This is a picture of my husband’s eyes today. They tell a story – the story of who he is, the life he has lived, the choices he has made. The first time I ever saw him, I felt a WHOOSH and a POW to the sternum. It was at an orientation assembly as we began graduate school. I didn’t know another soul among the 600 gathered there.
He was seated about 20 feet away, a few rows down and to the right. He was engaged in a conversation with the person to his left, and as he spoke I was struck with the certainty that this was a man of exceptionally high emotional intelligence. It was a powerful attractor. I was right, but how did I know? How could I tell?
The science of eye communications is robust and extensive. Recent interesting research focuses on microexpressions, “brief, involuntary facial expressions that are shown on the face of humans according to the emotions that are being experienced.”
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“There are seven universal microexpressions: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and contempt. They often occur as fast as 1/15 to 1/25 of a second.
…Unlike regular prolonged facial expressions, it is difficult to fake a microexpression.”
Researchers have found that certain expressions reveal emotions the person is often trying to conceal. Examples include:
Squinting, compressed lips: nervousness
Eyelid flutter, pursed lips: dislike or disagreement
Smirk: contempt or disdain
Asymmetrical facial gestures: fake smile or at odds with body language
John Gottman is a marriage expert who is known for being able to predict future divorce with 94% accuracy within minutes of meeting a couple. He does this by evaluating microexpressions, specifically looking for signs of contempt.
Here’s how happiness is manifested at the micro level:
Happiness – raising corner of lips and cheeks, narrowing eyes to produce “crow’s feet” on the outside of each eye.
Paul Ekman is the world’s leading expert on microexpressions. According to him, there are between 60 and 70 specific facial expressions. Of those, only 23 correspond to specific emotions, and one third of those register around the eyes.
“One sign of a true smile is the muscle around the eye relaxing, causing the outer eyebrow to sag slightly.”
Look up at Mr. HUS’ eyes again. Aren’t those the most wonderful crow’s feet? Even at age 27 they were there, barely hinting at the future of a well-lived life. On that first day, I felt a deep conviction about who he was:
Possessing a sense of humor
I know, I know. That’s a lot. I may have been reading way too much into a few wrinkles, right? Let’s look at the science about eyes.
Marshall Rosenberg studied with Carl Rogers and is a leading expert on empathy. Here’s how he describes it:
“Empathy, I would say is presence. Pure presence to what is alive in a person at this moment, bringing nothing in from the past.
…Being present and getting in with the energy that is coming through you in the present. It is not a mental understanding.
…In empathy, you don’t speak at all. You speak with the eyes. You speak with the body. Empathy is when the other person feels the connection with what’s alive in you.”
“The pupils are the part of our eye body language we practically have no control over. As well as adjusting the amount of light taken in the process of sight, Eckhard Hess (1975) found that the pupil dilates when we are interested in the person we’re talking to or object we’re looking at.
..Researchers have found that when people are engaged in an interesting conversation, their eyes remain focused on their partner’s face about 80% of the time – but not exclusively on the eyes. Instead, they focus on the eyes for two to three minutes, then move down to the nose or lips, then back up to the eyes.”
This is known as social gazing, which is non-aggressive and promotes comfort. Also:
“Blinking more than the average 6-10 times per minute (see right) can be a good indicator that a person is attracted to the person they’re talking to, and is for this reason used as a sign of flirting.”
Interestingly, liberals are more likely to follow the eye gaze of a conversation partner, while conservatives are apt to continue looking straight ahead. Researchers speculate that conservatives are less responsive because they “don’t like being told what to do.”
Eye contact plays an important role. It shows we are paying attention. However, long periods of sustained eye contact are problematic:
“Overly persistent eye contact is a sign of a person’s over-awareness of the messages they are emitting.”
This may signal anxiety, or even worse, deception. Most people can easily detect a fake smile that doesn’t reflect positive emotion. That is because a fake smile does not occur around the eyes, but is restricted to the lower half of the face.
It’s very true that eyes smile. This is why any “fake it till you make it” period had best be brief. A smile “without eyes” betrays insincerity and/or anxiety, both massive turnoffs.
“A study finds that guys with an open, normal gaze are preferred for a long-term relationship by women and as a business partner or neighbor by men. Women and men alike perceived the eyes-half-closed look as an attempt to secure a fling rather than a long-term relationship. Unfortunately, the look didn’t give those much of an edge: Men with a wider-eyed look were ranked as more attractive even for a brief affair.”
I stand by my initial reading of my husband’s character and personality traits based on that first assessment of his eyes. Thirty-four years have proved that my first impression was correct on all ten counts. Part of that may be intuition – I am perceptive about emotional matters. But I believe that the eyes always tell a story, and we can learn a lot about a person by reading it.
He didn’t see me that day. It would take him a while to read something significant in my eyes. But I knew with that very first glance that this was a man I could fall for and stay with.