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Single and Partnered Women: Competing to Obtain and Retain High-Quality Men

Abstract and Keywords

The form, function, and prevalence of intrasexual competition is expected to differ for single and partnered women. For single women focused on the identification and recruitment of desirable mates, competition increases access to potential partners. For partnered women focused on the maintenance of current relationships, competition reduces the risk of infidelity and relationship dissolution. This chapter considers the specific threats experienced by single and partnered women, the extent to which these threats may impact on willingness to engage in intrasexual competition, and the competitive tactics employed. Additional factors influencing women’s engagement in intrasexual competition such as age and mating system type are also discussed.

Keywords: age, single, partnered, relationship status, infidelity, mating system

“It is because of men that women dislike one another.”

—Jean de la Bruyere, Characters, 1688

Female intrasexual competition serves a range of adaptive functions, each of which influences reproductive success. The primary function of intrasexual competition is expected to differ for single and partnered women. For single women focused on the identification and recruitment of desirable mates, competition increases access to potential partners. For partnered women focused on the maintenance of current relationships, competition reduces the risk of infidelity and relationship dissolution. Relationship status should also influence the selection of specific competitive tactics. For example, partnered women may recruit support from family members. These people have a personal interest in the success of the relationship as the withdrawal of male investment increases the support that they are required to provide. This chapter considers the specific threats experienced by single and partnered women, the extent to which these threats may impact on willingness to engage in intrasexual competition, and the competitive tactics employed.

Single Women and the Search for a Suitable Mate

“All women are basically in competition with each other for a handful of eligible men.”

Mignon McLaughlin, The Second Neurotics Notebook, 1966

In many species, including humans, females provide the majority of parental investment in infant care. This investment serves to both reduce the number of offspring that the female can rear and increase her vulnerability as she attempts to source sufficient resources and protect the infant from potential danger. As a consequence, many species requiring extensive paternal investment are pair bonded—a mating system that increases the level of the investment available and increases the likelihood of offspring survival. There are therefore (p. 302) clear advantages to long-term committed relationships. As explained by one vaudeville song “I think we would all prefer marriage with strife; than to be on the shelf and nobody’s wife” (Nicholson, 2008, p. 64). In species with greater female investment in offspring, the theory of parental investment (Trivers, 1972) predicts male intrasexual competition for desirable mates and female selection of male partners. Recent research indicates that while male intrasexual competition is typically greater than female intrasexual competition in species with high levels of female investment, female intrasexual competition also occurs.

The acquisition of a mate per se is not sufficient for women to successfully reproduce. Potential mates vary across a range of physical and nonphysical traits such as health, intelligence, and reliability (Buss, 1989). Women selecting diseased or weak men are less likely to receive protection or valued resources. In addition, offspring fathered by poor-quality men may inherit his poor-quality genes, increasing the level of investment required by infants and reducing the likelihood that they will survive to sexual maturity and obtain a mate. Women selecting unreliable, selfish mates are also unlikely to receive consistent access to essential resources. Therefore, competition between women provides access to the most desirable high-quality mates (i.e., those possessing valued physical and nonphysical resources), which increases the likelihood of subsequent reproductive success.

“Women dress alike all over the world: They dress to be annoying to other women.”

—Elsa Schiaparelli

Women employ a range of strategies to increase their own attractiveness and decrease the attractiveness of rivals who are competing for the same men. Men place a greater importance on the physical attractiveness of a partner than women and cross-culturally prefer attractive women as romantic or sexual partners (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). Consequently, physical attractiveness forms the basis for a large component of female competition (Symons, 1979), influencing both the level and type of intrasexual competition in which women engage. Improving physical appearance is a relatively frequent form of intrasexual competition reported by women (Buss, 1988), and derogation of a rival’s appearance is a strategy used more frequently by women than by men (Buss & Dedden, 1990). Indeed, women may also use luxury items such as handbags and shoes to compete with rivals and are more likely to seek and display these items when motivated to guard their partner (Wang & Griskevicius, 2014). It appears that women use luxury products to signal the devotion of their partner in order to deter those intending to disrupt the relationship. In this context, it is also argued that restricted eating and the pursuit of thinness are associated with intrasexual competition and access to suitable mates as women seek to display signals of youth to potential partners (Abed, 1998; Faer, Hendricks, Abed, & Figueredo, 2005).

Women selectively attend to attractive female faces (Maner, Gailliot & DeWall, 2007), a tendency that facilitates the identification and monitoring of the most threatening rivals. A number of traits signaling female mate quality are attended to, such as vocal femininity and waist-to-hip ratio, and women report greater distress when a rival possesses a more attractive face or body (Buss, Shackelford, Choe, Buunk, & Dijkstra, 2000). When assessing the appearance of potential rivals, women overestimate the extent to which men find other women desirable (Hill, 2007). This overestimation encourages vigilance and ensures that women are not complacent to the threat posed by women, particularly if other factors (such as willingness to engage in sexual behavior) increase the desirability of moderately attractive women.

Women do not therefore evaluate their physical attractiveness in isolation, and relative attractiveness (i.e., comparison between a woman’s attractiveness and the attractiveness of her rival) is particularly important. This forms an important aspect of rival derogation (Schmitt, 1988), and, compared to men, women’s jealousy is more related to comparisons between the rival and self (Dijkstra & Buunk, 2001). Furthermore, while there are a number of universally attractive physical traits, such as a clear complexion, when evaluating the threat posed by potential rivals it is important to consider the preferences of a particular man. Partnered women place a considerable importance on the preferences of their partner (DeSteno & Salovey, 1996) and those traits or qualities most valued by a partner may be especially important when evaluating or derogating a potential rival (Schmitt, 1988). Though this form of comparison and evaluation of specific traits may be less available to single women, some knowledge of their target partner’s preferences may help identify the most threatening rivals.

(p. 303) The Importance of Age

“Age to women is like Kryptonite to Superman.”

—Kathy Lette

The experience of being single or in a relationship (and the related advantages or disadvantages of being single or partnered) varies substantially across the life cycle. For women, reproduction is limited by menarche and menopause, restricting (compared to men) opportunities to reproduce and subsequent reproductive output (i.e., number of children). Therefore the intensity of competition for long-term partners may also vary across the lifespan. Younger, postpubertal women have a relatively greater period of time in which to search for and attract suitable men. In contrast, older women (intending to reproduce) for whom “time is of the essence” may feel under pressure to enter into a long-term relationship. This pressure may be exacerbated by competition with younger single women who are, as a consequence of their age, physical attractiveness, and reproductive value, often more desirable to potential partners. Older single women in this situation may of course elect to become single parents, a decision that reduces available investment in the child and may influence a range of outcomes for the child such as educational attainment (Krein, 1986). Hence, this form of less desirable nonmarital reproduction is described by Clarke (2011) as “the only game in town fertility” (p. 100).

“I’ve been dating since I was fifteen. I’m exhausted. Where is he?”

—Sex and the City

There may not, of course, be a specific age at which a woman becomes conscious of her declining fertility and thus increases her efforts to obtain a suitable partner. Increased motivation to secure a long-term mate may in part reflect the availability of desirable men and factors such as the average age of marriage. Though most women in Western societies are married by their mid-thirties (as shown in Figure 17.1), this is influenced by a range of individual and environmental factors. These include the presence of conservative sexual values (Garcia & Kruger, 2010). As shown in Figure 17.2, the number of women of the same age that are married or single varies substantially between cultures. Competition for mates between women across the lifespan should reflect these social norms. In addition, the age at which a woman marries has a number of important consequences. Teenage marriages are less likely to survive, and whereas later marriages are less likely to end in divorce or for partners to contemplate divorce, they are relatively poor in quality (Amato, Booth, Johnson, & Rogers, 2007; Glenn, Uecker, & Love, 2010). Therefore, competition between single women for access to suitable mates should reflect these trends.

Single and Partnered WomenCompeting to Obtain and Retain High-Quality MenClick to view larger

Figure 17.1 Marital status of American women by age (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010).

In some circumstances, the competition among single women for a desirable mate may be particularly intense. For example, following the First World War, few men in Britain were available to marry. Approximately 1 million men from the British Army were killed in action, missing in action, or died as a consequence of disease or injury ( As the senior mistress of one school announced to her female pupils: “I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of (p. 304) ten of you girls can ever hope to marry. This is not a guess of mine. It is statistical fact. Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed” (Nicholson, 2008, p. 20).

Single and Partnered WomenCompeting to Obtain and Retain High-Quality MenClick to view larger

Figure 17.2 Percentage of single and married women ages 20 to 24 years in a range of countries (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2013).

Age and fertility are clearly issues that influence the reproductive decisions of all women. Important differences between cultural groups may, however, influence the availability of potential mates, relationship status, and subsequent intrasexual competition. A range of studies have highlighted the decline in marriage rates among minority and low-income populations, hypothesized to reflect the availability of economically acceptable mates. Indeed, there is a high percentage of Black women who are unmarried at each age category, and Black women spend a lower proportion of their reproductive career (compared to other ethnic groups) married (Clarke, 2011). Clarke also highlights the importance of educational attainment, as women with college degrees (in each ethnic group) are more likely to have delayed parenthood (or remained childless) compared to those with lower levels of educational success such as a high school diploma. Therefore, future research should investigate the importance of a range of demographic variables including age, ethnicity, and educational attainment for strategic relationship decisions and the use of female intrasexual competition.

We Are All Single But Some Are More Single Than Others

Relationship status extends beyond the distinction between single and partnered women. Divorced single women and those with dependent children find it more difficult to attract a romantic partner than women who have never been married (Vaillant & Harrant, 2008). The importance of dependent children for woman’s desirability may of course reflect men’s unwillingness to enter relationships with women who must invest a substantial amount of time and energy raising those children or men’s unwillingness to contribute to investment in the children themselves. The difficulty childless divorced single women have in attracting a mate may suggest that men are reluctant to enter relationships with women who have been in committed relationships with another man (i.e., potential conflict for affection) or have been in an unsuccessful relationship (i.e., lack of conflict-resolution strategies). Indeed, common sources of jealousy involve talking to or about previous partners (Knox, Zusman, Mabon & Shriver, 1999), and renewed relationships with former partners are viewed as a greater threat than relationships with previously unknown rivals (Cann & Baucom, 2004).

Alternatively, differences between single and divorced women may reflect the tendency for those who are single or divorced to marry those with a similar relationship history. For example, those with a history of divorce themselves are more likely to marry those who also have a history of divorce (Ono, 2006). Therefore, single women are expected to marry men who have never been married, a tendency that may be facilitated by access to a wide social network of potential mates from which to select. In this context, cities have been characterized as densely populated areas in which single people benefit from a wider choice of potential mates (Gautier, Svarer, & Teulings, 2010). It is argued (p. 305) that single women are willing to pay a premium for the greater opportunities to attract a partner, but after the formation of a long-term relationship (when the opportunity to meet potential partners is less important), women leave the cities. Therefore, divorced women (particularly those with dependent children) who relocated when married are more likely to live in rural areas with limited opportunities for socializing and meeting potential partners.

Partnered Women and the Importance of Retaining a Mate

“No rose without a thorn, or a love without a rival.”

—Turkish proverb

As previously outlined, there are clear advantages to the acquisition of a suitable (i.e., high-quality) partner. However, while fairy tales, romance novels, and movies encourage women to believe that finding and attracting “the one” leads to a life of “happily ever after,” this is far from a foregone conclusion. For women in a romantic relationship, the potential dissolution of the relationship and infidelity represent important threats.

Mate poaching refers to attracting a person who is in a current romantic relationship (Schmitt & Buss, 2001). This is a relatively common mating strategy that occurs cross-culturally. Mate poaching is often successful, with almost half of men and women who have received a previous poaching attempt reporting succumbing to the poacher and approximately 15% of current relationships resulting directly from mate poaching (Schmitt & Buss, 2001). Further highlighting the potential threat that this strategy poses to partnered women, research indicates that approximately 40% of women report that they have attempted to poach a mate for either a short- or long-term relationship (Schmitt et al., 2004). Mate poaching is particularly successful for female poachers, as men are more likely than women to succumb to a short-term mate-poaching attempt.

The prevalence of mate poaching is consistent with the existence of mate copying whereby women are more likely to select mates who have been chosen by other women. Research indicates that men are rated as more desirable when surrounded by other women compared to alone or surrounded by other men (Hill & Buss, 2008). It appears that women searching for a partner may infer that partnered status indicates the possession of a range of desirable qualities that cannot be directly observed, such as socioeconomic status or reliability (Little, Burriss, Jones, DeBruine, & Caldwell, 2008). Hence, this form of copying is particularly valuable for rivals with little sexual experience (Waynforth, 2007).

Infidelity that does not lead to the dissolution of the relationship may lead to the temporary withdrawal of valued resources and protection and therefore also poses a threat. For example, male Ache hunters in Paraguay divert resources such as food from their primary mate and offspring to extra-pair partners (Hill & Hurtado, 1996). However, though both temporary infidelity and relationship dissolution may impact on a woman’s survival and the survival of her offspring, it is the permanent removal of support associated with relationship dissolution that constitutes the greatest threat. Exacerbating this threat, involuntary dissolution of the relationship impairs the ability to attract another partner. Learning that a person was rejected by his or her previous mate reduces desirability as a romantic partner (Stanik, Kurzban, & Ellsworth, 2010), suggesting that the resources and protection offered by the previous partner are not easily replaced.

Women are sensitive to those rivals and situations that present the greatest threat. In this context, jealousy serves an important adaptive function, alerting partnered women of threats to a valued relationship. This distress prompts a number of behaviors intended to maintain the current relationship, referred to as mate-retention behaviors (Buss, 1988). These include a range of strategies, such as monitoring partners (e.g., they have started to change the way they dress) and potential rivals (e.g., flirting with one’s partner). Whereas some behaviors are employed as a “last resort” attempt to retain a partner, others are adopted as a form of routine relationship maintenance (Shackelford, Goetz, & Buss, 2005). A number of factors may influence the type and frequency of mate-retention behaviors that are employed, including the relationship status of the rival.

Single Rivals

Partnered women are expected to perceive single women as more threatening than rivals in a current romantic relationship. As previously mentioned, the vast majority of single women have desires to marry or enter into long-term relationships (Sugiura-Ogasawara, Ozaki, Kaneko, Kitaori, & Kumagai, 2010), and these unpartnered women appear to take active steps to increase their opportunities to meet potential mates (Gautier, Svarer, & Teulings, 2010). While a range of single men may (p. 306) be available, single women may choose to pursue partnered men if those men are thought to be of a higher mate value (e.g., higher socioeconomic status or more physically attractive). Consistent with the suggestion that single women present the greatest threat, Parker and Burkley (2009) report that single, but not partnered, women are more interested in obtaining a partnered man as opposed to a currently single man. Of the behaviors employed by partnered women to deter single rivals, derogation may be particularly effective if it is suggested that her single status signals low mate quality.

In this context, women who are not married by an appropriate age may be deemed unmarriageable and typecast, often referred to using insulting terms such as “spinster” or “old maid” (Taylor, 2011). Single women are also sometimes viewed as low quality or in some manner undesirable. For example, single women are often portrayed as susceptible to mental illness (Holden, 2007). This type of depiction serves to lower the single woman’s mate value and her attractiveness to partnered men, effectively reducing the likelihood that she will form an extra-pair relationship with the target man (Fisher & Cox, 2009). In recent years, one frequent form of labeling is to describe women who are not married by a particular age as “overly selective.” This implies that these women are detached, uncompromising, and thus lacking in the type of emotional warmth and social skills (cooperation and forgiveness, etc.) required for successful long-term relationships (Lahad, 2013). As outlined by one relationship advisor:

He is too short, too fat, too thin, too stupid, and too sweaty … We are so judgmental, so quick to call it off and not give it a chance … Tell me the truth [addressing the single woman]: would it be so bad to try to get to know him? … But no way! She [the single woman] says: I won’t go out and be seen in public with a man that dresses like him … Over my dead body; I would rather remain an old maid and not humiliate myself.

(Holzman-Bismut, 2007, cited in Lahad, 2013)

In this manner, older single women are urged to “settle” (Gotlieb, 2008) and “be reasonable about their expectations” (Ng & Ng, 2009, p. 111). The pressure to “settle” for less desirable mates clearly encourages single women to form stable long-term relationships without further delay and to accept lower-quality mates. This strategy is more compatible with the immediate selection of available (i.e., single) men rather than the riskier strategy of attempting to poach a man in a current relationship, which may impact on her reputation and ability to secure a long-term partner. This strategy reduces the threat to women in current romantic relationships, which is strengthened further by the greater value placed by society on the lives of partnered women. The separation between single and married women can be particularly harsh. As one person recalled: “And the smug wives turned a blind eye when their children played evil tricks on the single women and taunted them” (Nicholson, 2008, pp. 29–30). The status afforded to married women encourages those who are not married to avoid delay and enter stable long-term relationships, which may be further exacerbated by the frequent expectation that single women should become the primary caregiver for elderly relatives and to relinquish their social relationships or live with those requiring care (Burnley, 1987).

Partnered Rivals

A wealth of research demonstrates that women are more reluctant than men to enter sexual relationships and are less likely to engage in the extra-dyadic behaviors deemed to be acceptable only within the primary relationship (Luo, Cartun, & Snider, 2010). Women do engage in extra-pair sexual relationships, however, and female infidelity has been reported in a number of traditional societies such as the Ache in Paraguay (Hill & Hurtado, 1996) and Yanomamo of Venezuela (Chagnon, 1983), which suggests that this is not a Western phenomenon. Extra-pair relationships may offer women a number of advantages. These include the opportunity to acquire resources, which reduces the resources that a man may provide to his original partner, and mate switching, which may lead to a man abandoning his original mate (Greiling & Buss, 2000). Consequently, partnered rivals also present an important threat to women in a relationship.

In comparison to single women, the risk posed by partnered women may be less or more controllable. Women who engage in extra-pair relationships must be cautious to avoid discovery by their primary partner. The discovery of an extra-pair relationship may result in a range of consequences such as relationship dissolution or domestic violence (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983), which impact on her survival and reproductive success. Therefore, women willing to engage in extra-pair relationships must be careful that they do not arouse suspicion in order to protect (p. 307) themselves and any offspring that benefit from male investment. The restraint exercised by partnered women (e.g., greater time before deciding that she wishes to become involved with a man or fewer advances toward him) provides women who are concerned about the threat of mate poaching by a rival female with a number of opportunities to monitor the situation and act accordingly. For example, a range of expressions, gestures, and postures are employed by women as courtship signals to encourage male advances, and observation of these expressions and gestures may alert a woman to specific threats. Where required, women may then employ appropriate mate-retention behaviors that prevent a mate from abandoning the relationship or being unfaithful.

It may be more difficult for women to monitor some interactions (e.g., between her partner and his female colleagues), and the assessment of the threat may be less accurate for strangers (for whom no additional personal information is available) than acquaintances (Biesanz, West, & Millevoi, 2007). In this situation, partnered women may recruit the support of kin. A woman’s relatives have a strong interest in the success of her relationship. In particular, any loss of resources or protection increases the support that they must provide to the woman and her child. Relatives may therefore be encouraged to monitor her partner’s behavior in order to reduce the likelihood of his infidelity, and a number of mate-retention behaviors (such as intimidation of potential rivals) may be effective when employed by relatives. A woman may also enlist the support of her partner’s relatives, who may fear separation from her children or stigma if the couple are to separate. This support from a partner’s kin may be particularly effective and easy to solicit if a woman is able to portray the rival female as undesirable (e.g., promiscuous), a trait that increases the risk of cuckoldry (i.e., a man investing in an infant which he believes to be his own biological child) and may lower their own reproductive success.

Friends and “Frenemies”: The Importance of Same-Sex Relationships

“If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”

—Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Self-disclosure of personal information and gossip about others form an important part of female friendships. Indeed, those who do not disclose often arouse suspicion and may in consequence threaten the intimacy of the relationship. Therefore, the individuals who comprise a woman’s (same-sex) social network have important implications for her ability to compete with others. Specifically, these friendships both increase the availability of information about rivals or potential mates via gossip and provide potential rivals (i.e., same-sex friends) with personal information, through self-disclosure, which may be used against her during competition. Indeed, increased competition for potential mates is an established disadvantage of same-sex friendships (Bleske & Shackelford, 2001).

“To a friend who asked him how to find out a girl’s faults, he gave the sage advice to praise her to her girl friends.”

(Edwin Lille Miller, Explorations in Literature, about Benjamin Franklin, 1938)

Social networks vary, and when asked to name members of their social network, married women are most likely to name friends who are also married while single women are most likely to identify single friends. Research indicates that while age accounts in part for these differences in social network composition, the social boundaries that exist between single and married women persist when controlling for age (Kalmijn & Vermunt, 2007). This may to some extent reflect the manner in which people meet potential friends; for example, married women with children may meet other married mothers through their children’s school activities. For married women, the romantic partner may fulfil many of the functions (e.g., provision of emotional support) previously performed by same-sex friends, thus reducing reliance on external social networks. The influence of cohabitation on withdrawal from same-sex friendships appears less marked, however, than the impact of marriage (Kalmijn & Bernasco, 2001), suggesting that women require the formal commitment of marriage before relinquishing the support of their same-sex friends. Therefore, women who are cohabiting may experience greater intrasexual competition from friends than married women but may also draw on the support of same-sex friends in the presence of a rival.

“The only thing worse than a smug married couple; lots of smug married couples.”

(Bridget Jones)

Relationships with others of the same relationship status are more rewarding, due to common interests and opportunities for shared activities. (p. 308) However, the preference for friends of a similar relationship status may also reflect the tendency for people to view their current relationship status as the universal ideal. This tendency is particularly strong for those who believe their current relationship status will continue (Laurin, Kille, & Eibach, 2013). The tendency for partnered women to form friendships with other partnered women may also reflect negative societal stereotypes that portray single women as immature and self-centered, particularly if older than the average age of marriage (Morris, DePaulo, Hertel & Ritter, 2006, cited in DePaulo & Morris, 2006). Indeed, single women experience considerable discrimination, which is largely viewed as legitimate (Morris, Sinclair, & DePaulo, 2007).

Single and Partnered WomenCompeting to Obtain and Retain High-Quality MenClick to view larger

Figure 17.3 Percentage of mating system types in the standard cross-cultural sample (Murdock, 1967).

As highlighted, communication—and gossip in particular—forms an important part of friendship. The tendency for women to be friends with those of the same relationship status may increase the value of this information. Romantic relationships form the basis for most gossip, and reputation gossip, which especially contains important details about a specific individual (Bromley, 1993), provides valuable information that may enhance reproductive success. Single women may exchange information about the availability of desirable mates (or help friends avoid undesirable men). In contrast, the gossip of partnered women may focus on the romantic histories of other women, raising awareness about sexual rivals and potentially lowering their attractiveness through targeted comments. As described by Hess and Hagen (2002): “because gossip is an excellent strategy for within-group competition, and because it is effective in attacking and defending difficult-to-assess aspects of reputation, gossip may have been a more effective weapon in female intrasexual competition than it was in male intrasexual competition, increasing selection for psychological adaptations for informational aggression in females” (p. 12). Therefore, while friendships among single women may increase the likelihood of intrasexual competition, friendships with those of a similar relationship status afford important benefits for both single and partnered women.

Mating Systems

“When one woman strikes at the heart of another, she seldom misses, and the wound is invariably fatal.”

—Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Dangerous Liaisons

A review of the literature provides readers with a biased account of heterosexual personal relationships, implying in particular that all relationships are romantic in nature and exist only between one man and one woman. Indeed this chapter also focuses on romantic, sexually exclusive relationships. It is important to note, however, that a range of relationship types exist. As shown in Figure 17.3, data from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (Murdock & White, 1980), which provides information on the world’s most ethnographically described societies (N = 186), reveals that monogamy is not the most common mating system. Furthermore, societies may feature more than one mating system type. For example, among the Yanamamo in Venezuela, a minority of married men are in polygynous relationships (Hames, 1996). The frequency, form and intensity of female intrasexual competition that is experienced are expected to vary for each mating system and relationship type.

(p. 309) Arranged Marriages

Women do not date or marry in isolation, and families often have a strong interest in the partner she selects. In industrialized Western countries, differences between parent and child preferences for a “suitable” partner may lead to a certain level of conflict, as any teenager will testify. However, women are typically expected (for better or worse) to select a partner themselves. These are often termed “love” marriages. In many cultures, such as India and the Middle East, women’s families are much more involved in the selection of a marriage partner, and a substantial number of marriages are arranged by family members (Goode, 1963). The arrangement of the marriage by older family members is thought to address the fact that younger people are not able to make the correct selection themselves, for example favoring characteristics such as physical attractiveness rather than other factors such as the reputation of the extended family. Furthermore, the meaning of marriage varies cross-culturally, and whereas in Western countries there is an emphasis on romance, sexual maturity, and emotional support, in other cultures the strengthening of the family unit and wider social relationships are of greater importance.

Cultures practicing arranged marriage are often collectivist cultures, and the mate chosen may have a greater impact on the social and economic success of the wider family unit in these environments than in individualistic cultures (Buunk, Park, & Duncan, 2010). In these circumstances, factors other than sexual attraction and romantic love may determine partner selection. For example, approximately half of those in India and Pakistan report that they would marry a mate whom they do not love if the mate has the qualities that they value, compared to less than 5% of those asked in North America (Levine, Sato, Hashimoto, & Verma, 1995). Previous research has considered a range of differences between “love” and arranged marriages, such as marital outcomes (Myers, 2010), though to date there is little consideration of female intrasexual competition in arranged marriages, which may involve signals directed at a potential partner’s family rather to the man himself or the display of qualities that are of particular value to the wider family group.

Future research is required to investigate the extent to which parental selection of the marital partner and expectations of romantic love influence female intrasexual competition. There is some suggestion that the role of women within many societies practicing arranged marriage may influence intrasexual competition between single women. In particular, the lower social status afforded to unmarried women may heighten the importance of securing a marriage partner. As described in Strier and Zidan (2013), “Being unmarried is a life on hold, a suspended existence. The dependent nature of the unmarried women’s social status has detrimental consequences for their self-image, as they see themselves as almost certainly having some imperfection that explains their unmarriability” (p. 206). Of course the distinction between the status of single and married women is not necessarily restricted to those societies in which arranged marriages occur. In Jane Austen’s famous novel Pride and Prejudice, the younger Lydia clearly delights in announcing to her elder sister, “Ah, Jane, I take your place now, and you must go lower, because I am a married woman!” (p. 243).

Intrasexual competition between female members of the wider family unit (e.g., women selecting potential partners for their children) would be a particularly interesting area of research, and future studies may compare women’s competitive behavior when selecting or retaining their own partner with competition to secure a husband for their daughter. Again, the involvement of the wider family unit, while expected to be particularly strong when arranged marriages take place, may not be restricted to these cultures. Also noted in Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on first entering a neighbourhood, the truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters” (p. 5).


Polyandry, in which one woman is married to more than one man, is a relatively rare marriage system (Marlowe, 2000). It almost always involves fraternal polyandry whereby brothers share a wife. This system has been studied in a number of populations, including Tibetans in Nepal, the Khasas and Lahul in northern India, and the Kandyans in Sri Lanka. This mating system may be particularly advantageous if it allows the brothers to retain lands that would otherwise become fragmented or to ensure that sufficient labor is present to support the household. Polyandry may also increase (p. 310) investment in each child, resulting in lower child mortality.

However, these fraternally polyandrous relationships may not be permanent, and brothers (particularly younger brothers) appear to regularly leave polyandrous relationships, often motivated by fraternal friction or the desire to develop independent family units (Levine & Silk, 1997). By reducing the number of available men in a population, polyandry increases the number of women within the group who are unable to marry. Hence, in polyandrous societies, female intrasexual competition to attract long-term partners is of particular importance and may provide a number of reproductive advantages (e.g., opportunities to mate and likelihood of offspring survival) to successful competitors. It is essential for future research to investigate the role of female intrasexual competition in partner selection and acquisition in polyandrous societies and the female strategies that have developed to address this form of reproductive threat.


Compared to polyandry, polygyny, whereby one man is married to more than one woman, is relatively common. Indeed, it is a normative mating system within many societies (van de Walle, 2005). There is, of course, an important distinction between societies in which polygyny is accepted and societies in which it is widely practiced, as in many cultures accepting polygyny, most marriages are monogamous (Murdock, 1967). There is also a distinction between a system in which the wives create wealth or the sororal polygyny in which wealth provides the opportunity for a man to obtain more than one wife. In polygynous societies, relatively few women remain unmarried. However, all wives may not receive equal treatment, and factors such as position within the marriage (e.g., first or second wife) and male preference may affect the ability to obtain resources or to influence strategic family decisions. Therefore, women in polgynous societies should compete for position, particularly to be the first wife, which often confers an element of seniority within the household.

Wives may live together, though it is most common for each wife to have an independent household (Broude, 1994). Women within a polygynous marriage share many objectives, and cooperation during domestic or child-care activities is an important element of polygynous marriages. Though often dependent on close proximity, this cooperation may allow women to pursue paid work outside the home and is particularly important during periods of illness or pregnancy. Indeed, the cooperation that wives display toward each other may have a positive impact on child survival (Chisholm & Burbank, 1991). Relationships between polygynous wives also involve conflict, particularly for the attention and investment of their husband. Recalling the arrival of the sixth wife in a polygynous marriage, the fifth wife stated, “I felt rotten, I was angry, I didn’t understand. My little boy was only eight months old and he was getting married? Who would look after me? Why did he marry me if he wanted another?” (Al-Krenawi & Graham, 1999, p. 503).

Therefore, successful negotiation of these intrasexual relationships (i.e., increasing cooperation while ensuring male investment) has an important impact on the women’s own welfare and that of their children. The importance of relationships with co-wives may be further exacerbated by the emotional detachment and relatively low social support provided by polygynous compared to monogamous husbands (Orubuloye, Caldwell, & Caldwell, 1997), and future research may consider the influence of husband–wife relationship quality on interactions between wives. A range of factors such as age and rank influence the level of cooperation or conflict between wives (Jankowiak, Sudakov, & Wilreker, 2005), and the level of conflict or jealousy that is experienced presumably influences women’s marital satisfaction and stress. In part, these factors may account for the varied advantages experienced by wives, such as the greater status and reproductive success of senior compared to junior wives (Gibson & Mace, 2006). Relationships with their husband’s family, particularly his mother, may also influence status within the family unit and subsequent investment from the husband. Future research should consider the importance of these wider familial relationships for competition between wives.

Duolocal Residence and Competition Between Sisters

“Sisters, as you know, also have a unique relationship. This is the person who has known you your entire life, who should love you and stand by you no matter what, and yet it’s your sister who knows exactly where to drive the knife to hurt you the most.”

—Lisa See

(p. 311) In a small number of societies, such as the Mosuo of Southwestern China, men and women live separately, each remaining in their mother’s home after marriage. Women therefore live in a communal household containing three generations, with men visiting only at night. Women typically cooperate with domestic tasks, agricultural labor, and child care, though the presence of multiple women of reproductive age in the same household creates competition. Ji et al. (2013) showed that women’s reproductive success is negatively affected by this competition, with the presence of sisters related to later age of having a first child. Older, dominant sisters achieve the greatest success and have a greater number of children than their lower-ranking siblings.

The Presence of Male Observers

“My biggest challenge will be to play the totally submissive woman. It takes a toll on you when you play someone who’s so far removed from your personality.”

—Regina King

When faced with a partner’s infidelity or the threat of infidelity, the partner rather than the rival is often the target of anger and blame (Mathes & Verstraete, 1993). The romantic rival is, however, more salient for women faced with their partner’s infidelity than for men in this situation. Specifically, the emotional and behavioral reactions of women toward a rival are greater than those of men (Paul, Foss, & Galloway, 1993). Directly addressing the threat posed by female rivals (rather than focusing on behavior directed toward the partner) offers a number of advantages, such as deterring those rivals and demonstrating commitment to a current relationship. There are, however, a number of disadvantages for women displaying jealous or competitive reactions. These behaviors are typically inconsistent with societal norms that depict men and women as assertive and passive, respectively (though some cultural variation exists; Mead, 1935), and aggressive women are evaluated more negatively than aggressive men, particularly if physical rather than verbal aggression is involved (Barber, Foley & Jones, 1999).

Men observing female intrasexual competition may reject women whom they perceive to be acting in an aggressive or dominant manner. For example, Flinn (1988) highlights the embarrassment experienced by men in response to female intrasexual competition and explicit mate-guarding behavior, which may reduce opportunities for men to develop polygynous relationships. Therefore, while women may prefer to engage in indirect rather than direct intrasexual competition, even nonphysical forms of competition such as derogation lower desirability as a romantic partner. Hence, women should be cautious when competing with rivals, particularly when they are being directly observed by men, in order to protect their own reputation and desirability. While the presence of male observers is expected to influence the behavior of both single and partnered women, it may be of greatest importance for those in a romantic relationship. Single women who appear to be excessively jealous or aggressive (thus alienating the man they seek to attract) have the option to refocus their attention on other men who have not observed their undesirable behavior. Partnered women, however, cannot avoid the consequences of their competitive actions by directing their attention to a different mate; therefore, competition with rivals may lead to conflict with their partner and increase the likelihood of relationship dissolution.

Previous research suggests that women are aware of the influence that female competitiveness may have on their attractiveness as a romantic partner and adapt their behavior accordingly. In particular, women are less competitive when faced with opposite-sex opponents, a phenomenon that is more frequent during naturalistic compared to experimental studies (Weisfeld, 1986). Their discomfort during these competitions is clearly observable through their adoption of defensive postures and submissive behavior, though they may not be consciously aware that they change their behavior when competing (Weisfeld, Weisfeld, & Callaghan, 1982). Females who do not depress their performance when competing with males display signs of anxiety (Morgan & Mausner, 1973), perhaps in anticipation of the negative reactions to their competitive behavior and subsequent success. This reduction of competitive behavior when women are in the presence of men has been observed cross-culturally, suggesting that it may not be dependent on societal reactions to female dominance. At present, few studies have considered the effect of male observation on female (relationship-oriented) intrasexual competition or the manner in which this is influenced by relationship status, and additional research in this area is required.

(p. 312) Hormonal Mechanisms Influencing Intrasexual Competition of Single and Partnered Women

“Love is indeed, at root, the product of the firings of neurons and release of hormones.”

—Julian Baggini

This chapter focuses on the functions served by intrasexual competition for single and partnered women. It is also important to consider potential physiological differences between single and partnered women that may facilitate competition. This section outlines the hormonal mechanisms influencing intrasexual competition by single and partnered women and changes in competitive behavior across the menstrual cycle.

Hormones are chemicals that are secreted into the bloodstream. They produce specific physiological effects and may influence or be influenced by a range of behaviors. Hormonal influence is typically characterized by altering the likelihood or intensity of a behavior rather than as switching behavior on or off (see Cobey and Hahn in this handbook for a detailed account of the endocrinology of female competition). Of particular importance for aggressive and competitive behavior is the sex steroid testosterone. Research often investigates testosterone in the context of male competition or differences between men and women. However, while circulating testosterone levels are higher in men than in women (leading to the common assumption that testosterone is a “male hormone”), testosterone also influences female aggression and competition. A number of studies indicate that the testosterone levels of single and partnered women differ (van Anders & Goldey, 2010). In addition, testosterone levels are lower in women with children than those without, suggesting that a reduction in circulating testosterone levels may serve to reduce conflict and promote cohesion in women in romantic relationships or those with caring responsibilities. The relationship between relationship status and testosterone levels is, however, influenced by a range of factors, such as interest in new or additional partners. In particular, partnered women who engage in frequent uncommitted sexual activity display similar testosterone levels to single women (Edelstein, Chopik, & Kean, 2011).

These results suggest that testosterone levels may, to an extent, account for some of the behavioral differences between single and partnered women. In particular, hormonal differences between women of different relationship status may influence the propensity to engage in intrasexual competition and the specific competitive behaviors employed. Consistent with this suggestion, research conducted in nonhuman species indicates that testosterone increases female aggression, and, in women, testosterone has been related to dominance and violent behavior (Dabbs & Hargrove, 1997). Furthermore, testosterone is associated with a number of related traits such as impulsivity, sensitivity to punishment and reward, empathetic behavior, and cooperation (e.g., Mehta, Wuehrmann, & Josephs, 2009) that are expected to influence competition with rival females. Together, these findings indicate that future research should consider the manner in which testosterone may contribute to the prevalence and intensity of intrasexual competition experienced by single and partnered women.

Premenopausal sexually mature women experience regular hormonal fluctuations across the reproductive or menstrual cycle. The length of the cycle varies considerably between women and between cycles, though the average cycle lasts for approximately twenty-eight days. A range of studies demonstrate that women’s sexual behavior and partner preferences vary across the menstrual cycle, indicating a greater sexual interest (especially in men who are not their regular partner) during the most fertile phase. A range of cognitive abilities differ across the menstrual cycle, and women’s ability to categorize male faces increases during the fertile phase (Macrae Alnwick, Milne, & Schloerscheidt, 2002). Provocative dress during the high fertile phase and attendance at situations (such as parties) in which they are more likely to attract mates (Haselton & Gangestad, 2006) further suggests a greater sexual motivation at this time. Women’s preferences for specific physical and nonphysical traits also vary across the menstrual cycle, including the preference for face and voice type, height, social status, and dominance (e.g., Pawlowski & Jasienska, 2005). These findings suggest that competition for mates may be most frequent or most intense during the fertile phase. Future research investigating intrasexual competition across the menstrual cycle is required.

Importantly, behavioral fluctuation across the menstrual cycle appears to differ among single and partnered women. For example, Bressan and Stranieri (2008) showed that partnered women were more attracted to partnered men compared to single men but only during the low fertile phase. During the high fertile phase, partnered women (p. 313) were more attracted to single men compared to partnered men. The responses of single women did not vary across the menstrual cycle. Furthermore, the attentional bias for courtship language during the fertile phase exists for partnered but not single women (Rosen & Lopez, 2009). Together, these findings suggest that cyclical changes in hormone levels may influence female mate preferences and sexual behavior differently according to relationship status. Further research investigating the interaction between hormone levels and relationship status, and subsequent impact on female intrasexual competition, is required.

Future Directions

As outlined, the form, frequency, and intensity of intrasexual competition differs for single and partnered women. Important differences exist between individuals, however, and the factors influencing this variation are expected to vary for single and partnered women. For example, future research investigating sociosexual orientation for single women and relationship quality for partnered women is of particular interest.

“Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go it’s one of the best.”

—Woody Allen

Sociosexual orientation refers to the willingness to engage in short-term uncommitted relationships. Those with a restricted sociosexual orientation prefer long-term relationships with a high level of commitment, whereas those with an unrestricted sociosexual orientation favor short-term relationships with low levels of commitment (Simpson & Gangestad, 1991). Previous research (e.g., Lewis, Al-Shawaf, Conroy-Beam, Asao, & Buss, 2012) indicates that the adoption of a restricted or unrestricted sexual strategy is related to mate preference and the use of mate-retention tactics. Sociosexual orientation may therefore also influence a woman’s willingness to engage in intrasexual competition or the perceived threat that she poses to other women. Research suggests that higher mating effort (i.e., greater desire for sex and higher levels of sexual activity) is associated with greater aggressiveness (Rowe, Vazsonyi, & Figueredo, 1997), and (in men) orientation toward short-term uncommitted relationships is associated with the use of direct intrasexual competition, which may reflect a higher mate quality and more favorable comparisons with potential rivals (Simpson, Gangestad, Christensen, & Leck, 1999). Furthermore, experimental studies demonstrate that priming with sexual stimuli (i.e., words such as “sex” and “passion”) is related to intrasexual competition (Massar & Buunk, 2009). The greater levels of intrasexual competition displayed by those with a more unrestricted sociosexual orientation may reflect both a willingness to obtain mates without concern for the social consequences or a more distrustful and competitive reaction from potential rivals who appear able to accurately detect sociosexual orientation from facial cues (Boothroyd, Burt, DeBruine, & Perrett, 2008), which escalates the competition.

Same-sex friendships with unrestricted women may be particularly difficult. Women avoid friendships with sexually available rivals and are reluctant to befriend women described as sexually promiscuous (Bleske & Shackelford, 2001). Hence unrestricted individuals report lower-quality same-sex friendships than those with a restricted strategy (Hebl & Klashy, 1995). The lower quality of these friendships may reflect the widespread competition between same-sex friends to attract sexual partners and the fact that women can accurately report their friend’s sociosexual orientation and mate-attraction tactics (Bleske-Rechek & Buss, 2006). Unrestricted women may detect the distrust of their female friends. Sacco, Hugenberg, and Sefcek (2009) demonstrate that unrestricted men and women are better able to discriminate between women’s real and deceptive facial signals (i.e., smiles). Sensitivity to facial signals provides a competitive advantage via identification and avoidance of the most threatening or distrustful rivals. These women may conclude that close same-sex friendships are not viable, instead focusing on competition rather than cooperation with other women.

Relationship Quality

“Before marriage, a man declares that he would lay down his life to serve you; after marriage, he won’t even lay down his newspaper to talk to you.”

—Helen Rowland

It may be assumed that women in romantic relationships wish to protect those relationships against same-sex rivals and potential relationship dissolution. However, relationships vary widely, from abusive and destructive relationships to those that are loving and rewarding. Therefore, the motivation to protect relationships against the threat of (p. 314) infidelity or dissolution and willingness to engage in intrasexual competitive behavior may also vary. Important factors influencing relationship satisfaction or quality may include the value of the partner (e.g., attractiveness, wealth, kindness) and the level of investment made in the relationship (e.g., length of relationship, integration with partner’s social network; Acitelli, Kenny, & Weiner, 2001; Simpson, 1987). Women in long-term relationships with a high-quality partner, characterized by shared responsibilities such as childrearing, should be more willing to engage in intrasexual competition when required than women in comparatively short-term relationships with less desirable mates.

Although previous experience with infidelity may weaken the quality of the relationship, it may heighten awareness of potential threats to the relationship and increase jealousy or intrasexual competition (Buss, Larsen, Westen, & Semmelroth, 1992). Future studies may therefore investigate the influence of this experience on the frequency and intensity of intrasexual competition and whether women in this situation are most likely to direct mate-retention behaviors toward their partner or female rival. The quality of viable alternatives and the level of nonspousal support available to women should also influence the importance women place on their current relationships and hence their willingness to protect those relationships from potential rivals (Miller, 1997). Women who receive valued support from family, friends, or other agencies, or who believe there to be a range of high-quality mates available, should be less dependent on their current relationship than other women and so less likely to compete with rivals who threaten the survival of this relationship (South, 2001). Future research should consider the quality of the threatened relationship, relationship history, and the wider context in which the relationship is situated.


In sum, relationship status influences the frequency, form, and intensity of female intrasexual competition. Single women are most likely to compete for access to desirable partners, and competitive strategies center on those attributes most valued by potential partners such as physical attractiveness. For partnered women, the retention of a mate is most important. Jealousy alerts women to the most threatening rivals or situation, prompting her to employ a range of mate-retention techniques targeted either at the strengthening of the current relationship or toward the rival. Single rivals, who present the greatest threat, may be most vulnerable to derogation of relationship status and association with negative stereotypes of single women. Partnered women, while also threatening, provide greater opportunities for observation of sexual interest and deployment of appropriate mate-retention behaviors. Differences between the intrasexual competition of single women may in part be facilitated by hormonal mechanisms. Present findings focus on female intrasexual competition in the context of romantic sexually exclusive relationships, and additional research investigating intrasexual competition in nonmonogamous mating systems is required. Research assessing those factors such as sociosexual orientation and relationship quality that may influence the competitive behaviors employed by single and partnered women respectively is also recommended.


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