Understanding The Wandering Eye

Is Having A Wandering Eye Really Such A Bad Thing? We Take A Closer Look

The Question

Hi Dating Nerd,

I feel really bad. Things with my girlfriend are excellent and we’re totally in love. But I’m still attracted to other women, like, all the time. I’ve never acted on any of these attractions and I don’t think my girlfriend can detect that anything’s wrong. Nonetheless, this makes me feel guilty, and like not a good boyfriend. What am I doing wrong? How can I control myself better?

– Lustful Larry

The Answer

Hi Lustful Larry,

My basic advice here is that you shouldn’t worry. Given that you’re not acting on these feelings, you’re exhibiting a totally admirable level of self-control. Being involuntarily attracted to people you see is one of the most normal human experiences there are, up there with peeing, farting, sweating, and wanting to eat pizza when intoxicated. There’s nothing wrong with merely having indecent thoughts in moral terms, especially because, as we all know, unless you’re asexual or demisexual (and you, clearly, are not), being fascinated by people you find attractive is an instinctual phenomenon.

Take you, for example. You didn’t choose to be this way. You didn’t soberly and consciously choose to follow random women with your eyeballs; you just find yourself doing it. It’s an involuntary reflex which has nothing to do with your level of commitment to your girlfriend. So it’s not a failure of character. It’s just a nuisance.

This is one of the awkward truths of being a dude: being saddled with the male sex drive is difficult sometimes. You sort of have a split consciousness. On one level, you’re a refined, evolved human being, who can understand nuclear physics, or recite poetry, or whatever, and you’ve got a partner who you’re satisfied with. You’re a genius with a perfect life, let’s face it. But on another level, you’ve got those deep-down parts of the lizard brain that can’t stop thinking about sex with in a very basic way. You’re at work, negotiating a deal, sliding all sorts of numbers around in your higher brain, and then your attractive new coworker walks by and it all goes to hell.

And there’s ultimately nothing you can do about this, except get used to it. But getting used to it actually helps quite a bit. Any unfortunate mental phenomena, whether it’s pain, or loneliness, or lust, is more tolerable when you simply accept its presence and move on. The fact that you’re so hard on yourself for feeling totally normal human attractions is making your life way more difficult.

Here’s an example. Let’s say a woman in a low-cut top walks by you on a sunny day, and you spend maybe a second too long checking her out. You don’t leer or anything, but you look just long enough that it makes an impact, and you walk away with some intrusive sexual thoughts. There are two ways of dealing with that. One is your way, where you launch into a crazy inner monologue about how you’re a terrible person, which does absolutely nothing to dispel the image of the beautiful woman you’ve just seen. For the rest of your day, you’re struggling with conflicting feelings, where you’ve got a slight boner, but your boner makes you hate yourself. And then you email an extremely intelligent advice columnist about it, after losing a bunch of sleep. Kind of a nightmare, right?

But the other way is just thinking, “Well, that was something,” and even maybe enjoying the fact that you got a quick glimpse at a total babe. And then proceeding with your commute. Or, in an even more annoying case, where you’re totally weak in the knees for the barista you see five times a week, you can just realize that you’re going to feel slightly funny every time you get a coffee, and, rather than questioning the nature of your thoughts, you can simply focus on getting through those moments and staying cool. You’ll find that this is much, much easier. Just acknowledge that you’re a human being, with stupid, normal apelike tendencies, and try to cope with them as best you can.

If you don’t do this, you’re going to go insane. Because, let me tell you, this is only going to get worse. One of the eternal human problems is that the drive for novelty, and specifically sexual novelty, is never fully satisfied. That’s why millennials date casually while staying logged into a dozen different dating apps. You could be in the absolute best relationship ever, and be totally pure of heart, and still have weird fantasies about the girl next door, because, in terms of your most basic desires, your current level of satisfaction is totally irrelevant. Your brain is telling you to pay attention to what’s shiny and new, simply because it’s new, not because it’s better or more fulfilling, even if you know that, on a deeper level, you don’t want anyone but your girlfriend.

And, since the lust you feel in any relationship tends to decrease over time, that stupid, nagging inner voice only becomes more annoying the longer you’re with somebody. How do men in successful marriages stay faithful? Well, they just act like Buddhist monks — they acknowledge that desire is a natural thing, just like weather, and that it’ll pass. Not only does this make for a calmer inner life, it actually makes staying faithful easier.

Think about it. Let’s say you’ve got a crush on a client, and you’re honest with yourself about that. That’s not ideal, but it’s not an unworkable situation. Being aware of your own behavior will make it easier to recognize when things are becoming a problem. You can notice that maybe you have the urge to prolong one of your conversations beyond its professional uselessness. Or maybe you want to set up a dinner meeting, rather than a lunch meeting, because the idea of being alone with her in a dimly-lit place at night is exciting. And, because you’re clear on what’s going on — that you’re entertaining a potentially dangerous attraction — you can shut it down easily. Not by severing your professional relationship, but by being sure that you’re remaining impeccably well-mannered.

But if you’re in a tizzy about your totally normal desires, you’ll create a much more difficult existence for yourself. You’ll try to completely avoid people you’re attracted to, which is personally and professionally unworkable, because there are lots of attractive people in the world. And when, inevitably, you’re forced into contact with someone who makes you feel all fluttery on the inside, you’ll feel like you’re in a state of perilous torment, both desirable and intolerable. That kind of interior state won’t make you more faithful, dear reader. If anything, it’ll just breed resentment — resentment for yourself, and your partner, and the idea of monogamy itself. And those are the kinds of feelings that’ll drive you to have an affair.

Relax. It’s really the best thing you can do for you and your relationship.

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