eye contact in relationships

How Eye Contact Can Make You Feel Loved — Or Not

Eye contact in relationships has a huge impact on making you feel loved — or not.

When love is new, eye contact can be spine-tingling and exhilarating. “When we gaze into each other’s eyes, we are looking at somebody who isn’t predictable. We’re reminded we don’t really know them fully, and that’s exciting,” explains psychologist Stan Tatkin.

Once you know your partner better, you start to predict how your partner looks. You start to assume how he or she is feeling. So you don’t gaze into each other’s eyes as much. Now there’s a danger you’ll stop seeing and feeling seen.

It’s time to look in on the nervous system – specifically, on procedural memory. That’s the brain’s way of ingraining responses along nerve pathways to put certain actions on autopilot. Your brain creates procedural memories, so you can perform complex tasks like walking, with attention to spare.

Daily Life Demands Lots of Doing Without Looking

You probably learned to type, ride a bike, or tie a shoe. At first it takes time to master the skills involved. You had to focus hard to fine-tune each movement. But with practice you figured it out. Now you can whip your laces into tight bows without looking, or pump down the trail without thinking about it.

Procedural memories are great for doing sports, playing guitar, or flipping scrambled eggs. But your brain also creates automatic memories about your partner. At first you gaze into your partner’s eyes and pay close attention to his or her reactions. You’re learning what your partner looks like and sounds like when happy, sad, angry, tired, annoyed, etc.

Then you naturally start to rely more on those memories, and less on looking your partner, to function in real time. As your attention decreases, your emotional impact on each other can shift without you even realizing it.

Love Needs Us to Stop and See What We’re Doing

Procedural memories kick in all by themselves. That can be a problem when it comes to love.

“Eventually you stop paying attention and start operating only by memory,” explains Tatkin. “After a while I’m making predictions based on my memory of you, not the actual you, and we start to make mistakes and misappraisals of each other—this is how we start to go to war. This is also how we fall out of love, because we’re no longer interesting to each other.”

You may begin to miss opportunities to connect in pleasant ways. You may sense you enjoy each other less. You may start missing signs your partner needs to feel seen in the moment. You may begin to feel taken for granted, or unimportant.

Your brain’s autopilot system does take for granted that certain little signals from your partner always mean the same thing. For example, you may interpret that when your partner fails to look at you when you’re talking, it means you don’t matter.

Hurts Heal Best When You Look At Them Kindly

Let’s say you realize it’s not okay with you to check phone messages when you’re having dinner together. But you keep hearing a little chime from your partner’s palm, and he or she keeps glancing down every time. You feel the sting of shame over and over again. You start to think, “My partner is hurting me.” Your automatic brain may tell you your partner is being selfish and unfeeling on purpose. That’s the story your brain is making up.

Be gentle with yourself and realize you are hurting. Honor this feeling. Then share your experience with your partner in a way your partner can hear it, as best you can.

Sharing hurts takes mindful attention. It can be hard to show hurt without blame. Kindness improves your odds of getting a friendly, caring response that affirms your relationship.

Hurts heal best within a safe haven — a place you share your inner world and feel accepted. Talk about the pain you saw in yourself, and what you think it means: your partner’s actions left you feeling hurt, unwanted and unseen.

It’s important to look gently when the hurt is small. Here’s why. Friendly eye contact is often the first thing to go when you and your partner hit a rough patch. But that’s when you need to see kindness the most.

Angry glares and harsh tones of voice trigger even more alarm in each other’s nervous systems. If your partner feels attacked, odds are you’ll get a defense response, not the kind recognition you need. That can make it even more difficult to talk through a problem successfully.

Eye Contact Sparks Love and Joy Too

You’ve heard a relationship takes work. That work includes learning how to put friendly eye contact back into your daily life together on purpose. How to you re-kindle the power of the loving glance between you?

If you’ve been together for years, it can be awkward to just sit and gaze into each other’s eyes. It can seem forced or unnatural, or even creepy. That’s not what you want. That’s where a third object can help.

When you feel good about something external, you can use it to turn up good feelings between you and your partner in your relationship.

The next step: take your personal excitement or joy, and flip it to your partner in a way you both like. Tatkin calls this

For example, take time to enjoy a beautiful sunset, smell spring lilacs or fall leaves, walk with a pet, or taste a special dinner together. That joyful energy shows in your eyes and on your face. That’s a good time to go for a moment of eye contact. And a word or two you know from experience will make your partner feel good.

Tatkin’s wife, Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin, explains.

“It’s taking the normal day-to-day stuff and throwing it back in the relationship….” says Tracey. It’s not about demanding attention like a child, but by including your partner in your happiness with a word and a glance. “Stan reads political history and he knows I’m like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ But he can just be excited and say, ‘I love you so much and I’m really excited about what I’m reading.’ It’s really that easy.”

It takes skill to turn your joy into short positive messages that work for you both. A solid relationship — that safe haven between you — is also a third object. It’s your unique special place. Tending it with care is how you keep love alive and feeling good.

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