You walk hand-in-hand with your significant other to the bar, and notice his eyes wander toward the pretty woman across the room. Subtly, you look her up and down and smile, but then a wave of jealousy hits. In this moment, as you tightly grasp your partner’s hand, you become self-conscious, and think, “Does he find her more attractive than me?” “Am I letting myself go?”

We all demand monogamy in our relationships, and we become territorial with our partners, especially when we perceive a “threat.” However, if someone attractive crosses their path, it doesn’t mean our partner’s attention is diverted.

"Attraction is largely subconscious. We check people out because we are attracted to them and 'sizing them up,'’ David Bennett, a relationship expert, told Medical Daily. "This doesn't necessarily mean anything more than that we find the person attractive."

It’s natural and normal to catch our significant other checking out other people as long as certain boundaries are not crossed.

So, why do so many people in happy, healthy, relationships have wandering eye syndrome?

The Wandering Eye In Relationships

It’s believed being attracted to others is unavoidable. When we look at another person, our brain begins to process the visual information we see, and makes an instantaneous judgement based off the person’s attractiveness. Interestingly, 70 percent of women in relationships admit to having crushes on other men, but most reported these crushes had zero impact on their actual relationships. It’s logical men have the same kinds of crushes.

The wandering eye has become a problem that comes up for many couples. We’d like to think once we enter a relationship, our ability to be attracted to someone else vanishes. Whether our relationship is on the rocks or rock-solid, attraction to other people is inevitable.

Jeremiah Gibson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Quincy, Mass., explains it's natural for partners to check out other people.

"[J]ust because I identify that I'm in a long-term, monogamous relationship with someone doesn't mean that I stop being attracted to other people," he told Medical Daily.

It’s not too much a cause for concern. However, checking out someone else becomes a problem when it’s distracting to the relationship. For example, if this behavior happens all the time, and evolves to starting conversations, or getting a phone number, this can leave the other partner feeling unappreciated, threatened, and insecure.

Gibson believes the wandering eye is only disrespectful "if you and your partner have established a rule that says 'don't look at other people', or if this is done while your partner is describing something about their experience or vulnerability."

For example, in an episode of Sex and the City, Carrie and her boyfriend Big sit down at a restaurant to have dinner. As she talks about her day, Big’s eyes begin to wander as an attractive woman walks past them. This makes Carrie feel uncomfortable and annoyed, especially since it’s happened several times.

However, Big admits he loves Carrie, and only wants to be with her.

Interestingly, as Carrie tells her friend Samantha about Big’s wandering eyes, Samantha says, “You can’t change that about a man. It’s part of their genetic code, like farting.”

So, are men and women actually evolutionarily hardwired to check out other people?

The (Possible) Evolution Of The Wandering Eye

Evolution has shown men and women are driven to seek potential partners based on their odds of survival.

Dr. Nancy Irwin, a therapist and clinical hypnotist in Los Angeles, believes as animals, our number-one priority is to procreate and ensure our species survives.

"Evolutionary psychology informs us that females, [who are also influenced] by their limbic 'primitive mind' brain stem, are hardwired to check out a potential partner's resources [money, strength] to ensure he can protect her and her offspring,” she said.

Females are hardwired to check out a potential partner's resources to ensure protection for her and her offspring. Photo courtesy of Pexels, Public Domain

A recent study in Evolutionary Psychology found women first notice a man's upper body. Physical characteristics like upper body strength are seen as more attractive. These physical traits have been referred to as the android shape pattern, which is comprised of having more fat distribution in the upper part of the body (e.g., shoulders, arms, and neck), in contrast to women whose fat distribution (i.e., gynoid shape) is concentrated in the lower region of the body. The android shape pattern in men is associated with testosterone, masculinity, and perceived dominance.

Meanwhile, a 2013 study found men are more likely to stare at women’s breasts, waists, and hips longer. Researchers used eye tracking technology to map the visual behavior of both men and women as they viewed images of several women with different body types. The findings revealed men and women both regarded curvaceous women more positively than women with fewer curves.

Men are hardwired to prefer women’s curves; they’re a signal women are both healthy and fertile.  

It’s not surprising we’re biologically inclined to seek out partners, especially men. In the video, “He Wants You”, Dennis Prager, author and a radio talk show host, claims no matter how monogamous and faithful he is, the visually stimulated heterosexual man is “naturally programmed” to want more than one woman.

A man’s “built-in” attraction to the female body is all due to evolution. He adds, although men are excited by other female forms, this does not mean they are dissatisfied with their own partner.

“More than anyone else in the world, he wants you. And if you don't believe me, ask him,” Prager says in the video.

Prager’s statements can come off as ludicrous and at times misogynistic, but his explanation has scientific merit. A 2013 study published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior found unlike women, men prefer faces they’ve never seen before when it comes to being visually stimulated. Men rated these women less attractive when they saw them for a second time.

Researchers believe this is because men evolved to maximize their reproductive success by mating with as many partners as possible. This is why men are more aroused by the idea of having a new sex partner than women. Pursuing a large number of women can dramatically increase their reproductive success.

Irwin suggests men are more likely to check out other women after they’ve become sexual with their partner in a relationship.

"The (usually) male partner has attempted to impregnate her, and is ready to move on and do it again with other females," she said.

However, in a modern context, men have a choice to act on this primitive instinct.

The Duration And Frequency Of A Stare

The length of a man’s gaze can predict his level of attraction to a woman. A 2009 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found men who are extremely attracted to a woman look into her eyes for an average of 8.2 seconds. However, a man who lets his eyes linger on her for four seconds is less interested.

Typically, it takes an average of seven seconds to decide if we’re attracted to someone else or not. Michele Barton, a clinical health psychologist at Psychology Life Well in Harrison, N.Y., suggests it’s very common for a partner with a wandering eye to take about five to ten seconds before attention is diverted back to where it was before.

“But I think it's important to strongly distinguish between looking and staring; this... is the basis of a very long argument with many couples,” she told Medical Daily.

It's important to distinguish between looking and staring when it comes to the wandering eye. Photo courtesy of Pexels, Public Domain

A look could suggest there’s eye contact, you may compliment the person, and then move on. Staring suggests there may or may not be eye contact; you may be looking at someone for longer than what is acceptable and it may be obvious you’re making the person feel uncomfortable. Staring at someone while you’re with your partner is disrespectful both to the person you’re with and yourself.

What The Wandering Eye Means For Your Relationship

A beautiful woman or a handsome man may catch your partner’s attention briefly. The complaint of the never-subtle wandering eye never tires, but as previously mentioned, it’s not a cause for concern. In a 2009 study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, men admit they stare, but they don’t care about the other women.

Researchers quickly showed participants (who were both single and in relationships) words including “lust” and “kiss.” Then, participants were asked to look at a series of other images which included photos of attractive people of the opposite sex. Singletons took their time enjoying these photos, but people in committed relationships looked away more quickly from the attractive faces.

However, in a follow-up study, researchers made it difficult to pay attention to the attractive faces. This prompted both men and women to respond by trying to look harder at the “forbidden fruit.” Afterward, the participants experienced less satisfaction with their partners, and more interest in infidelity, because of “mate-guarding,” or restriction.

So, what happens if you catch your partner checking out someone else? Don't panic.

Preventing our partners from looking can backfire.

"Statements that begin with 'don't' often evoke defensiveness from their partner," said Gibson.

A better strategy would be communicating expectations for what's needed, like eye contact, when a partner is sharing an experience. When spotting your partner's wandering eye, it's best to not be harsh, don't be accusatory, and do not jump to conclusions.

Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, an international psychologist, suggests addressing the wandering eye starts with ourselves.

"If you can reason it out with yourself and let it go that's fine," she told Medical Daily.

However, if it bothers you intuitively, have a chat and point out that this is what you think you saw, and this is why it bothers you and how it makes you feel. Bais explains by doing this, the emphasis is not placed on the other person, but rather on yourself.

A better way to handle this situation is by using Bais’ rule of thumb: "If it doesn't pose a future problem, let it go."

But, if this continues to add up, speak about it maturely, confidently, and respectfully.

To Wander Or Not To Wander: The Verdict

Relationships are complicated. The reality is when we agree to be in a monogamous relationship, our partners have eyes for only us, but that doesn’t mean they are oblivious to attraction. After all, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging beauty, says Barton, but there is something wrong with neglecting and disregarding our present company. These are just basic manners.

It’s normal to be attracted to other people. The notion of feeling attractive and desired boosts confidence, and receiving this attention from someone can feel really good. However, seeking this approval, admiration, or lust from everyone we meet isn’t good.

In some relationships, both partners feel secure and relatively open minded to talk about crushes, and this can actually enhance their bond. Sometimes this is found to be sexy. April Masini, relationship expert, suggests we can use this to take note of what’s attracting our partner and use what we learn.

“If your partner admires blondes, consider that just for fun, you could be a blonde with a hair coloring session or a wig — and this might expand part of your relationship,” she told Medical Daily.

Or, if our partner likes someone wearing sexy clothing, and we’re not one to buy or wear sexy clothing, Masini suggests to try it.

Research shows men and women who don’t notice attractive strangers tend to be more satisfied in their own relationships, and are more likely to commit to their partners long term. This concept, known as “perceptual downgrading,” is only effective for those in happy, harmonious relationships. This “blindness” has to come naturally, or else our jealousy may backfire.

Perhaps those of us in happy relationships with a wandering eye feel safe to check someone else out, because of that reason. We are happy and wouldn’t change our partner for anyone else. This means we can still appreciate the beauty we see in others.

So, we all have the license to look, as long as we don’t do it too often or for too long, but we can’t touch.

That’s a fair compromise for monogamy.