Couples in committed relationships often seek to sustain their relationship status in ways that are protective but not possessive. This goal often includes the ways in which they interact with same-sex rivals who might otherwise constitute relational alternatives.
Some partners identify their significant others in public through physical affection or contact such as hand holding, others make us smile with their matching Hawaiian print attire (sometimes with similarly dressed kids in tow.) But mate guarding, as it is often called within relevant literature, often influences behavior when the other partner is absent. And not always good behavior.
Marking Relational Territory
Maryanne Fisher and Anthony Cox looked at strategies used within intrasexual mate competition. They began by noting most research on intrasexual mate competition focused on strategies of self-promotion and derogation of competitors. They describe self‐promotion as enhancing physical characteristics to improve the ability to compete for mates, and competitor derogation as behavior that lessens the value of rivals and accordingly, reduces their chances of winning the competition for mates.
In their research, Fisher and Cox found two additional strategies are used: mate manipulation and competitor manipulation.
In their first study, participants reported the ways in which they compete for mates with same-sex rivals, leading to discovering the additional strategies of competitor manipulation and mate manipulation.
Comparing the four strategies, Fisher and Cox did not find a sex difference in the frequency with which the strategies were used. When Fisher and Cox performed a second study analyzing the four strategies, there was no gender difference found regarding strategy use, but participants involved in a romantic relationship were most likely to use the strategy of derogating competitors.
Although Fisher and Cox did not find any differences due to romantic relationship status, they did find that men and women used the strategies differently.
They discovered that women were more likely to admit to using self‐promoting tactics concerning physical appearance, body and athleticism. Men, on the other hand, were more apt to use direct behavioral tactics, including intimidating or bullying a rival, or downplaying a rival's material possessions within a strategy of competitor derogation.
Regarding frequency, participants were most likely to admit to using tactics of self‐promotion, followed by mate manipulation, competitor derogation, and competitor manipulation respectively.
Regarding specific strategies for mate and competitor manipulation, Fisher and Cox found mate guarding included excluding rivals from activities, intentionally not mentioning them to their mate, or saying rivals were romantically involved with someone else.
Subjects also reported that they attempted to spend as much time as they could with their romantic partner, including spending time alone with them. Fisher and Cox note that all of these actions constitute attempts to dominate and manipulate their partner’s attention.
They also were able to fit what they describe as “sequestering behaviors,” such as mate guarding, squarely within the framework of intrasexual competition. They note that some people reported manipulating potential mate value by falsely telling rivals that a man was gay, or appeared promiscuous when they believed the opposite.
They note such actions constitute attempts to manipulate a rival's perceptions in order to improve one's competitive chances.
Mate Guarding Can Damage Relationships
Clearly, not all mate guarding strategies are helpful, or healthy. Dishonest, unkind, or malicious behavior is never excused simply because it was done to maintain a relationship. Many partners learn the hard way that jealousy can be incredibly damaging when it motivates bad behavior.
For partners who are tempted to resort to tactics that can cause both relational and reputational harm, time may be better spent pursuing a relationship of mutual trust.
This article was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick, JD, MDiv, Ph.D., is an award-winning career trial attorney and media commentator. She is host of "Live with Dr. Wendy" on KCBQ, and a daily guest on other media outlets, delivering a lively mix of flash, substance, and style. Read Dr. Wendy L. Patrick's Reports — More Here.
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