The Way-Too-Common Gesture That Means Your Relationship Is In Danger (And What To Do About It)

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Why Rolling Eyes Mean Your Relationship Is In Danger (And What To Do About It)

You may not think that facial expressions matter much when evaluating who is happy in their marriage. However, there is one expression that is paramount in predicting problems in a relationship, and you don’t have to be a scientist to spot it.

That one kiss of death for relationships? Rolling eyes.

When couples come to see me, if I just watch their eyes, I can usually predict where this marriage has been — and where it's going.

You don’t have to be married to see witness eye-rolling. Kids do it to their parents and friends do it with each other. I have one friend who rolls her eyes all of the time, especially around certain people. She has communicated so clearly who she holds in contempt.

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Eye-rolling can be learned, but it means the same for anyone who does it. Researchers at the University of Washington found that even when it's accompanied by a laugh or a smile, eye-rolling is harmful because of what it indicates.

Eye-rolling is a sign that you no longer value your partner and that you hold them in contempt.

According to Janice Kiecolt-Glaser from Ohio State University, eye-rolling is a powerful indication that your relationship may need outside help. Stopping the eye-rolling is the first step, but getting at the reasons behind it are important for your relationship.

Rolling your eyes is a sarcastic, nonverbal gesture, but it never clearly states the person’s disagreement and, therefore, the partner doesn’t know how to respond.

Eye rollers mean this when they roll:

  • They disagree with who is talking.
  • They don’t like how the person talking is saying something.
  • They are frustrated or overwhelmed with what is being said.
  • They don’t respect the person talking.

Leaving the person on the receiving end of an eye-roll can feeling uncared for, insulted, looked down upon, and disrespected.

The eye-roller can damage any relationship, especially a marriage. When children roll their eyes at their parents, it is assumed this has to do with their immaturity or inability to know effective ways of dealing with feelings. When partners roll their eyes at each other, it is seen more like a deliberate way of showing a lack of respect or arrogance. It is perceived as abusive and distances the partners.

Withdrawal of the other partner is common, and the relationship may eventually crumble due to the lack of healthy communication.

Below are suggestions on what you can do if you live with an eye-roller or if you are an eye-roller:

1. Talk about the behavior.

Do this at a time when a disconnect is not apparent and you are feeling close to your partner.

Tell them how this behavior makes you feel and stick to "I" statements. An example is, "I know you love me, but when you roll your eyes after I say something, I feel like you are slapping me."

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2. If you are the eye-roller, come up with a new behavior that won’t offend your spouse.

Sometimes taking a deep breath and looking away can do the trick. Make a note when you are successful and ask for feedback from your partner. It will help if your partner notices it and compliments you on this effort.

3. Be more open about how you feel.

If you are angry or feel taken advantage of, use your words instead of your eyes. Eye-rolling develops because people are afraid to say what they think, due to the possibility they will be rejected.

4. Ask your partner how they're feeling.

The emotion behind eye-rolling is usually anger, disdain, or contempt. When you see it, make note of it and ask your partner what they are feeling right now. Better to get it on the table than shut down and ignore it, especially if all that contempt is directed toward you.

We all communicate with our eyes, our mouths, and our bodies. Just as we show incredible love through our gestures, we can cut someone deeply with gestures. Eye rolling is one of those gestures that can cut to the core.

Replacing it with a more loving response may begin to heal your marriage in a way that years of couples therapy could not.

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Mary Jo Rapini is an intimacy and sex counselor, specializing in empowering relationships. For more information, go to her website or talk to her on her Facebook page.

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