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The Role of Eye Contact in Intimacy

By Edited Feb 25, 2015 1 2
Eye Contact
Credit: Petra (Chill Mimi on Flickr)/CC by 2.0 with Attribution

Ways Eye Contact Reflects Intimacy in Relationships

It is often said that a person's eyes is the mirror that reflects his or her soul. There is a lot of truth in that sentiment. What a person's eyes say can reveal an awful lot about his or her inner emotions. In personal relationships, eye contact is one of the primary unspoken means of communication.

Much can be said with just one glance or when a prolonged look is made. This is also true in the business environment, although different "metrics" typically apply in a professional setting. In other words, too long a gaze could be perceived as being unprofessional and/or completely inappropriate, whereas in a love relationship a longer look would convey a different meaning. The level of visual contact definitely reflects the kind of intimacy that exists between two people, however, several factors apply.

Cultural Perceptions

In some cultures eye contact between males and females is very reserved, but in others it carries more weight. People in Western cultures tend to put a lot of stock in the type and level of eye contact that is met. While in the East, this is less emphasized.

According to a 2013 study published in PLoS ONE, the authors write:

"There is some evidence to suggest cultural variability with regard to gaze behaviour. For instance, the total amount of eye contact and the length that an individual maintains eye contact seems to vary across cultures. In Western cultures, eye contact during social interaction is considered more important than in East Asian cultures." 1

In the West, a person's eye contact plays a pivotal role in the level of intimacy. 

Defines a Relationship

The way two people connect with their eyes, whether it be longer or shorter period of time, can say a lot about their feelings for one another and the relationship. A relationship in the development stage will have a different type of eye contact than one in a relationship already established. In terms of personal relationships, this is perhaps especially true for couples.

There are quick glances, direct but brief contact, or prolonged contact. In some environments, prolonged eye contact is inappropriate and can cross unspoken lines (such as in the aforementioned business environment), however, if a level of trust is to be established, at least some sort of eye connection should be made (assuming the culture is Western).

 English: A study of old/young. this was done for a german newspaper and published (with the rights to publish once so they are mine again and I can upload them). The subjects have given their wirtten permission to be published on print and on the interne
Credit: Heptagon/ Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (found on Wikimedia Commons)

Duration of Visual Contact

The duration of how long a person visually connects with another is another important factor in the intimacy level. Copywriter Matthew Arnold Stern says to:

"Consider how long you look into someone's eyes when you speak. Most people can only look into someone's eyes for at most three seconds before either person glances away. This is because eye contact expresses intimacy."  3

Looking at it from this perspective, gazing into another person's eyes for more than three seconds indicates a higher level of personal closeness. A prolonged look into someone's eyes can be very intense and really tap into a strong feeling of intimacy. Couples who can comfortably look into each other's eyes with strong contact are likely to feel a tight closeness without saying a word. While this may not happen in every relationship, for those who do, there is often a strong and intimate connection.

Deep Into the Eyes

When a couple in a committed relationship looks deep into each other's eyes they typically look for signs and emotions. If a mate tends to look away, down, to the side or has shifty movements, this could signal feelings of disinterest, dishonesty or guilt. Or it could mean he or she is hiding something, perhaps hoping this shift-away will keep a mate from discovering a secret or trying to avoid some other sort of conflict. A mate in tune with his or her love will usually detect immediately if something is "off" by looking at him or her.

On the other hand, two people eager to lock into a solid gaze with one other often find levels of intimacy that helps their relationship grow. It is not uncommon for a couple to feel a special unspoken conversation that occurs when engaged in fixed gazes. Some suggest this kind of visual experience is as if two people can read one another's emotions and thoughts. When it happens, this type of gaze can bring very close intimacy without any touching involved.

Tech Interrupted?

In recent years, the issue of how technology interrupts eye contact has become more prominent. According to a 2013 article published by the Wall Street Journal pointed out how people have become "accustomed to talking without making eye contact." 4   Later that year Huffington Post wrote about a mom who realized one day she had stopped looking into the eyes of her children. 5

In recent years I've often witnessed couples on dates in restaurants where each person spent the time staring at their phones while waiting for their meal, barely talking to one another during their time at the table. There is unspoken communication, but then there is no communication. When traveling on the Metro train going down to Washington, D.C. I've often noticed more people are looking at phones even if they have traveling companions to talk to, this always intrigues me. It's clear technology is actively changing the way people communicate, but the question begs asking, is it also eliminating it? As time goes by, technology may very well have a big impact on the way eye contact is even perceived, regardless of culture.

Credit: Stephen McCulloch (Stemack Street on Flickr)/CC by 2.0 with Attribution

Eye contact is a valuable aspect of communication. It is unspoken, however a visual contact is very telling in any kind of connection, whether it is a love partnership, friendship or professional relationship. Heck, even marketers rely on eye contact when promoting products. In May 2014, the New York Times published an article titled "Psst. Look Over Here". This article highlighted a study that showed how advertisers position the "characters" on product packaging to "gaze" at you - the study found people tend to buy based on the way they are making "eye contact" with the Trix rabbit or other brand "character" with eyes. 6

Until I read this piece on marketing, it was an aspect of eye contact I hadn't considered.  Kind of creepy in a way, but this concept does illustrate the importance many people still place on eye contact, even in a tech-centric world.

Knowing what the eyes are saying
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

While not looking directly at me - I had a good feeling of what this tiger was probably thinking, it was clear he was aware of his surroundings...the eyes often tell us what another is thinking.



Feb 24, 2015 7:50am
I cannot imagine going out with my husband, family or friends and staring into a phone and ignoring them. I believe it is rude, but have seen this many times and wonder why these people are even out on a date! They could save money and just text each other.

My children are not permitted to have phones at the table at home or while out at a restaurant. How else will I find out about their lives?

Great article!
Feb 25, 2015 3:56am
Thanks Mommyx3 for sharing and for your kind words about my piece. I'm with you all the way on this one - it truly baffles me when I see this out in public.
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  1. Hironori Akechi , Atsushi Senju, Helen Uibo, Yukiko Kikuchi, Toshikazu Hasegawa, Jari K. Hietanen "Attention to Eye Contact in the West and East: Autonomic Responses and Evaluative Ratings." PLoS ONE. 13/03/2013. 23/02/2015 <Web >
  2. Carol Kinsey Goman "The Impact of Eye Contact." Forbes. 3/11/2011. 23/02/2015 <Web >
  3. "Communication Tip: Maintaining Eye Contact." Matthew Arnold Stern. 21/06/2012. 23/02/2015 <Web >
  4. Sue Shellenbarger "Just Look Me in the Eye Already." Wall Street Journal. 28/05/2013. 23/02/2015 <Web >
  5. Carolyn Gregoire "How Technology Is Killing Eye Contact." Huffington Post. 28/09/2013. 23/02/2015 <Web >
  6. Kate Murphy "Psst. Look Over Here.." New York Times. 16/5/2014. 23/02/2015 <Web >

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