To be clear, checking out attractive people — rubbernecking every time a beautiful woman comes into view — is not cheating. There are plenty of forms of non-sexual cheating: Emotional infidelity by text, emails with a passionate pen pal, or a recurring coffee date where you get deep into feelings. But looking? For your relationship at least, it is mostly harmless. At least, as long as you leave it at a glance.
“Just because you are in a committed relationship doesn’t mean you’re dead — you’re still going to notice beautiful people,” says Caroline Madden, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist in Burbank, California, and author After a Good Man Cheats: How to Rebuild Trust & Intimacy with Your Wife. “It is human to glance, so if you notice someone good looking, it’s generally okay. It’s more about not letting that slippery slope happen.”
That slippery slope is when you realize you’re attracted to someone (fine) but then pursue further contact with them (not fine). “Good men fool themselves into thinking there is no real risk of cheating and then get close to a person they are attracted to,” says Madden. “That’s why anyone you have the feels for in any way, shape, or form — no matter whether you think they feel the same way about you or not — you should not engage in a one-on-one relationship with them going forward.”
Research published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology backs up the idea that looking at other attractive people alone doesn’t dictate infidelity risk. After following 233 newlywed couples for three and a half years, researchers at Florida State University discovered that those who looked away quickly after spotting an attractive other were 50 percent less likely to cheat on their partner than those who held their gaze on someone they found fetching.
Another new set of studies, published in the Journal of Family Psychology this past August, showed that looking at beautiful people besides your partner isn’t necessarily risky — if you can exhibit self-control and resist acting on temptation.
“Whether looking at attractive people is harmful or not depends on the person doing the looking,” says lead researcher Ashlyn Brady, a psychology graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “If they have a high tendency to notice attractive people other than their partner, it can be a problem if they generally have low self-control or are experiencing impaired self-control, such as when they are tired, stressed, or intoxicated.” Either situation, she says, may make someone more apt to cheat than someone who is adept at nipping temptation in the bud, even when they’re sleep-deprived or drunk.
Although these studies suggest that looking doesn’t always dictate cheating, don’t mistake them for a green light to ogle away without worry. If enjoying the scenery becomes a routine practice, it might be time to look inward and at the health of your relationship.
“In general, if you start to notice other people more or there is someone who you want to look at or talk to more, it could mean you are not getting your needs met in your relationship,” Madden says. “This is where taking that energy and putting it back into the relationship becomes so important. Ask yourself what is really going on.” When men are feeling less-than or like their masculinity is being challenged, Madden says they sometimes start to seek validation from women; this, of course, can start that slippery slope.
Another big caveat to the “it’s fine to look as long as you don’t touch” premise, is that it’s never acceptable to eye up others while your partner is present — especially if it’s more of a lingering look than a quick glance.
“That is extremely disrespectful to your wife, and she should have the reaction of ‘what the hell are you doing?’” Madden says. “If you have a regular habit of looking at other women, gazing a little too long, trying to make eye contact, or looking at their breasts while you are with your partner, you probably don’t have the maturity to be in that relationship. Why are you trying to get this person’s attention if the next step is not cheating?”
Taking all of this into consideration, don’t beat yourself up for noticing someone who’s good looking — but don’t assume it’s entirely safe either. Accept that you find the person hot, own the fact that you looked (quickly, hopefully), then move on. Any interaction with them beyond that, though, and you could be setting yourself up to make a huge mistake.