Making Eye Contact Is the Key to a Healthy Marriage, Experts Say
It's not what you say, it's how you say it.
In the early days of a relationship, when you're falling in love with someone, all you do is stare into their eyes. There are sleepless nights spent gazing at one another while talking until dawn, and heart-swelling moments when you lock eyes across a room and know exactly what the other person is thinking.
But then you start living together, and get married, and have kids, and life gets in the way of all that. You're either too tired to have deep conversations about your relationship at all, or, if you do, they usually take place while one of you is making an omelette and the other one is fixing the kitchen sink. Before you know it, eye contact is no longer a priority. But, according to experts, if you're feeling disconnected in a longterm relationship, reprioritizing it could be the key to fixing everything.
"Eye contact does easily get lost in communication as a relationship progresses and face-to-face conversations become replaced with talks that happen while you're making dinner, driving, and so on," says Seattle-based relationship expert Lily Ewing, MA, LMHCA. "But it's important because the majority of what we're communicating to our partners is nonverbal."
Indeed, according to Dr. Albert Mehrabian's famous 1970s research on the subject, only 7 percent of communication happens through words, while 38 percent of the meaning is derived from tone, and the other 55 percent comes from body language.
Clearly, the cues that we send someone with our gestures and facial expressions matter, including our eyes. According to Carly Claney, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Seattle, eye contact is "a demonstration of true connectedness." "It can communicate, 'I'm here,' 'I'm listening,' 'I'm available,' and 'You are important,'" she explains.
As a result, avoiding eye contact can indicate that someone is lying to you or hiding something, which is never a good sign in a relationship.
"Avoiding eye contact can signify a lack of trust, imply possible dishonesty, and lacks sincerity," says Charese L. Josie, LCSW, founder of CJ Counseling and Consulting Services in Portsmouth, Virginia. "Giving eye contact shows your spouse that you care about the conversation and most importantly, the spouse and the relationship. If we are unable to give anything, the most we can give is our time and attention."
What's more, making eye contact can help rekindle those feelings of romance that so often fade once you've been together for many years. A famous 1997 study by psychologist Arthur Aron found that asking strangers to pose 36 questions to one another and stare into each other's eyes for four minutes was enough to elicit feelings of love. In 2015, writer Mandy Len Catron tried the experiment herself on a college acquaintance, writing in The New York Times that "staring into someone's eyes for four silent minutes was one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences" of her life.
And why is that the case? Well, renowned biological anthropologist Helen Fisher wrote in her best-selling book, The Anatomy of Love, that eye contact activates "a primitive part of the human brain, calling forth one of two basic emotions— approach or retreat." As a result, she famously said, "perhaps it is the eye—not the heart, the genitals, or the brain—that is the initial organ of romance."
So, if you feel like your relationship has gotten stale, try looking at your partner while you talk to them. Even if you don't have four minutes to give, a little eye contact can go a long way.