Love is Blind
By Tracy E. Hill, Ph.D.
A study published in 1996 by husband and wife team Arthur and Elaine N. Aron from SUNY Stony Brook (and Edward Melinat, Robert Darrin Vallone and Renee J. Bator) set out to study the correlation between intimacy and connections with others through eye gazing and asking self-disclosing questions. Fast forward a couple decades to the mid 2000’s and psychologist Mandy Len Catron repeated the study calling it the 36 Questions. She published her findings in the New York Times where it went viral. Well for Aron & Aron, the results were mixed. But lo and behold, Dr. Len Catron found positive results especially when trying it on herself!
But does it really work? When you gaze into another person’s eyes for an extended period, do you really feel more intimate with that person? More trust with each other?
Eye contact can be pretty powerful and show attentiveness and honesty. However, in other cultures, looking into another person’s eyes can be a sign of disrespect (https://www.silversagemag.com/top-8-differences-nonverbal-communication-across-cultures/).
Yet surprisingly, we tend to avert people’s gazes more often than not-even with those we care about. Some proxemics studies have shown that the closer we are to a person physically and emotionally, the less eye contact we make. Think about it. Do you keep your eyes open or closed when intimate with your partner? Exactly!
I wonder if we feel a sense of comfort and don’t necessitate the gaze or glance with our intimate partners, closer friends or family members because they already know us.
Newer studies have shown that when couples of various stages in their relationship were asked to stare into each other’s eyes for several minutes they felt awkward. Yet the evidence seems clear according to Mandy Len Catron that more eye contact has a positive effect on a couples sense of togetherness. And to be fair, other studies have noted the same results (e.g. Kellerman, Lewis & Llaird).
So of course, being a professor and an educational psychologist, I had to give this a go. On a lazy weekend of snow storms, I chose my partner in crime and we went through the 36 questions, gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes. I’m pretty sure that by the 15th question, we were getting rather tired and bored of the Q & A session. Yet, we kept our gaze on each other the entire time. At the end of the forty minutes or so did I feel closer to him or him to me? No. Not at all. Some of the dialogue was interesting, but after years of togetherness there wasn’t much we hadn’t already discussed ad nauseum.
Mandy Len Catron also did the experiment on herself and her newfound romance. She reported “the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me.” Personally and professionally, I think that when you get to know someone and have spent years together cooking, love making, yelling, fighting, playing, raising children, crying and the million other things couples go through together – your partner sees you loud and clear without the gaze and without the 36 questions!
It is true that oxytocin (produced by the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland) is released during prolonged eye contact. This chemical reaction triggers the bond between mother and infant and is associated with sexual arousal and trust. Yet, I’m pretty sure that when I’ve had a really tough day at work or I’m just feeling low and when I walk in the door my husband has the table set, dinner cooking and a couple of glasses of pinot noir waiting on the counter and he envelops me in a bear hug, my heart melts and my oxytocin is surging. I don’t have to look at him at all.
Love is blind.
Photo/art credits: “Is Love Blind” by Sdawd (aka Shailendra Dhanoa) deviantart.com and “Flowers” by sjogren (Sweden).