So now I'm a hottie?
November 9, 2009 8:51 AM   Subscribe

Why does it seem like men are more desirable when attached (married or taken), particularly when you are with that person? (expl. inside)

If there's one thing that AMF has taught/reinforced to me is how differently women and men differ in their perceptions. I've always chatted with guy friends about this phenomenon and always wondered how a large cross-section of women think, about this:

When I was single and with a girlfriend, other women seemed drawn to me. I could tell they were interested in me, and not in just a hey, he's a nice guy sort of way. (Of course, I may have been reading into this, but for arguments sake, let's say that people can sometimes accurately surmise that the opposite sex is into them). But, even when taken, when I was out alone or with other guys, girls were, well, not so smitten. Same thing as a married man. (Huge caveat, I'm not out flirting with women as a married man...heck, come to think of it, I didn't do that either when attached and unmarried)

Other men have reported the same to me, mostly recollecting from their single days, when they too had the ultimate paradox:

"Why is it that I attract more women when I have one, but when I'm completely single, it's like I'm invisible?"

Ladies (and, I guess, other men):

1) Does one exude a different vibe when attached?
2) Is it simply a case of, "Well she's with him...that's worth something"
3) Is there something of a more core evolutionary competitive drive being elicited?
4) other?

FWIW, as a man, there is nothing about seeing a woman with a man that makes her more or less attractive. Ditto, for the solo woman.
posted by teg4rvn to Human Relations (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Um, not all women are into attached men.

For those that are, I'd imagine it's a mixture of 1) the confidence of a guy who knows he's wanted (which is more attractive than the stench of desperation) and 2) competition on the female side.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:56 AM on November 9, 2009

Here's a study that says single women are much more interested in pursuing a man who's already taken:

"The most striking result was in the responses of single women. Offered a single man, 59 per cent were interested in pursuing a relationship. But when he was attached, 90 per cent said they were up for the chase...

...Burkley and Parker speculate that single women may be more drawn to attached men because they've already been "pre-screened" by other women and found to be satisfactory as a mate, whereas single men are more of an unknown quantity."

posted by sharkfu at 9:00 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not saying that this phenomenon is real, but if it is, social proof and scarcity principles are probably coming into play.
posted by phoenixy at 9:00 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just guessing here, because I (a woman) haven't really experienced this, but perhaps there's a certain degree of approachability to a guy who you know is in a relationship, or has been one. He probably reflects that back to a woman chatting with him; he knows he can talk to his partner, so he's perhaps more comfortable with women in general. So a conversation can not only start more easily, but continue more easily.

Plus there's the lack of that awful eau de desperation, physically and otherwise. That's a big one. Blecch.
posted by Madamina at 9:01 AM on November 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

It's almost lunchtime so I'll give this a shot:

- women see you with another woman & thus see you in the frame of a boyfriend/husband
- women tend to be competitive
- men are probably more laid back and easy going when they're already attached and this attracts women (personally doubt this one, but I've been informed as such)

Bottomline? A lot of social dynamics tend to be irrational, stupid and borderline ridiculous. You can't rationalize stuff like this and expect to stay sane.
posted by the_ancient_mariner at 9:05 AM on November 9, 2009

Ok I'm a single guy but here one take on it. Confidence. There's no uncertainty. Hopefully its the happy kind, but regardless. I've had more than one woman tell me its the key.

Perhaps the Bard put it best: "To thine own self be true, and as the night follows day, thou canst not then be false to any man." Women like that, apparently ;-)
posted by elendil71 at 9:05 AM on November 9, 2009

Could it perhaps be something quite different?

Could it be that when you're visibly attached, some women are less likely to see you as a predatory single male; perhaps because you have made yourself 'safe' in this way, women feel they can interact with you without the baggage of sexuality becoming involved.

Because for some men (at least in my experience), interest of any kind whatsoever from a woman is automatically interpreted as sexual interest, and some women may be cautious about interacting with unknown men as a result.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 9:05 AM on November 9, 2009 [30 favorites]

I’m not really buying this, I’m guessing it’s mostly a perspective bias. Perhaps you’re reading sexual attraction between you and the stranger when really it’s just approachability on your part. My interpretation would be (being a male, admittedly): “That guy’s with his lady friend so it’s less likely that he’ll take my polite social interaction as a come on – sounds refreshingly drama-free”. But, this is all subject to interpretation and there really is never going to be an answer. Is this more chatfilter?
posted by Think_Long at 9:08 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

And on lack of preview, what le morte de bea Arthur said
posted by Think_Long at 9:08 AM on November 9, 2009

In the study mentioned above, the only factor that changed was whether the person was described as single or not, and that made a huge difference. If you trust the study, that would seem to rule out confidence, perspective bias and approachability, and it seems you're left with only social proof as an explanation.
posted by martinrebas at 9:15 AM on November 9, 2009

Perhaps it's because your testosterone level drops by about 20% when you are in a relationship versus when you are not. Exactly how that might change things probably depends on both you and the other women you are coming into contact with.
posted by rongorongo at 9:18 AM on November 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'll say that it has as much to do with approachability as anything else. Women often shut down approaches from single men, because they often want to do things on their own terms, (but without having to make any overt moves--ahh the painful irony). I've found that many a time, even when I'm single, I'll have a lot more success when I am with friends and just being regular ol' friendly. There is less resistance to getting to know you, and they find they like you personally, which is a big part of women being attracted to men, especially in the long term. l can't tell you the number of times I've been surprised to find the friends of my friends, male and platonic female suddenly interested in me without me doing anything at all.

Having said that, I think when you are talking about very young women, like high school/college, there is some of the competition going on, mainly because nobody really understands their feelings and are often just engaging in crazy romantic shenanigans because they can't relate to other feelings and are looking for powerful disctractions from those feelings.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:19 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd go with evolution - a human that is taken by another human is worth something to the human that they're with, so they're less of an unknown quantity. Someone finds them desirable, therefore they must be desirable.
posted by Solomon at 9:23 AM on November 9, 2009

I'm not sure, even for argument's sake, that you should make the assumption that people can accurately tell when someone's into them (consider the number of askme questions on that subject alone!); I have to agree with le morte de bea arthur and Think_Long that it's all in your interpretation.

Unless these women are throwing their bras at you or giving you their phone numbers while your wife isn't looking or calling you repeatedly, I would question how "into you" they are, even if you really think they seem to like you.

I know that I personally become more talkative with coupled-up men because I know my friendliness won't be mistaken for sexual interest...or so I thought. It has absolutely nothing to do with competition or wanting another female's SO.
posted by bluestocking at 9:26 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think when you are talking about very young women, like high school/college, there is some of the competition going on, mainly because nobody really understands their feelings and are often just engaging in crazy romantic shenanigans because they can't relate to other feelings and are looking for powerful distractions from those feelings.

Good instincts, Ironmouth, the linked study above was of 184 university students. I wouldn't call that a large, diverse sample size.
posted by gladly at 9:28 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

You're probably just attractive (and modest, because you would have said otherwise if you weren't).

Just because you're coupled means fuck-all to a girl who is interested in you.
posted by Zambrano at 9:33 AM on November 9, 2009

A female friend of mine says she finds herself more attracted to guys who are attached, or that she knows have been attached recently. She says it is because they have been "prescreened" as boyfriend-quality material, echoing the social proof explanation given earlier.
posted by grouse at 9:35 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm a chick, but a friend of mine warned me after I got engaged that people would hit on me more often because I'd glow. I personally have not had this problem (hmm...), but I'd wager that especially for someone who's happy in their relationship, the happiness that one exudes is attractive.
posted by pised at 9:40 AM on November 9, 2009

Best answer: As you suggested, it's probably partly evolutionary. And here's an economic concept that you can apply here: signaling.

A typical example of signaling is that your resume tells employers you've graduated from a prestigious college; the employer draws a split-second conclusion that you're diligent and smart and that you can follow through on projects. Valid conclusion? Maybe not -- maybe you somehow managed to coast through high school and then coast through Harvard without really being so brilliant or hard-working. But employers will still draw the inference because it's ultra-convenient and reliable enough (even though there's far less than 100% accuracy).

There are also evolutionary reasons why women generally (generally!) care more than men about a mate's long-term potential as a mate/parent (whereas men are generally more focused on finding attractive mates whom they can have sex with).

Put this all together and ... if a woman sees a male stranger with a girlfriend or wife, that gives her an extremely rough but very quick shortcut to a conclusion that, "Hey, this guy probably has a lot going for him since another woman who knows him has already judged him as a good mate." (If you're familiar with evolutionary psychology you know that such thoughts need not be consciously articulated.)

I remember seeing a psychology study where female subjects look at photos. Some women saw a photo of a man with another photo of a woman facing him and smiling; other women saw the same thing except the woman had a neutral expression. The women who saw the first photo (woman smiling while facing man) rated the man as more attractive than the women who saw the other set of photos. This shows how visceral the process can be: each woman saw just two separate side-by-side photos, not even a photo of two people together, and there was certainly no information given about their relationship.

I realize that everyone is an individual, that women aren't all alike, that men aren't all alike, and that these generalizations don't accurately describe everyone. That doesn't refute the generalizations. Though evolutionary psychology may be controversial, I do think it provides an intuitively plausible rationale even though, as always, it doesn't fully capture the complexities of real people's lives.

(BTW, I'm a man and have the opposite reaction: seeing a woman with a mate makes her less attractive to me than if she were single. I could also give an ev. psych. reason for that -- which quite possibly wouldn't be very flattering to men -- but that's not what you're asking about.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:45 AM on November 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

As someone who left a ltr for another woman, and then was immediately dumped, I feel somewhat and humbly qualified to address this.

Most social interchange has an element of flirting, or a sexual subtext of some sort. For a woman, a married, or otherwise unavailable man represents a "safe" arena for such stuff to happen, in that, at least at first, whatever flirting, socializing, or if it gets that far, sex will not lead to an entrapment on the woman's part.

One can fall in love, and one's agenda can change, but, at least in my experience, (and I doubt that I am unique) the "other" woman's intimacy issues raged full force when she was faced with the rest of her life seeing, sleeping with, and generally sharing her life with me on a day to day basis, for the next number of years.

So, I think it's a way of getting some sex without the messy intimacy involved in it, and I think it's an unconscious behavior on the part of the third party, and then when they get what they said they want, this is at cross purposes with what they, in fact, want.

I suspect that no matter the gender or preference, this dynamic applies.
posted by Danf at 10:03 AM on November 9, 2009

Of course whenever I have been single I have been on that greased pole down into the hell of loneliness and utter unattractiveness.
posted by Danf at 10:04 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just because you're coupled means fuck-all to a girl who is interested in you.

I think there is a subset of women like this. There are other women who do care because they see that it is less likely that they are going to get you all for themselves. Same with guys.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:14 AM on November 9, 2009

There's a lot of different hardwired responses in play that all favor the "taken" guy: competition for the best mates, the confidence a man exudes when he is taken, and the desire to find men willing to commit.

Being taken is just the most common way of pushing those buttons, alternative methods can work nearly as well: a single man who many women have pursued is usually seen as worthy of competing for; a single man has is very confident is still typically found more desirable; caring for a baby/child shows off commitment willingness (heck, even owning a dog works pretty well for that one).
posted by Pufferish at 10:16 AM on November 9, 2009

I've joked for years about this: "Chicks dig the ring, it shows I'm not afraid of commitment!"

It's a joke, sure, but in some ways it might be true. However, I'm generally too oblivious to notice when someone besides my wife likes me, so I can't say from personal experience.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:48 AM on November 9, 2009

One other thing, based on what I said before--I have one friend who is quite beautiful. We are great friends and it seems like I got more interest from beautiful women who met me through her than through anyone else. So that says something for the validation theory, as we never dated.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:15 AM on November 9, 2009

Confidence, lack of desperation. Desperation is really repellent.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:35 AM on November 9, 2009

As a guy, I've noticed this, and my explanation is that you can be more relaxed & flirtatious - which might be read as "confident" - simply because you don't really give a flying fuck whether or not random-woman-who-is-not-your-partner is interested in you (in that way) or not, because there's no chance of it ever going anywhere, so there's nothing at all to lose.

Ironically, it's as if the more you care about the outcome of an interaction, the more "desperate" you can seem, whereas if you don't care at all (in a romantic sense) that comes across as "confident".

It might also be that with some women your indifference is sensed, raising a kind of unconscious desire to prove herself worthy of your interest. When you're a single guy, the situations are more or less reversed, by default.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:29 PM on November 9, 2009

2) Is it simply a case of, "Well she's with him...that's worth something"

Assuming these women are actually attracted to you, I think (2) is likely. If you are someone I'd look at positively anyway, when you are with someone else it's like extra points or a recommendation letter or "has favorites." I think you are neat, + so does someone else who presumably knows you better. If you are a strange sort of person who I wouldn't normally think of talking to, then this comes into play even more.

Although la morte de bea arthur's explanation seems likely, too, and definitely matches my response. I really like being around guys who are clearly in a relationship because there is no question about how things are going to be interpreted. And (2) plays into it, too, because he is probably a decent person and would be a good friend. This last conclusion may not be based in logic.
posted by ramenopres at 2:36 PM on November 9, 2009

Men who are taken are safe. You don't have to watch everything you say thinking it may be interpreted a certain way. It's like why girls flirt with the UPS guy vs. the guy in the next cubicle.

And some random dude thats not in a relationship? Yikes- he could be a weird perv that collects German fetish magazines and will keep me in a well in his basement but someone that has a significant other - a bit more likely to be an Okay guy.
posted by beccaj at 5:28 PM on November 9, 2009

Here is an interesting experiment on this question (journal subscription required):
Who’s chasing whom? The impact of gender and relationship status on mate poaching

Jessica Parker and Melissa Burkley

Oklahoma State University, Department of Psychology, Stillwater, OK 74078, United States

Are women more interested in men who are already in a relationship? Female and male participants who were single or in a relationship viewed information about an opposite-sex other and indicated their interest in pursuing this target. Half of the participants were told that the target was single and half read that the target was currently in a relationship. The results showed that only single women were more interested in pursuing an attached target rather than a single target. We discuss how these results add to what is already known about mate poaching.
posted by grouse at 7:44 AM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

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