How to Deal With a Partner Who Has Wandering Eyes

Man and woman flirting
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When a person has a 'wandering eye,' it means looking and having sexual thoughts about people other than their current romantic partner. It may include behaviors such as overtly evaluating and appreciating someone's physical attractiveness or even outright flirting with people who are not their romantic partners.

When the issue of a partner's eyes wandering is discussed, there seem to be two general responses: Either the behavior is brushed off as nothing to be concerned about or feelings of hurt and disrespect ensue, which may harm the relationship.

Some even believe checking out people other than a committed partner is a sure sign of infidelity. The true answer to whether or not this is OK lies with you, your needs, and your personal boundaries.

Signs of a Wandering Eye

It is important to recognize that each person has differing definitions depending on their beliefs and boundaries. Some examples of behaviors that characterize a wandering eye include:

  • Blatantly checking out another person
  • Flirting with other people
  • Having sexual fantasies about others
  • Talking about sexual fantasies about other people
  • Telling other people they are attractive
  • Planning romantic or sexual encounters with people other than their partner
  • Texting or DMing people other than their partner

The behaviors that characterize a wandering eye involve how a person thinks about or communicates with people other than their partner. If these thoughts or actions lead to romantic or sexual encounters, it would be defined as cheating.

Differing Viewpoints

According to Gail Saltz, M.D., a psychiatrist and expert on relationship matters, blatantly checking out, commenting on, repeatedly admiring, and flirting or touching someone else usually feels quite undermining to a partner.

For partners that are bothered by the behavior, having wandering eyes is often described as:

  • A sign of disrespect
  • Damaging to a relationship
  • Insensitive behavior that shows a lack of caring
  • Offensive
  • One of the first signs of cheating and that a person is looking for another relationship

Dr. Saltz acknowledges that all humans have some measure of voyeurism and exhibitionism: we like to look and we like to show.

But unless both parties are confident of the others' affection and fidelity, an obvious and frequent wandering eye will generally stir up envy and hurt, making one feel unappreciated and even threatened in the relationship.

On the other hand, some people believe that having a wandering eye is perfectly normal behavior. People in this camp often don't worry about a quick glance, and some may not even be bothered by something more.

Those who feel this way often cite the following points:

  • Looking at an attractive person is thought to be a natural physiological reaction.
  • A person with wandering eyes just appreciates beauty.

Again, it's important to remember that you define what is normal and acceptable for yourself and your relationship. That said, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that a consistent wandering eye probably signals a more significant issue in a relationship, which is worth considering.

Some evidence suggests that people prone to having a wandering eye are also more likely to engage in infidelity. One study found that people who found attractive people more attention-grabbing were more likely to eventually cheat on their partners.

Impact of Social Media and Technology

People don't just engage in 'wandering' behaviors in real-world encounters. They can also make their way into online interactions. In such settings, 'wandering' might involve:

  • Flirting with another person, either in the comments section on their social media post or via direct message
  • "Liking" another person's photos to communicate interest
  • Flirtatious, romantic, or sexual texting with people who are not the person's partner
  • Intentionally joining social sites in order to engage in flirtatious communication with others

Such behaviors can affect trust, communication, and intimacy in a relationship. According to one survey, around a quarter of people in relationships feel that technology has had a negative impact on their relationships.

Have You or Your Partner Crossed the Line

It isn't always easy to determine if you or your partner have crossed a boundary in your relationship. This is because it is normal to think that other people are attractive and doing so doesn't necessarily mean that you've broken trust with your partner.

In order to recognize whether you or your partner have a wandering eye, consider the following:

  • How would your partner feel if they knew about your behaviors?
  • How would it make you feel if your partner was doing the same thing?
  • Have you ever discussed boundaries with your partner?
  • Does your current behavior violate your partner's trust?
  • Are you hiding your behavior from your partner?

If you feel like your partner would be hurt or upset and need to hide your actions from them, it is a good sign that your actions are crossing the line. 

How to Respond

If you are bothered by your partner's eyes wandering, Dr. Saltz suggests that you make it clear that although you don't expect them to wear blinders, you don't want them to ogle someone else.

If your partner really won't make any effort to change and doesn't appear to care how it makes you feel, it's likely that other issues may be affecting your relationship that couple's therapy could help examine.

Indeed, it seems that research agrees with this advice. The aforementioned study goes on to say that nagging your partner to stop looking likely won't address any underlying problems, either. Your relationship will require communication and a strategy to boost satisfaction and commitment.

Leading with jealousy and sweeping requests for your partner to change his or her behavior may lead them to tune you out. Instead, Dr. Saltz suggests the following:

  • Accept that your partner's wandering eye is not a reflection of your own attractiveness.
  • Don't try to "police" your partner's wandering eyes.
  • If your partner's wandering eye creates a problem in your relationship, discuss the issue with them. Start with your own feelings, not with an accusation or criticism. 
  • Suggest couple's therapy or attend therapy on your own if your requests are continually ignored.
  • Try to casually acknowledge it first when a beautiful person comes into view.

A Word From Verywell

A wandering eye could very well be a natural, simple acknowledgment of attractive people—nothing more. Of course, that may not be the case all the time. Regardless, your feelings should be valid to your partner. If it bothers you and you have calmly expressed as such to your partner, he or she should be receptive to your concerns.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. DeWall, CN, Maner, JK, Deckman, T, Rouby, DA. Forbidden fruit: inattention to attractive alternatives provokes implicit relationship reactance. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2011;100(4), 621–629. doi:10.1037/a0021749

  2. McNulty JK, Meltzer AL, Makhanova A, Maner JK. Attentional and evaluative biases help people maintain relationships by avoiding infidelityJ Pers Soc Psychol. 2018;115(1):76-95. doi:10.1037/pspi0000127

  3. Pew Research Center. Couples, the internet, and social media.

  4. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. About marriage and family therapists.

Additional Reading

By Sheri Stritof
Sheri Stritof has written about marriage and relationships for 20+ years. She's the co-author of The Everything Great Marriage Book.