When a woman asks her partner to “prove” that his words are true, she may urge, “Look me in the eyes when you say that.”
Whether the words she is about to hear are “I love you” or “Yes, I’m seeing someone else,” a woman may believe that maintaining eye contact during a profession of love—or a confirmation of relationship dissolution—is akin to either a sacred vow or a polygraph test. Many women believe the litmus test of authenticity can be found in a person's ability to hold eye contact as they reveal or affirm beliefs or feelings. But while many women may view eye contact as a path towards affiliation and relationship development, more men tend to see eye contact as a path towards power assertion (Wood, 2011)—the throwing down of the metaphorical gauntlet.
Gender Differences Begin Before Birth
What may be most interesting about these gender differences in eye contact practices and preferences is how early they appear. While studies of adults have shown that women value visual contact with a person as a tool in reaching agreements, while men perceive it as a potential barrier (Swaab & Swaab, 2009), other research shows that days-old infants are already displaying the gender split on eye contact preferences (Geary, 2002). Little girls seek and maintain eye contact early on, while infant boys would rather stare at an inanimate mobile. It's interesting to note that the brain structure related to social perception and skills differs between the genders from childhood throughout adulthood. Throughout the lifespan, women simply tend to be more comfortable and adept at socialization and communication tasks.
In a related vein, research has shown that men actually find discussing their emotions to be a painful experience—the same part of the brain that registers pain has been found to be activated when men are asked to talk about their feelings.
What do these findings mean for everyday life and relationship skills for the different genders? There are four lessons for women and men:
4 Lessons for Women:
Recognize that asking your partner to look you in the eyes when making affirmations or confessions is asking a lot! Cajoling or demanding might be less successful than simply and honestly sharing how much eye contact means to you in establishing a sense of connection and better communication.
Accept that men's brains are programmed to excel in many different areas. Male infants are often slower to speak or seek social connections—even their childhood play styles were different than yours. Don’t judge the differences, embrace them.
You are likely able to read social cues, emotions, facial expressions, and social patterns and situations more quickly than your partner. Use these skills to empathize with the difficulty your partner has expressing feelings and giving you the eye contact you crave.
Appreciate the differences between you and your partner and use your inherent advantages in the relational and social arenas to meet your partner where he is and provide the safe space necessary for him to let down his guard and open up. It’s no easier for him to “go there” than it is for you to “be there” without him.
4 Lessons for Men:
Be aware of how highly your partner may value eye contact and let her know how difficult you may find it to provide regular face-to-face, eye-to-eye contact even within a healthy, intimate relationship.
Accept that women seek social connection and mutuality and that, for them, eye contact provides a path towards authentic communication. For your partner, your eyes are the window to your soul.
You are more likely to stare at others than your partner, and may even use staring as a way to assert your power. However, women may be uncomfortable with the over-long stare. Your partner may be more likely to initiate eye contact than you but she is also likely to break eye contact before you. Be aware of the different messages that different patterns of eye contact may send. Don’t stare down your partner—gaze at her.
Appreciate the differences between your and your partner’s perceptions of the value of eye contact. If she asks for more than you feel comfortable giving, let her know where you’re coming from. Yes, sharing emotions and being vulnerable can be painful, but bear in mind that your partner may feel similar pain when you are unable to look deeply into her eyes and open your heart and soul.
These gender differences begin in the womb and our cultural socialization and parental practices often provide solid support for the development of the “strong, silent" man and the “warm, chatty" woman. Breaking past these cultural stereotypes and established patterns can be difficult, but finding common ground where you can truly look each other in the eye would be a welcome development for any relationship.
Geary, D.C. (2002). Chapter 2: sexual selection and sex differences in social cognition. In: McGillicuddy-De Lisi, A., De Lisi, R., editors. Biology, Society, and Behavior: The Development of Sex Differences in Cognition. Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing, pp. 23–53.
Swaab, R. I., & Swaab, D. F. (2009). Sex differences in the effects of visual contact and eye contact in negotiations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 129-136.
Wood, Julia (2011). Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture. Wadsworth.
Check out more on friendships and relationships of all types in Friends Forever: How Girls and Women Forge Lasting Relationships