“He’s acts, such as murder or rape (Willcox-Bailey, 1999).

“He’s kind, he’s funny, he’s charming” (Doreen Lioy, nd) describing her soon to be husband ‘The Night Stalker’ serial killer and well known ‘humanitarian’ Richard Ramirez (The 10 Most Infamous Murderers Who Married in Prison, nd).

The phenomenon of why women seek relationships with men in prison as seen with high profile marriages involving serial killers such as Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez, Charles Manson and parricide killers the Menendez brothers, ensure the occurrence is rarely out of the public’s attention. In extreme cases, like these, a sexual perversion known as Hybristophilia has been proffered. Also known as the ‘Bonnie and Clyde syndrome’, Hybristophilia is the attainment of orgasm by a woman, stimulated and dependent, upon a man who has committed deplorable acts, such as murder or rape (Willcox-Bailey, 1999). However, this is a particular niche and does not explain why an ever-growing number of women are seeking out relationships with imprisoned men, many of whom will never be released.

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Conventional explanations of partner choice fail to explain why this growing non-traditional relationship group exists. Political, social, cultural and moral ramifications aside, who are these women? Do they share any psychological commonalities perhaps in personality or attachment? Only two pieces of published empirical research exist (Gelt-Price, 2001) and (Slavikova & Panza, 2014) ensuring a bountiful and exhilarating opportunity to examine this rapidly growing sub-culture.

There is a wealth of information and research in the area of partner choice or mate selection, mostly coming from evolutionary psychologists, focusing on the differences in preference between the genders.  Stemming from the work of Charles Darwin and his revolutionary study “The descent of man” (1871) runaway selection refers to a naturally selected male trait which evolves over the generations, regarded as especially desirable by the female of the species (Fisher, 1930). Fisher proposed that males develop more abundant and elaborative decorations increasing their appeal to the opposite sex, despite these ornaments appearing maladaptive and detrimental to their chances of survival. Also described as ‘evolutionary suicide’ suggesting that reproduction is of greater importance than survival (Nonaka, Parvinen, & Brännström, 2013).

Subsequently, Fisher cited the example of the peacock, whose large and decorative tail appeals to females but is also visible to predators. The theory continues, preference by women for this particular trait will be passed on to the son, enhancing his chances of reproductive success referred to as the ‘sexy son’s hypothesis’ (Fisher, 1930). Contrary to the ideas of Fisher, Zahavi, (1975) suggested the handicap principle, stating that males develop these apparent ornamental handicaps as a sign of their genetic value. Thus proving despite their disability they are still capable of survival, signalling to the female their heritable capabilities and inspiring their mate selection (Zahavi, 1975).

The Bateman principle (1948) states that women invest more in sex; therefore, they are a valuable resource which hence, creates male competition. Adding to this came the theory of parental investment and sexual selection Trivers, (1972) parents will invest in quality over quantity, due to the fitness variance (the number of children produced over a lifetime) between men and women the latter being low and the former high (Trivers, 1972).

Utilising the ideas set down by Trivers, as well as works by Williams, (1975) relating to men’s preference for younger women, DM Buss, (1989) conducted a cross-cultural study looking at sex differences in human mate preferences. The study included 37 samples in 33 countries across five continents with a total sample of 10,047 participants. Results showed that 97% of the female sample prized ‘financial prospects’ more than men when choosing a partner. 92% of women also valued ‘ambition and industriousness’ as an indicator of mate selection (Buss, 1989).

In each of the 37 samples, men preferred women who were younger to themselves, while the opposite applied to women who preferred their partners to be older. All samples showed men valued looks more than females. 62% of males valued abstention from pre-marital sex in their partner, although this is a significant amount, Buss, believed cultural differences might have counted, ‘chastity’ being more predominant in eastern cultures particularly in Asia than in the west (Buss, 1989).

Results of the Buss study suggest women prefer men who are financially stable, motivated and hardworking; however, these characteristics are only available in a finite amount of men, which has led to competition amongst females for the most eligible males. Campbell (1995) suggests young women are engaging in an intrasexual competition which can often lead to violence and risky behaviour, similar to their male counterparts at the same age. However, Campbell stressed, this to be temporary situation owing to the low fitness variance of females compared to males (Campbell, 1995).

Following on from the work of Campbell, a similar trend for female intrasexual competition was found by (Hill, Rodeheffer, Griskevicius, Durante, & White, 2012), highlighting the ‘lipstick effect’ as a predictor of females utilising strategies to improve their attractiveness to men. Researchers found, although there had been an economic downturn, the sales of beauty products had increased, concluded this was a direct consequence of women hoping to attract successful men (Hill et al., 2012).

Female partner choice also studied under the guise of dual-mating strategy. The idea that females often opt for both options parental investment and good genes. Mostly, women will secure investment from one man and use another for reproduction also known as ‘cuckoldry.’ According to researchers’ Gangestad and Thornhill, (2006), this occurs particularly around the time of ovulation especially if the investment partner less attractive. 

Furthering the argument on dual strategy Baker and Bellis (1993) conducted a study “Human sperm competition: ejaculate manipulation by females and a function for the female orgasm”, testing the amount of sperm rejected and dispersed during times of fidelity and infidelity. Discovering during periods of infidelity women’s ‘orgasm pattern’ modified, essentially, favouring the partner with the good genes by reducing the number of sperm from the investment partner. Thereby heightening the chance of reproduction when intercourse occurred with the ‘extra-pair male’ (Baker & Bellis, 1993).

Sheib, Gangestead, and Thornhill, (1999) in a study relating to female mate preferences concluded that women prefer men with symmetrical faces, a predictor of good health and good genes. The study used 69 female participants and utilised pictures of men rated for attractiveness, masculinity, and symmetry. They concluded attractiveness and masculinity being of similar value when assessing cues for ‘phenotypic condition’ (Scheib, Gangestad, & Thornhill, 1999).

Bowlby first conceptualised the idea of a behavioural attachment system which he describes as a motivational system evolving due to natural selection to meet the needs of the child. Primarily the system seeks out the caregiver, and if the caregiver is nearby, the child feels secure, if there is a prolonged period of separation, anxiety, hopelessness and sadness ensue, and the behavioural attachment system is activated (Bowlby, 2012).

Hazan and Shaver, (1987) used Bowlby’s ideas to explain attachment in romantic relationships suggesting that the parent/child bond was similar in motivational terms to that of a romantic partner. Thus secure individuals in relationships will feel partners are dependable and trustworthy. Fear of abandonment will characterise an insecure attachment. While avoidant adults may be apathetic and independent, keeping partners at a distance, mainly a defence mechanism (Hazan & Shaver, 1987). Zeifman and Hazan, (1997) argue adults seek the same secure qualities form their partners as they would as a child, citing ‘warmth, attentiveness and sensitivity’ as the most desirable qualities in a potential partner.

Sociological and social Psychology theories have also been used to explain partner choice. Social homogamy theory suggests partner choice relates similar social background socialisation. Two people socialised in similar environments are more likely to be attracted to one another. Couples will often be from the same socio-economic background, share age, education, political affiliation, interests, religious and ethnicity similarities (Lucas et al., 2004). 

Primarily, the belief that ‘like attracts like’ social homogamy has been linked to higher fertility and marriage satisfaction, suggesting similarities have a beneficial effect and stabilise relationships particularly over an extended period (Arrindell & Luteijn, 2000). However, in a study by Horwitz et al. (2016) comparing phenotypic assortment (selecting mates based on heritable characteristics) to social homogamy of 876 male and female monozygotic twins results suggested genetic qualities were more important in mate choice (Horwitz et al., 2016).

Contrary, to the idea social homogamy, Robert Winch in the 1950’s first posited the theory of complementary needs. Inherently, opposites attract hypothesis whereby one partner will help balance out the other’s weaknesses. The shy person will choose the extrovert; the unorganised person will choose a conscientious partner and so on (Winch, Ktsanes, & Ktsanes, 1954).

Ideal mate theory posits partner choice is related to previous experience which may include subconscious ideas regarding the perfect partner based on physical attraction and personality perhaps from childhood experiences or past relationships. It could be related to a movie or pop star. More interestingly it may refer to seeking out a partner who shares similarities in characteristics to a parent (Eckland, 1968).

Robert Sternberg, (1986) an American psychologist suggested the idea of the love triangle in which he studied North American relationships. Asserting romantic love has three sides’ passion, intimacy, and commitment. Passion, equating to a strong sense of sexual chemistry; intimacy, the sharing of psychological and emotional needs, and commitment, principally the maintenance phase where the relationship flourishes and other rewards outweigh the first two elements, individual roles are assumed and understood ideally creating harmony (Sternberg, 1986).

Social exchange theory explains mate selection as a transaction whereby the parties carefully consider what they want from a partner and what they can give back, factors including attractiveness, personality, intellect, financial stability or services. The partner with the highest qualities which come at the littlest cost succeeds in selection. For example, although perhaps a little outdated, a mate chooses another by being a good breadwinner or a good housekeeper (Cropanzano & Mitchell, 2005).

Meeting a partner who lives, works or studies in proximity to another rationally explains the reason for mate selection as people are more likely have an encounter. Also known as propinquity theory, logically suggesting long-distance relationships are hard to keep up both financially and emotionally. Although the internet has enabled long-distance relationships to become more familiar (Segal, 1974).

Unfortunately, traditional theories on partner choice seem unable to explain the non-traditional relationships, or answer the question why women enter into a relationship with a man they may never see in the outside world. The argument for parental investment put forward by Trivers (1972) suggests females seek out males who provide safe, secure and stable environments for the offspring to be able and continue reproduction, fails to explain the phenomena. An incarcerated man may offer little investment if any. The idea put forward that woman seek men of high status offering them the chance to enhance their status is also flawed. Even if the male was to leave prison, he is highly unlike to have high social standing (Slavikova and Panza, 2014).

The theory of dual-mating also has problems in explaining the phenomena; it would appear incredibly unlikely unless under exceptional circumstances that a man would have the chance to reproduce while in prison. Each of the other theories: social homogamy, ideal mate, complementary needs, propinquity, and the love triangle, have their merits, however, seem too simplistic in explain this particular sub-culture. The exception being, social exchange theory, which suggests each party weighs up the potential benefits of the relationship and if they outweigh the costs an agreement is met (Slavikova and Panza, 2014). 

Slavikova and Panza, (2014) were restricted in their study concerning attachment styles, believing the measure was too simplistic and lacked overall power due to self-reporting. It is, therefore, uncertain how a more in-depth investigation of attachment styles may explain partner choice in this area. The Hazan and Shaver (1987), three category attachment measure has also been criticised previously for assuming that all three categories were distinct with no overlap (Shi, Wampler, & Wampler, 2013)

Only two other studies thus far have attempted to bring clarity in explaining this type of relationship from an empirical standpoint. The first coming from Gelt-price, (2001) when conducting an investigation using 26 women who began relationships with men who were either in prison for life or on death row (Slavikova and Panza, 2014). The study consisted of self-report questionnaires and in-depth interviews following a qualitative method. The research included women aged between 41-67 years old; academic abilities ranged from 11th grade to PhD level; relationship length 1.5 years to 25 years. 50% of the respondents reported childhood family problems; 90% stated some form of abuse in previous relationships and high percentage abuse in childhood (Slavikova and Panza, 2014).

The second study conducted by Slavikova and Panza, (2014) aimed at building a clearer picture of this neglected sub-group, hoping to gain further information regarding background, demographics, adult attachment style, mental health and personality characteristics. Surveys were used to collect data relating to experience, demographics as well as partner characteristics. A modified Jesness Inventory was used the (JI-R) (“JI-RTM – Jesness Inventory-Revised | Multi Health Systems (MHS Inc.),” n.d.) to examine common trends in personality among participants.

An online adaption of Hazan and Shafer (1987) self-reporting attachment questionnaire was used, as previously mentioned this method might have been over-simplistic. Results of 122 participants found 64.8% characterised as secure, 22.2% avoidant, and 23% anxious concerning relationships. The authors hypothesised that most would fall into the two latter categories. A total of 49 participants completed the JI-R questionnaire which has 11 personality styles no particular pathology stood out in the results. However, within the measure there are nine subtypes, two types emerged in comparison to normative results: 30.6% for manipulator/introspective and 24.5% for anxious/introspective.

The internet has given rise to online prison dating sites, Facebook groups, and internet forums along with previously existing pen pal schemes. Estimations of over 1.3million relationships exist between inmates and women who have met through these methods (Gelt-Price, nd). High profile press stories, such as the former soap star who recently became engaged to the notorious prisoner the self-named Charles Manson, are often in the news and on TV. Questions exist on political and moral grounds as to whether such relationships are justifiable. Coupled with the lack of empirical data, it would appear perfect ground for research.

Given the lack of data on the subject and the limitations of previous studies by Slavikova and Panza, (2014) and Gelt-Price (2001). It would seem evident that further investigation into the subject matter is needed rather than focusing on a particular theory to explain the phenomena. Descriptive research is a valuable tool and will enable a greater understanding of this neglected subgroup, creating a platform for future work (Polit & Beck, 2004).

The work of Slavikova and Panza, (2014) is of primary importance utilising their recommendations and improving upon their methodology will enhance this particular area of research. The study intends to uncover in greater depth the attachment styles and dimensions of adults in relationships with prisoners. The investigation will also reveal the personality types and individual differences among the participants, taking into account many variables including mental health and demographics.

A more substantial sample is required using both online and offline techniques given the target population is estimated at 1.3million, mostly using online dating sites such as meetaninmate.com and prisoninmates.com. These sites are prevalent in western countries such the UK, USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand where it seems the phenomena is at its highest. Advertisements will be placed on each of these sites along with prisoner relationship forums such as ‘met while incarcerated’ and Facebook sites such as wives of inmates.

As suggested by Slavikova and Panza, (2014) attempts will be made to contact inmates via the prison authorities to identify potential participants who may not be online. Internet surveys are viewed with caution as they can be less generalizable; therefore, attempts will be made to determine as many offline participants as possible to account for this variable (Schmidt, 1997). However, the rise in the phenomena seems to coincide with the growth of the internet.  The main criteria being the relationship with the prisoner must have started after his incarceration and participants must be over 18 years old. Online participants will be directed to a link which allow them to enter their email and create an account. Participants will be given one month to complete all surveys and questionnaires with the ability to save and return. Offline participants will be given two months to complete the surveys.

The sample survey will include questions related to age, race as well as relationship length, partner details such as conviction and sentence duration. This type of survey is quick, inexpensive and relatively easy to collate (Schmidt, 1997). Written consent will be obtained explaining the study and its purpose as well as explaining the voluntary nature and confidentiality aspects. Offline participation will involve contact via post, or phone depending on how they are accessed. All steps will be taken to ensure the protection and rights of each participant following the standards set down 8.01-8.09 of the APA Ethics Code (“Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Sixth Edition,” n.d.)

The Experiences in Close Relationships-Revised (ECR-R) questionnaire devised by Brennan, Clark, and Shaver, will be used. The questionnaire exams attachment patterns and styles relating to 4 relationships, e.g., mother, father, partner, friends. However, this version allows for assessment focusing on a specific bond, i.e., partner. This particular method highlights two dimensions of attachment in adults, attachment-related anxiety and avoidance as oppose to merely categorising, as with Hazan and Shaver, (1987).  Consequently, individual differences in attachment styles are not constant they vary in intensity and scope (Fraley and Waller, 2000).

 Slavikova and Panza, (2014) identified many problems with the JI-R questionnaire, while it was a validated measure, its adaption for use with adults, questions its generalisability. For this study, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2) was selected as it is the most broadly used assessment of adult psychopathology currently available. Although lengthy, with 567 questions, the answers are true or false, and participants will not be expected to complete the assessment in one sitting.

This particular evaluation has nine validity measures assessing for lying and faking thereby increasing the internal validity of the study tremendously in comparison to the JI-R. The test has been used and validated in a variety of settings and studies. It assesses mental health issues, personality, psychopathology and numerous other characteristics which will benefit this study and future research (Drayton, 2009).