Tall, dark and handsome used to be the classic requirements for a desirable man. But these days, the list has expanded to tall, dark, handsome – and taken.
According to new US research, "mate poaching" – in which single women prey on other people's partners – is very common, with women shown to be significantly more interested in attached men, rather than their single counterparts.
Female participants in the Oklahoma State University study were all shown the same photograph of a man they were told matched their personal preferences in a partner. Half the group was told their ideal guy was single, while half was told he was in a current romantic relationship.
An overwhelming 90 per cent of women said they'd pursue Unavailable Dude, while only 59 per cent were interested in the same guy when they thought he was single. This led the two social psychologists who conducted the study to wonder whether women prefer attached men because they're regarded as having been "pre-screened."Single means flawed
Single men, on the other hand, are often seen by some women as more of a gamble. The logic is that there must be something terribly wrong with them because they aren't available. After all, if they weren't commitment-phobes, mummy's boys, emotionally challenged or sleazy players, they'd have girlfriends, right?
Miranda, from Sex and the City, offers a natural selection take on the trend. "I'm sorry, but if a man is over 30 and single, there's something wrong with him," she told Carrie, Charlotte, and Samantha in the popular TV series. "It's Darwinian – they're being weeded out from propagating the species."
Anne Hollonds, a psychologist and the CEO of Relationships Australia NSW, says it's possible that women who have a problem with commitment may also be attracted to unavailable men because it feels emotionally safer. "Then again, it could be like any kind of marketing," she says. "If you know everyone's buying an LCD television, you find yourself thinking, 'Maybe I should get one, too."
Attracted to the attached There are numerous example of partner poaching in celeb-ville. Angelina Jolie is alleged to have set her sights on Brad Pitt during the filming of their 2005 movie, Mr & Mrs Smith, wile he was still hitched to Jennifer Aniston (though the pair have always denied sexual infidelity).
Other high-profile examples include Sienna Miller's very public Mediterranean make-out sessions with married father-of-four, Balthazar Getty, Claire Danes' dangerous liaison with actor Billy Crudup (whose partner, Mary-Louise Parker, happened to be seven months pregnant at the time), and – last but by no means least – Camilla Parker Bowles' in-again, off-again affair with Prince Charles.
"If you're after boyfriend material, then it makes sense that the best candidates will already be someone's boyfriend," says Jess, a 21-year-old Sydney hairstylist who confesses to having made several plays for other women's men. "A lot of the guys who cruise the club scene seem either desperate, predatory, or like the other girl's rejects. They're really not very appealing when you compare them with the kind of guys you see cooking pasta or bringing home flowers to their girlfriends."
Playing for keeps The catch-22, however, is that a decent attached guy is unlikely to cheat or leave his partner for someone else. "Once I wore a low-cut top to a barbeque at a friend's place, and that night her boyfriend started sending me flirty texts," Jess says. "We ended up having a fling but there was never any talk of him leaving his girlfriend, which is probably for the best. If we'd ever gone out together I never would have trusted him."
Megan, on the other hand, has a man-poaching story with a happier ending. "Stuart was older than me and married when I met him," says the 26-year-old vet. "We developed a friendship when I operated on his dog after it had been hit by a car."
Many months passed before the pair even kissed, and Stuart was devastated about his decision to eventually leave his wife. "Knowing he'd chosen me, even though he'd been so committed to his marriage, made me feel incredibly special," Megan says. "We've been living together for six months now and I trust him absolutely."
Melissa Burkley and Jessica Parker, the academics who conducted the mate-poaching study, say woman are socialised to be competitive, and may get a self-esteem boost from snatching another woman's man. Do-gooding could also be a motivation.
"Some claim it's almost like an altruistic form of cheating, that they're saving the man from a bad relationship," Burkley says.
Either way, it's clear that some women believe the old maxim about all the good men being taken…However, not to be disheartened, lots of us have decided we want what she's having.