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Many bird species demonstrate a variable mating system, with some males being monogamously mated and other males able to attract more than one mate. This variation in avian mating systems is often explained in terms of potential costs of sharing breeding partners and compensation for such costs. However, whenever there is a difference in the optimal mating system for males and females, a sexual conflict over the number of partners is expected. This paper contains a verbal model of how a conflict between male and female European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris),resulting from the fitness consequences of different mating systems for males and females differing over time, determines the mating system. We demonstrate that males and females have contrasting fitness interests regarding mating system, such that males gain from attracting additional mates whereas already mated females pay a cost in terms of reduced reproductive success if males are successful in attracting more mates. We demonstrate how this can be traced to the rules by which males allocate non-sharable care between different broods. Furthermore, we demonstrate that there exist male and female conflict behaviours with the potential to affect the mating system. For example, aggression from already mated females towards prospecting females can limit male mating success and males can circumvent this by spacing the nest-sites they defend. The realised mating system will emerge as a consequence of both the fitness value of the different mating systems for males and females, and the costs for males and females of intersexual competition. We discuss how this model can be developed and critically evaluated in the future.