you won't do that again? And again?
Also, poachers are kind of dicks, Dvorsky notes:
Indeed, personality factored into the equation significantly. According to the study, people who have been poached tend to exhibit the following traits:
Lower agreeableness (lower empathy, less concern for others' well-being)
Low conscientiousness (less motivated, lower impulse control, less organized)
Narcissism (selfishness, self-absorption, concern for self over others)
Avoidant attachment (minimize intimacy, maintain emotional distance, easily feel trapped)
Unrestricted sociosexual orientation (more willing to engage in casual sex or sex outside of a committed relationship)
Low extraversion (less socially involved, reserved, lower energy)
All this is to say, as Dvorksy mentions, that maybe it's not the poaching that matters so much as the fact that certain types of people poach, and certain types get poached. But why don't we save our selves this semantic dance and call a spade a spade?
You can't steal a person.
Stealing implies the person belongs to you.
People don't belong to other people.
People can either remain committed to you or not.
So what is happening here is not poaching, but cheating. The person in the relationship is deliberately choosing to explore the new thing. The new other person is deliberately willing to explore this committed person knowing they are committed. No one is taking anything that doesn't belong to them. They are choosing. They are also just being dicks. That's why it's called cheating, isn't it? Because it bypasses the work of having to put the time in getting to know someone when free and clear of other commitments. It's a shortcut.
The best policy is to never leave someone for someone else. Only end relationships because they aren't working, not because you think someone else seems like a better fit. That oasis in the distance? A mirage my friend.
Speaking of mirages. Back to the woman on roller skates. I happened to run into her again on campus a few days after the note, and instead of avoiding her, I introduced myself. I told her the guy she'd given the note to was my boyfriend, but that I was happy to introduce the two of them so they could talk because he was very flattered by her note — I wanted them to meet.
So they did. As was expected, he found her engaging and pretty, until she lifted up her arm to gesture at something and he saw that she didn't shave under her arms, which was, in effect, to a guy who grew up in the rural South with traditional gender roles, a dealbreaker. It was such a dumb reason to reject her, and yet, a weird way to get temporary relief from the fear of Someone Else Being More Appealing. It didn't make the relationship last in the long term, but it at least taught me that it's better to see people as freely choosing rather than innocent victims.
There will always be someone else who could seem more appealing. Commitment is an act and a choice, not ownership. The most you can hope is that the person you are with continues to choose you. Save the poaching for eggs.
Image via Getty.