The Toronto Star July 4, 2003

The Toronto Star July 4, 2003

Partner’s wandering eye can be a source of stress

My colleague Chris Hutsul wrote recently about “the unofficial launch of ogle-fest 2003 … it’s summer and like it or not, guys are going to be checking out girls.” Hutsul offered a guide to leering, now that miniskirts, midriffs, and thong-revealing waistlines are everywhere.

But not long ago, I received an e-mail from a stressed reader about what it feels like to be the date or partner of a man who’s checking out other women.

“He says it means nothing but it can spoil a dinner date or other romantic occasion. His eyes are always skirting the room.” (I think she actually meant “skimming” or “scanning,” but considering the topic, “skirting” is a delightful malapropism.)

“We ignore it, smile, laugh it off, put it down to a man thing or an ego trip. But it is still stressful. Or the man who looks only at young blondes with nice hair – an obsession? This leaves his partner always looking over her shoulder, especially if she has low self-esteem. Thought you might comment on my observation – and that of many other women, from what I hear!”

“It is an issue among couples,” acknowledges renowned psychotherapist and couples counselor Shirley Glass, speaking by phone from the Baltimore, Md., airport (on her way to a conference on “Smart Marriages”).

When the topic of men looking at women does come up, it’s often the looked-at woman whose feelings are discussed. Some eye-catchers may be uncomfortable with unwanted attention. But rarely do we consider the point of view of the date or partner of a man who’s checking out the passing parade, or parlaying eye contact into a fleeting flirtation with a passerby.

The e-mail from the reader with this point of view does recognize that there are those “quick glances that do not leave the partner annoyed.”

After all, we do want them alive and breathing, don’t we, ladies?

Quick and casual glances can be discreet, executed “with a distancing,” just as one looks at a landscape or a painting, says Glass, who wrote the book on infidelity, NOT “Just Friends.” It’s human nature to look at attractive human beings, just as it’s human nature to admire beautiful sunsets and trees in bloom. Besides, men have a God-given right, or at least, predilection, to look at women – even if they’re already holding hands with one. They’re hard-wired to respond to fetching females.

It’s a balance, it seems, between the guy’s execution and his companion’s reaction.

“It’s very important that somebody’s partner really discriminates between when he is just admiring from afar versus when he’s beckoning closer,” explains Glass. That “beckoning closer” may be as simple as “making contact – eye contact and then the smile.”

When a man does that, he’s sending a message to the looked-at woman that she’s attractive or interesting to him, says Glass, even if the connection is momentary. There’s no opportunity or intention to follow through.

“He’s saying, ‘I think you’re charming.’ And in a sense, he’s saying, ‘Although I’m with someone, I’m not totally committed. I’m still shopping. I may be with her, but I’m still in the marketplace.’

“Let’s say a couple is walking down sidewalk, and a woman is walking toward them who looks hot. There’s a difference between looking at her with admiration and looking for some kind of response from her so there’s some kind of exchange of contact.”

And then there are the men who take it beyond the eye contact and the smile and move into full flirtation mode when the opportunity presents itself.

“Sometimes you wonder, ‘Is he having dinner with me or with the blonde waitress?’,” continues the reader who contacted me by e-mail.

Glass agrees that it can ruin a nice dinner if, “in the case of a waitress, he gets familiar with her, teasing around in a way that she sees that he’s not really considering the woman he’s with.

“If you think you’re in a committed relationship and your partner acts like he’s single even though you’re sitting next to him, then I think that’s insensitive and disrespectful of the relationship.

“When you’re out with somebody, you want to be a couple to the world, to look like you’re together and into each other and that other women aren’t important to him.”

And then, says Glass, there’s the guy who doesn’t just look, doesn’t just flirt but “kind of undresses the woman as he’s looking from head to toe.” Far from being a quick and discreet once-over, it’s an up and down and down and up and off.

(Bill Clinton, it’s been said, is notorious for doing that with every attractive woman he meets. And look at the trouble he got into.)

The last word on the subject goes to a male psychiatrist around town, newly single, who’s both observing and participating in the dating and mating dance:

“Guys look; they are stimulus-directed. But a guy who looks to the point that his companion notices, is being short-sighted. As far as relating goes, he can’t see beyond the end of his nose.”

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