I previously wrote an article specifying that one relationship mistake people make is forgetting to look their partner in the face. However, one blogger asked: “Why should I look my partner in the eye when we talk if I can recite back to her what she said? What difference does it make where I am looking?” That is a logical question, but oversimplifies relationships. The answer is, “It depends on the situation and the type of conversation.”
Here are some examples of different kinds of conversations that occur between domestic partners.
- Exchanging information about household business. Topics range from what are we having for dinner, to who is picking the kids up from day care, what time is your dentist appointment, the yard needs mowing, or what time do you get off from work. Like Joe Friday said, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Any time that the two of you need to share data with each other, the words you can recite back to your partner are very important and desirable. It doesn’t necessarily matter where you are looking.
- Making simple requests of each other. Pass the salt, please. Please close the door quietly. Don’t eat all the leftovers in the refrigerator. If you can recite your partner’s words back to them, that is a good thing. You don’t necessarily need full frontal facial expressions. Politeness is likely the key factor in these exchanges.
The above two types of conversation can be quick, to the point, and surface level. Computers, which are very good at exchanging data and facts, do this. But as humans, most of our conversations, especially with a romantic partner, are far more intricate, multifaceted, and meaningful. Tone, cadence, and volume of speech provide valuable information that can change the meaning of the words. We can hear sarcasm, doubt, intention, and various feelings just from speech patterns—even if we don’t look at the person. Ultimately, though, I think that most of our conversations are about more than an exchange of ideas, beliefs, and information. We are complex creatures, and we communicate in more ways than our words.
What Faces Tell Us
Body language is important, but let’s consider just the face. If we look at our partner, we get a huge amount of information aside from just the words themselves. The issue is not simply looking your partner in the eye. Experiencing another person’s facial expressions affects us in ways in which of we aren’t even aware. Our brains are highly tuned to subtle facial expressions that are understood at a deep level that can’t be described by words. We respond with emotions and reactions. Facial expressions can tell us things like “This is a safe topic, I can talk about it,” or “My partner is mad or tired and is not very receptive.” You get information about your partner that helps you know how to proceed.
Like Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” If you have been thoughtful when looking at your partner’s facial expressions, you can learn that person’s particular facial language. What does it mean when they lower their eye lids? What’s the meaning of a slight flush that comes over the cheeks? Are slightly upturned corners of the mouth a smile or a grimace?
If your partner is receptive right now, ask each other “What do you know about my facial language?” How do each of you look when you are mad, sad, or glad? Try to give each other details about the facial expressions that you observe. Which is the easiest of your partner’s expressions to read? What expression do each of you adopt when you want to be physically intimate? Enjoy this conversation. It does matter where you are looking.
© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Pamela Lipe, MS, therapist in Saint Paul, Minnesota
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