If You're A Mistress, You’re Making A Choice (And Your Man Is, Too)

Why are women drawn to unavailable men?

mistress being undressed Ground Picture / Shutterstock

When I was in my twenties, I had spent many a night across the table from a girlfriend who was crying her eyes out because the love of her life turned out to be married. Yes, she was his mistress.

No, he didn't wear a ring. No, she did not think it was peculiar that they only met during the day. Yes, she did confront him and he said that it was complicated. He and his wife had an understanding and he no longer loved her. He would soon leave her when the kids started school. Yadda, yadda, yadda.


Months went by. The guy stayed married because his "evil wife" would not grant him a divorce. My girlfriend was still a mistress. It was breaking her heart to see him in "such pain." And on it went.

We were young. I believed her to be naïve. She believed herself to be a victim of circumstance. We put away a lot of martinis.

Many years later, my girlfriend found a man she eventually married (you can exhale, he was single when she met him), and I have stopped believing that a woman sleeping with a married man is a victim.

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What science says about the act of mate poaching

Is the man the bigger weasel in that relationship if one considers that his family is his responsibility? Hell, yes! But unless the mistress is kept as a sex slave, she is a willing participant.

Some more years later, I discovered that there was a scientific term for a woman sleeping with a married man. I liked it much better than the royal-sounding 'mistress' — mate poacher. And how convenient that the term came in a unisex format!

According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, mate poaching is defined as a "behavior intended to attract someone who is already in a romantic relationship."

An even more intriguing study was done by social psychologists Melissa Burkley, Ph.D. and Jessica Parker, MA (not to be confused with Sarah Jessica Parker the actress) from Oklahoma State University. It was published by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2009.


In that study, participants were asked to describe their romantic partners and were told a computer would match them to their potential mates (eHarmony, anyone?). Half of the participants were told that their matches were single. The other half were told that their soulmates were already in a relationship.

Next, came a choice — knowing that their potential match is already involved in a serious relationship, would they be interested in pursuing that person anyway?

Interestingly (or shockingly to some), women expressed much more interest in pursuing a relationship with a committed man rather than a single one.

While 59 percent of women were interested in pursuing a single man, as many as 90 percent of women said they were interested in pursuing a married man.


Men, on the other hand, did not show this preference. How's that for turning the world on its head?

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Why women choose to become mistresses

So what drives women to voluntarily become mistresses? Is it a lack of confidence? Is it a belief that if a man shows interest, she has no choice but to sleep with him because who knows if another one will come along?

Interestingly enough, Burkley claims that a single woman's motivation for pursuing an unavailable man can be all over the map. She even points to some unscientific studies that suggest that women see it as a benevolent act.


"Some women claim that it's almost like an altruistic form of cheating, that they're saving the man from a bad relationship, a bad marriage."

All that scientific interest in cheating is fascinating, but what about real life? What is it that makes women jump into the arms of married men?

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Here are five factors that lead women to mate poach:

1. The challenge

Let's see if I can do it. 

2. Security

If a guy turns her down, it is because he is taken, not because he is rejecting her.

3. He's been tested

His wife chose him for a reason. He must be good.

4. Thrill of having a forbidden fruit

Many women just want what they can't have.


5. Fear of commitment

With a married guy, you've assured nothing but a fling.

So what does all this mean?

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What intuition says about mate poaching

Well, here is my somewhat less scientific observation: Sometimes the lack of something is just as telling as the presence.

What we don't see in these studies is a number that shows how many men actually allowed themselves to be poached once they were approached by the poachers. In layman's terms: How many of the guilty men forgot about the "happily ever after" and carried on an affair?

Or better yet, what about a study of percentages of the same guilty men who were caught and went on to sleep with yet more women after swearing to their wives they would never slip again?


Many years have passed since I was trying to convince a sobbing friend that her married boyfriend was not worth her tears. Now, I find myself consoling girlfriends whose husbands fell prey to mate-poaching women. Many of these women have read the same studies that I did. Many of them are well acquainted with mate poaching.

We are now old enough to understand that women are not victims if they choose to sleep with married men.

Moreover, a few weeks ago, I almost became convinced that an evil poacher put a love potion into my friend's husband's drink. Otherwise, why, on God's green earth, would a good husband leave a goddess like his wife for a troll like this mistress? So these days, instead of defending the wife, I find myself defending the mistress. We are putting away many martinis.

Beware misplaced blame

As much as I allow that a mistress is a willing participant and often an initiator of an affair, to lay responsibility chiefly on her is to misplace the blame. Yes, it is easier to blame the woman than to confront the husband.


But here's a newsflash: No man was ever poached who did not want to be.

Perhaps there already was a study done to say that. If there was, I haven't seen it. Otherwise, I wouldn't have to convince so many women that if the husband cheated, it's not because he was seduced. It was because he wanted to cheat. So if you have come across such research, please save my liver and point it out to me.

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Marina Margulis is a writer and matchmaker who believes dating should be easy and natural.