When I was a pre-teen and the Disney Channel was my Bible, I allowed High School Musical to set the stakes for my future romantic relationships. I had no idea what “chemistry” was (Is that why Troy and Gabriella when they sang at the ski lodge?). I thought that idly chatting about being together for “forever” after one date sounded totally normal. And, oh, my personal favorite? I though eye contact was romantic. Now that I—like Zac Efron—have aged up, I know that making eye contact can be, well, awkward—even if you secretly feel like serenading the person you’re dating.
When I ask Alexandra Solomon, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of Loving Bravely, if there’s a way to banish stress induced by making eye contact, she tells me, in short, no. “Making eye contact is completely contextual, relationship specific, and culturally-bound. It’s super specific, so I think there’s no real capital ‘T’ truths on that topic.” Instead, it’s each of our job’s to test drive physical actions, mannerisms, and flirtation techniques until we land on ones that match our inner personality. The name of the game is trial and error, but hey—the good news is that nothing’s right or wrong. You’re just making up your own (body) language.
A person’s past relationships will likely inform how they feel about eye-locking now, adds Rachel Allyn, PsyD, a holistic psychologist with Allbodies. “Eye contact is a direct portal to intimacy,” explains Dr. Allyn. “Just break down the word: ‘in-to-me-see’.” For others, intimacy will come from different types of interactions—and that’s totally okay. “Some people crave that deeper connection of making eye contact whereas others find it too vulnerable. If someone isn’t comfortable with their partner, or if they’re recovering from physical trauma of any kind, too much eye contact may trigger them,” she adds.
“Some people crave that deeper connection of making eye contact whereas others find it too vulnerable.” —Rachel Allyn, PsyD
All that said, there are strategies for making eye contact that you can try out on evenings out on the town and between the sheets alike (if you know what I mean). Let’s start with dates. For those like me who find that too much eye contact leads to inner-turmoil, Dr. Solomon says to lean into “facial gazing,” or looking in someone’s vicinity rather than into their pupils. “Sometimes people get super literal around eye contact and take it to be direct staring that doesn’t waver. That can feel intimidating and intense,” she tells me.
Say you’re eating sushi across from a Bumble match who will maybe (maybe?!) get a second date. You can totally get away with looking into their eyes for a few seconds, then looking around their right ear, then gazing off into the distance as if contemplating a very scintillating question they just asked you. (“What’s your favorite food?”)
“There are many ways to flirt with your eyes—stolen looks, smiling with your eyes or simply holding eye contact one second longer with a stranger in public sends the message of interest,” says Dr. Allyn. It’s a choose you own adventure.
Still, if you just can’t seem to stop contemplating your level of eye contact (even once drinks have graduated to dessert), Dr. Solomon says to remind yourself that you’re being far more critical than the person sitting across from you. “The general rule of thumb here is that we are harder on ourselves than other people are on us,” she tells me. “And if I was in a moment where I was becoming very self-conscious about my eye contact, I would just name [my feelings]: I’m feeling anxious, the stakes are high, I want this to go well.” Eye contact is also different across different cultures and backgrounds, so make sure you’re not judging the individual across from your based on your own idea of how much eye contact is expected.
“The general rule of thumb here is that we are harder on ourselves than other people are on us.” —Alexandra Solomon, PhD
The “rule” of eye contact during sex is the same—but different. You should still make your comfort the priority. If you don’t feel like looking directly at your partner(s) while you’re in the throes of passion, shut your eyes, and let your body’s other senses take over. “Closing the eyes and focusing on breath, physical sensations, and areas of your body you find sexy can be helpful before sprinkling in more eye contact as things heat up,” says Dr. Allyn. However, you can also keep your eyes shut the whole time and indicate your “red lights” and “green lights” verbally or physically. (For example, a squeeze of an arm or a moan.)
Believe me, I get that the simple physical feature of having eyes suddenly feels like an enormous responsibility when you’re in the vicinity of an intimate partner—whether it’s a hookup or a monogamous longterm partner. But just remember, as long as you’re using eye contact in a way that’s respectful to the other person, the experts say you’re really just sharing a piece of your personality. Retweet.
So you’ve developed a roster, huh? Here’s the maximum number of people your brain can handle “talking” to at once, according to a sex researcher. Plus, what your Myers-Briggs type says about your sexual preferences.