At first, it seemed like the perfect evening. Your date took you to that Italian place downtown — you know, the fancy one that got the three-star review in the paper? Soon after you were seated, the sommelier sauntered over to your table and recommended a bottle of Barolo, circa 1997. Your boyfriend took your hand in his and said, “Anything for her,” which thrilled you, because you’re well aware that that’s one expensive bottle of vino. Soon after that, the attractive waitress shimmied across the room and plunked two menus down on your table. After she recited the specials, you turned to face to your handsome guy, intending to negotiate the appetizer selection. Just as you were about to ask him if he’d rather have the mussels or the calamari to share, your mouth snapped shut in dismay.

Why? Because he was staring into the server’s eyes, smiling, totally unaware of you. Not looking, not glancing... staring. Needless to say, the good vibes were shattered instantly. So what exactly is going on when a man checks out other women in your presence? And does it always mean that your relationship is doomed to fade and eventually end? Let’s find out what the experts say about this not-uncommon dilemma.
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Is checking out someone else during your date ever OK?
Many a man has been busted by his sweetheart for checking out another woman at the bar, grocery store, or office holiday party, and many a man has attempted to wriggle off the hook by saying, “What?! I’m not blind, you know…” That may seem like a pretty bogus defense, but Andrea Lavinthal, co-author of The Hook-Up Handbook: A Single Girl’s Guide To Living It Up, doesn’t dismiss that excuse entirely. “Nowhere in the official relationship handbook does it say that you have to be totally blind to other people,” she says. “I mean, who can ignore the salespeople at Abercrombie & Fitch? I don’t know anyone who shops there for the clothes. It’s natural to stare... for a little while.”

In truth, the length of the ogle (not that you’re timing it or anything) does matter. Lingering looks are a real no-no, says Dr. Gilda Carle, relationship expert and author of Don’t Bet On The Prince! How To Have The Man You Want By Betting On Yourself. “There’s curious looking, and there’s out-and-out gawking,” she explains. “The first is normal and healthy; the second is just insulting — especially when you’re right there with him.” And Lavinthal expounds further, adding: “Is your date just casually checking her out and then back to gazing into your eyes (which is not a big deal), or is he drooling all over himself and completely distracted by this person? Because that is a problem.”

The scientific reason why a guy’s eye wanders
A study conducted by Duke University suggests that we’re biologically compelled to stare at sexy and powerful people. Researchers monitored the eye movements of male rhesus monkeys as they looked at photographs of their fellow primates. When a monkey fixed his gaze on an image, he was rewarded with a squirt of fruit juice. What they found was that the monkeys were drawn to power and sex, choosing to look at the faces of alpha monkeys of both genders and the hindquarters of potential female mates. (The sight of a female monkey’s rear signals sexual availability.) The test subjects showed this preference even though they were given more juice to entice them to look at lower-ranking, less attractive monkeys.

According to the study’s co-author, Robert Deaner, Ph.D., humans — like our simian cousins — are probably hard-wired to act this way. “In both human and rhesus monkey societies, individuals vary in their influence and reproductive potential,” explains Dr. Deaner. “So for both humans and rhesus monkeys, natural selection would have favored individuals that valued such information accordingly.” In other words, evolutionarily speaking, paying attention to whoever’s most powerful and eager to mate can really pay off in the long run.

The real question is, can you live with it?
Appreciating another’s beauty shouldn’t be a problem, so long as you’re both feeling secure in your relationship. “Trust is really important,” Lavinthal says. “If you know your man isn’t a cheater, then let him have a little fun by looking at other people. It comes down to the old ‘look but don’t touch’ adage. As long as he keeps his hands to himself, I don’t see a problem. If this issue really upsets you, then it’s best to be honest and let your partner know that his fascination with others is neither appreciated nor acceptable. If he continues to do so and it’s driving you crazy, then it’s probably best to break up,” advises Lavinthal.

What to do when you can’t deal with his behavior anymore
If you’re not someone who can make light of this situation, then heed Dr. Gilda’s advice: “Gawking is a put-down to the person who has expressed unhappiness with such behavior in the past. If a woman continues to stand for it and hopes her man will eventually change, she’s in fantasy land.” Dr. Gilda suggests you avoid confronting him with “you” language, as in, “You are doing this,” “You are not a good boyfriend,” “You are embarrassing me,” etc. Instead, communicate your feelings to him directly by saying something like: “I feel insignificant when you flirt with other women right in front of me.” This opens up a conversation you can both learn and grow from rather than devolving into an all-out fight.

Also, try to get your partner to think and talk about why he constantly needs to check out other women when you’re together. This could be a habit left over from hanging out with his college buddies or serving as a wingman for others, or maybe he’s just insecure. Whatever the reason, if you both become more aware of his actions and the impact they’re having on your romance, you’ve got a great chance of moving past this and onto happier terrain... where he’s only making eye contact with you.

Alan Goldsher is a Chicago-based writer, advice columnist, and author of Jam, Hard Bop Academy: The Sidemen of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, The Record Haus: A Novel and Modest Mouse: A Pretty Good Read.