By Amy Alkon
Q: The 40-year-old guy I’m dating swivels his head to check out ladies everywhere. He even comments on those he finds attractive. I’ve mentioned that it bugs me. He contends that it’s my insecurities that are really the issue here. I can see how lower self-esteem might lend itself to an offended reaction, as opposed to just a shrug or an eye roll, but is this really on me?—Blamed
A: Yes, of course your insecurities are the real issue here. Because what woman wouldn’t feel great when her boyfriend’s all, “Whoa, boobs are out tonight!”?
That said, it is normal that he’s driven to look. Men evolved to have their eyeballs all up in every hot woman’s business because the features considered beautiful in a woman correlate with health and fertility. Ancestral men who passed on their genes (and mating psychology) are those who went for the fertile young hotties, not the 70-year-old ladies with a lot of personality.
Not surprisingly, brain imaging studies by evolutionary psychologist Steven Platek and his colleagues find that when men see pictures of curvalicious women, there’s “activation” in (most notably) the nucleus accumbens. This is part of the brain’s reward circuitry and “the seat of addictive behavior.” Regarding their findings, Platek told me, “We think that this is why men quite literally find it challenging to look away from a highly attractive female body.”
No, not “impossible” to look away. “Challenging.” Like it may sometimes be for you to keep from stabbing your boyfriend in the thigh with a fork when he rubbernecks at a passing pair of Wonderbreasts. However, feeling disturbed by his girl-gawking isn’t a sign that you’re emotionally defective. Psychiatrist and evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse explains that emotions have a job to do—to motivate us to “respond adaptively” to threats and opportunities.
If your insecurity is tripping you up, it’s in how you seem to be second-guessing the emotions yelling at you, “Do something! HELLO?! Are you in a coma?” The thing is, you don’t have to feel assertive to be assertive. You just have to (gulp!) stand up for yourself as an assertive person would.
Again, the problem isn’t that your boyfriend’s looking; it’s that he’s looking (and commenting) while you’re standing right there, feelings and all. Be honest with him: This doesn’t just “bug” you; it hurts your feelings. It makes you feel disrespected. And it needs to stop. Now. Because you want to feel loved, respected, and happy—either with him or with some guy you meet at his funeral, after his tragic but inevitable death from drowning in a pool of his own drool.
Q: For two years, I’ve been in the best relationship of my life, after years of really bad ones. I’m thinking that maybe the key to a happy relationship is having two people who think they aren’t good enough for each other. Not that we feel that in a pathetic way. We each just feel really grateful and lucky to be with the other person, and it makes a difference in how we treat each other. Thoughts?—Happy at Last
A: Sometimes the thing we tell ourselves is that love is really “the thing I got into because I was scared I’d die alone—surrounded by empty single-serving zinfandel bottles.”
What seems key this time around, in how happy you two are, is the gratitude you feel. Gratitude for your partner comes out of noticing the sweet, thoughtful things they do—like taking out the trash without needing to be “asked” at gunpoint.
However, what you’re grateful for isn’t so much the garbage relocation as what it shows—what social psychologist Kaska Kubacka describes as your partner’s “responsiveness to (your) needs.” This, in turn, tells you that your happiness is important to them, which tells you that they value you and the relationship. Awww.
Seeing that you’re loved and cared for like this motivates you to do sweet, loving things for your partner. Which motivates them … which motivates you … (think of it as love on the Ping-Pong model.) This helps create and maintain the kind of relationship where, when your partner blurts out, “I love you so much!” your inclination is to respond in kind—instead of turning around to see who the hell they’re talking to.