If it seems like your relationship is operating on auto-pilot, that’s because your brain is wired for repetition. Relationship experts Stan Tatkin and Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin explain how the simple act of making eye contact can rekindle intimacy and excitement.
Omega: What is one way to build intimacy as a couple?
Tracey: We build intimacy through the eyes, so spend some time eye-to-eye, face-to-face with your partner, just falling back in love with them. When you look through the eyes, it really is like the window to the soul. You're seeing your partner there.
Stan: We have sayings like, "the eyes are a window to your soul." Really they’re a window to your autonomic nervous system, but that doesn't sound very sexy! We have an automatic brain that allows us to get through our day without spending a lot of energy. If we had to use the novelty-seeking part of our brain all the time, our brain would burn up. We wouldn't get out of the corner of a room, we'd be calculating everything over and over again. So everything is relegated to procedural memory in the body, just like when you learn to ride a bike.
The same thing happens with your partner. Eventually you stop paying attention and start operating only by memory. 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.
Omega: Are you referring to simply making eye contact, or something more?
Stan: We’re talking about the lost art of gazing. 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. We’re also in real time, which is more exciting than when we’re in our head, eyes wandering, thinking about the past and future. Real time is where we get exciting love, the kind that we experience at the beginning of a relationship, and quiet love, which is just being able to be with the other person. We’re not talking about staring, but truly seeing.
Omega: How can a couple learn to do this if it feels awkward or uncomfortable?
Stan: Another way is to use a third object—like a child, or a puppy, or the beautiful new living room you just designed—to put your joint attention on. Then turn to each other and look into each other’s eyes. You’re using a third thing to amplify the feeling first. You can do this together or by yourself and then throw it to the other. For example, if I get excited about something I’m reading and I know Tracey wouldn’t necessarily want to know the details, I can simply take that experience and throw it her way so she can use it. I might simply look at her and say, “God, I love you so much.” Now she can use the energy, too, and we both get the amplification effect.
Tracey: It’s taking the normal day-to-day stuff and throwing it back in the relationship. It really does work. 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.
Stan: When our daughter was little she would call to me all the time and say, “You’ve got to come see this!” It was usually just the cat in another weird position, but it was her way of sharing it with me. A lot of adults do that and it wears on the relationship. It’s better to take that excitement and use it in a way the other person can also enjoy.
Omega: Does this practice take a lot of time?
Stan: Not at all. You can do it as you're walking through the room, at a party, across the dinner table—at any moment. Humans do best when we’re tethered to another person. That tethering should have happened in childhood, and whether it was or wasn’t, we still need it. The eyes are an easy way to connect, whether in private or public, to remind us we’re not alone.
© 2017 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies