One Big Relationship Mistake (and How to Fix it)

As a relationship therapist of over 20 years, there is one mistake I’ve seen clients make over and over. It’s not something they do, but something that they forget to do—and without it, an otherwise non-threatening conversation can turn into one that is fraught with misunderstanding and dissatisfaction.

The thing you should do?  Look your partner in the face.

While the importance of making this connection with your partner is intuitive, it is not always obvious or easy to remember. But science has shown the powerful and crucial role it plays in understanding our partner, getting our needs met, and making our romantic relationships more solid and stable.

Here is what science tells us: our brains are wired to connect with others. From birth, we gaze at our parents or caregivers and they look back at us. During this developmental stage, our brains develop the wiring that stays with us as long as we live. Through good parenting, we learn comfort by looking at another person’s face and develop empathy for others by watching their facial expressions.

None of these relationship-building feelings or attitudes can take place if you are not facing your partner. You don’t have to stare them down, but do look into their eyes or face. If your partner can see your face, they will be more attuned to requests for comfort or a need for attention. Not only will you be able to understand your partner better, but your partner will be able to understand you better. That comes from our brain wiring and structure. We are designed that way. We long for this secure attachment.

Hunger for connection with other human beings is built into us just as surely as hunger for food. Evolutionarily speaking, those individuals who were more apt to want to be with other humans probably survived better than the loners. The feeling of wanting to belong and to feel safe with other people helped early humans protect each other, share resources, and create the all-important bond needed to raise children. The early humans looked each other in the face so they could understand emotions and intentions: was this the face of an enemy, or an ally who could be trusted? We, too, look into a person’s face for the information we need to be able to establish if we can trust them.

Neuroscience studies mirror neurons, the brain cells that help us feel attuned or synchronized with another person—especially when looking at each other. The next time you are having a really good conversation with a friend or partner, notice that your body positions may copy each other. If you put your hand under your chin, the other person may unconsciously do the same. Additionally, if you position your body into the same arrangement as the other person, they will likely feel closer to you.

If you and your partner can look into each others’ faces, you can let the other person know that you are present. Being present for your mate can be calming and rewarding for both of you.

On the other hand, not being able to accomplish this connecting exercise may suggest that you and your partner need professional counseling. Having a secure attachment, feeling safe exposing yourself, and being vulnerable is not always easy, especially in a romantic relationship. If you do not feel emotionally safe enough to be vulnerable with your partner, this can be a strong indicator that you need to seek a professional for relationship help. If you would like assistance with communication and trust in your relationship, talk to your doctor, minister, or a friend to refer you to a professional who can help.

© Copyright 2011 by By Pamela Lipe, MS, therapist in Saint Paul, Minnesota. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Amy h

    Amy h

    December 22nd, 2011 at 4:28 PM

    I have got to get my husband to read this! He will tell me that he is listening to me when I am talking but at the same time he appears to be zoned out watching TV or something else. I know that he tells me that he hears what I am saying but without him looking directly at me I have no way of knowing that.

  • Richard

    Richard

    December 22nd, 2011 at 5:23 PM

    All very true, but one of the main problems with relationships is that of time. We’re so busy working, commuting, raising family, keeping the home going and so on, that few people have the time or the energy to be aware of their own feelings, let alone to truly relate to their partner. They’ll have time later in life, but by then many will be wounded and cynical – and in need of healing before they can rebuild relationships.

  • Margaret Jack

    Margaret Jack

    December 23rd, 2011 at 3:04 AM

    Having a conversation with a guy or girl that doesn’t maintain eye contact is an uphill slog. I don’t ask for much. I’m not talking about a continuous stare here. A fleeting moment will do fine. All I want is for them to look at me in the eye occasionally. The less they do that, the less connected I feel to them and the more quickly the conversation wanes.

  • Sonoma

    Sonoma

    December 23rd, 2011 at 4:30 PM

    If he doesn’t care enough to look at me when I talk and give me the undivided attention that I deserve then I am out the door

  • Mary Watkins

    Mary Watkins

    December 24th, 2011 at 5:18 PM

    I don’t think folks are aware how much we interpret unconsciously from non-verbal language. We read facial expressions and body language all day long and form an opinion based upon them before the individual opens their mouth. It takes only a minute, even seconds.

    Think how many times you’ve looked at the sulky girl with the arms crossed and pouted lip behind the counter in a store and felt your heart sink knowing you have to deal with her. That’s a gut reaction to her demeanor.

  • Gillian Reed

    Gillian Reed

    December 24th, 2011 at 5:47 PM

    I don’t get why men have such trouble looking you in the eye when they talk about feelings. Are they really that much more closed off than women are? It’s like they pull the shutters down if you attempt to get too close.

    They say the eyes are the window to the soul. Perhaps they are afraid to let us see what we’ll see, ladies!

  • Samuel

    Samuel

    December 24th, 2011 at 7:16 PM

    aaahhh my girlfriend is on my case all of the time about this, but I honestly don’t know what the big deal is. If I can recite back to her exactly what she is saying to me then what difference does it make what I am looking at when she talks to me? Can’t a guy catch a break now and then?

  • Carson

    Carson

    December 25th, 2011 at 1:35 PM

    As a man I just don’t get all of this. Be a good husband and friend and this won’t ever be a problem! Don’t you see how not looking someone in the eye could lead them to believe that what they are saying is not important and how that makes them feel diminished? I personally don’t care to make anyone feel this way, least of all my spouse.

  • tim

    tim

    December 26th, 2011 at 2:57 PM

    my girlfriend always wants to be this multitasking ninja or something.even when I just want to sit down and talk she wants to do something.it could be something simple,something insignificant.but it really puts me off.if it’s that little a thing then why can you not stop doing it??

  • Georgia Morales

    Georgia Morales

    December 26th, 2011 at 9:24 PM

    @Gillian Reed: While I’m not sure it’s fair to tar all men with the same brush Gillian, I can see where you’re coming from. I believe women are simply more open because they are more nurturing by nature. We spend our lives looking into our children’s eyes from the moment they are born for example.

    Mothers can read their children like an open book, and dare I say it the vast majority of wives can do the same with husbands usually. We notice more I think because we scrutinize.

  • T.D. Jenkins

    T.D. Jenkins

    December 27th, 2011 at 11:58 PM

    Don’t forget too that women are more intuitive than men. They will pick up subtle signals and not so subtle ones that many men would miss entirely. Much of that is down to reading the slightest changes in facial expressions too, yes, but a lot is intuition based in my opinion.

  • Wanderer

    Wanderer

    December 29th, 2011 at 4:51 AM

    “A man finds room in the few square inches of his face for the traits of all his ancestors; for the expression of all his history, and his wants.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Enough said. :)

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