How did you feel when you read that title? Do you love the idea of extended eye contact? Sinking deeply into your partner’s eyes? Or does the thought of prolonged peering make you distinctly uncomfortable?
Of course, different people feel differently about intense eye contact, but let’s put that to one side and examine whether eye contact during sex has the capability to improve intimacy and experience.
There’s no shortage of psychologists or therapists who will tell you about the importance of eye contact in healthy relationships. Both in terms of establishing them in the first place as well as maintaining that closeness and emotional connection throughout.
When you’re having a conversation with your partner, for instance, you can tell whether they’re engaged in it or not by whether they’re looking directly at you. Direct eye contact shows they’re interested, taking on board what you’re saying and processing it. So when there is a lack of eye contact - they’re choosing to look elsewhere, at the TV, or their smart phone, for instance - it can feel frustrating. It can make you feel less connected.
And it’s not just about whether your partner is paying attention to you. Direct eye contact during a conversation increases trust and encourages honesty and openness. After all, we’ve all grown up with the idea that when someone’s lying they don’t look at you.
A study published in the Journal of Research in Personality (1) found that sustained eye contact (eye contact for at least two minutes) significantly increased feelings of passionate love, dispositional love, and liking. In this and other studies it was suggested that this closeness occurred thanks to the human body produce phenylethylamine, a chemical that is associated with falling in love. And these studies were conducted on people who weren't even in a romantic relationship.
In a word, yes. Scientific studies across the past few decades have determined that eye contact, or ‘exchanging gaze signals’ during sexual intimacy can stimulate feelings of sexual arousal and increase the intensity of a sexual encounter (2). In short, prolonged eye contact between two partners can make sex more exciting.
We can explain it with the help of psychology. When we become aroused, or when we feel strong emotions, our pupils dilate. And these dilated pupils give us a sign that we’re attracted to one another. Staring into each other’s eyes triggers not only this psychological reaction of bonding, but also chemical reactions, such as the release of dopamine, which helps to increase sexual desire and oxytocin which makes physical intimacy more pleasurable.
It all adds up to feeling more at ease, more trusting and experiencing more emotional intimacy.
And there can be longer lasting effects from all this eye gazing, too. By staring into our partner’s eyes we are making ourselves more vulnerable. That’s perhaps part of the reason people don’t like the idea. But while these feelings of vulnerability might seem uncomfortable, they can actually increase feelings of trust and connectedness. And ultimately can lead to you being more in sync with your partner, both inside and outside the bedroom.
It’s true, the idea of prolonged eye contact during sex isn’t for everyone. But there are definite benefits to giving it a go. So what can you do if it all just feels too uncomfortable?
Discuss the idea of eye contact during sex with your partner. It can come as a bit of a shock if you (or they) start to try it without having warned you – particularly if it’s something you’re not used to.
Why do you think the idea of staring into your partner’s eyes and them returning that gaze is so difficult for you? Is it to do with a past experience? Is it to do with how you feel about yourself – your self-esteem? Or is it to do with how you feel about your partner? Have a think about the root cause, and then, if you feel like it would help, discuss this with your partner. Opening up and getting vulnerable about this will only help in terms of the emotional intimacy and connection you’re trying to grow.
If you struggle to talk to your partner about it, or can’t work out exactly why you feel the way you do, try the empty chair method. It’s a technique familiar to relationship coaches and therapists.
Sit opposite an empty chair and visualize the person you’re talking to sitting there – if you’re exploring your inner feelings you might visualize a part of yourself. Then start to try to voice your thoughts and feelings. It doesn’t matter how it sounds to start with as you’re just sorting through everything. Once you’ve finished, move into the other chair and offer a response. If you are working with a therapist, they might ask you questions to help you along.
The empty chair method is a great way to gain insight into your internal struggles and emotions as well as helping you to see things from a different perspective. It can even help to improve your communication skills and gain insight into your relationship. If you’re feeling more clear or confident, you might be ready to open up to your partner about how you feel.
Like many things, holding eye contact will get easier with practice, particularly if you can make it become a habit. Perhaps it’s easier to practice outside the bedroom and then slowly progress to eye contact during kissing and finally during sex and orgasm.
We suggest starting slowly with ‘eye gazing’ exercises to help you normalize the idea and to feel how it can bring you closer. Set a timer and force yourselves to sit across from one another and gaze into one another’s eyes without breaking eye contact. Perhaps start with two minutes, or even less if that feels like a stretch. You’ll soon notice increased feelings of closeness, compassion and support in your relationship.
And when you get to the point where you can confidently incorporate eye contact into your sexual relationship, you might be surprised at the difference it can make.