Most couples not only want to grow old together. They want to grow better.
Over 13.5 million self-help books addressing relationships were purchased last year. People read books ranging from The Divorce Remedy: The Proven 7 Step Program for Improving Your Marriage to Strangling Your Husband is not an Option: A Practical Guide to Dramatically Improving Your Marriage. If you are motivated to improve your relationship in the New Year you might try a potent but easily overlooked step – Looking at Your Partner...
Before you discard this as absurd or absurdly simple, it is worth considering the increasing evidence that eye contact is associated with the power to influence, connect, support, invite trust, and enhance intimacy with another person. Looking at each other more often can change the way you feel and relate.
The research of neuropsychologist Allan Schore and others informs us that we are wired to make eye-contact. From the earliest infant-mother connection, gazing is crucial to bonding, regulation of feelings and development of healthy attachment patterns.
What is Mutual Gaze or Eye to Eye Contact?
Mutual gaze is eye to eye contact. It is contact that occurs when two people look directly at each other. The “soft gaze” that invites connection is very different from the glaring, smirking or intimidating look that would provoke or distance another person.
With two willing people, positive eye to eye contact can invite or renew interest in seconds.
- When was the very first time you and your partner looked directly at each other in a way that communicated interest and stirred feelings?
- When was the most recent time you and your partner looked directly at each other in a way that communicated interest and stirred feelings?
You won’t be alone if you and your partner can remember the first time but can’t quite identify the last time. Ours is a non-stop high tech culture with so much multi-tasking, we hardly realize that we have stopped looking at each other.
While speaking with our partners we are often chopping vegetables, watching TV, packing kids into cars, or running out the door. Needing more connection, we often catch up by cell phone, texting and emails – none of which involve eye contact.
Eye Contact is Not Always Easy
It is quite possible that if you gaze at your partner without a plan he/she may respond:
“Why are you looking at me?”
This is not only a function of being out of the habit of looking at each other. Michael Ellsberg, author of The Power of Eye Contact, suggests that when you make eye contact with another person, you in some sense give that person a glimpse of your emotional world. Such mutual exposure can be seductive and emotionally powerful but it can also trigger fear of rejection and feelings of self-consciousness.
Looking At Each Other When Speaking
In my work with couples, I always invite them to make eye contact when speaking to each other. The initial reaction is often hesitancy and laughter, but once they get going and become a bit more comfortable, looking at each other absolutely changes what they share and how they share it.
- In terms of negative feelings, it is far more difficult to dismiss or verbally abuse a partner when you are making eye-contact. The exposure to the other’s eyes seems to underscore the connection and mediate the way in which anger is expressed. Even if couples avert their eyes when arguing, those with a strong relationship often use eye to eye contact to restore the connection.
- Viewing each other’s eyes and facial expression as one shares a memory, a concern or a wonderful event re-enforces the connection, the sense of being a “we.” Often it prompts reaching for the other’s hand or sets off a smile of recognition or relief.
- If eye contact has been avoided because of resentment, rage, feelings of rejection etc., discussing what makes eye contact difficult while looking at each other can be an invaluable step toward understanding and repair.
- There is nothing else that replicates the physical or emotional exchange of eye to eye contact.
- Many on-line sites invite and guide singles to recognize this when looking for partners. Clarifying the difference between a soft gaze and a stare, they suggest that making eye contact with someone sends a message of both confidence and interest.
- Jess McCann, author of You Lost Him at Hello: A Saleswoman’s Secrets To Closing the Deal with Any Guy You Want, reports that eye contact is far more effective in inviting connection than avoiding someone you like in order to avoid rejection.
- If eye to eye contact is a powerful way to invite connection to a new partner, why not capitalize upon it to improve your existing connection – If you are together, there is a very good chance you once experienced the power of an insider glance with your partner.
Strategies for Eye to Eye Contact
Make a Plan – As a follow-up to the questions of your first and most recent experience of eye contact as a couple, consider making a plan to increase looking at your partner. Eye contact has to involve two willing people or it will be experienced as “staring.”
Start with Something Functional– Consider a plan to make eye contact whenever you are asking the other to do something or remember something. The bonus on this is that studies suggest that eye contact has a positive impact on retention and recall of information.
Develop a Pattern That Fits – If you and your partner always share a meal, a cup of coffee, time in the morning, time in the evening etc. consider a plan to share one thing that is interesting, funny, sad, or strange while you look at each other. This may take no more than a minute or two but you are building a pattern. The very idea of planning to make eye contact while speaking and listening suggests a mutual wish to be closer.
Catch Each Other’s Eye in Public – Whether you are with friends, the in-laws, the outlaws or strangers, there is nothing more reassuring of connection than catching the eye of your partner – whether it conveys the message “ I love you,” “ Only two more hours to go,” or “ Thank God you are here” it affirms the bond between you.
There is a reason so many remember Humphrey Bogart’s romantic line – “Here’s Looking at you, kid…”
In the New Year whatever else you do – consider holding your partner with your eyes.