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

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man rolling his eyes with back turned to woman in the background

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? Eye rolling.

Renowned marriage therapist and researcher John Gottman has said that just by watching a couple's eyes, you can often predict whether or not a marriage will end in divorce.

What it means when your partner rolls their eyes

While there have been different meanings attributed to eye rolling in the past and in some other cultures, today, eye rolling is almost always interpreted as a sign of contempt, judgment, and disdain.

In fact, Gottman found that even when it's accompanied by a laugh or a smile, eye rolling can be harmful to a relationship because of the hostile feelings the gesture communicates.

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 sign of severe hostility she refers to as "a marriage a hallmark of bad marriages — the kind that lead to adverse physiological changes."

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Contempt, in particular, is no laughing matter, considering it's one of Gottman's "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in relationships" — the term he uses for the four key behaviors that almost always result in a relationship ultimately failing.

In addition to contempt, the other "Four Horsemen" are criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling, all of which Gottman's decades of research show to be interconnected and toxic for any couple.

When people roll their eyes, it usually means one of these things:

  • They disagree with who is talking.

  • They don’t like how the person who is talking is expressing themselves.

  • They feel frustrated with or overwhelmed by what is being said.

  • They don’t respect the person who is talking.

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Sometimes, eye rolling isn't that big of a deal. It can be a way of expressing how unimpressed someone is by another's cheesy sense of humor.

It could also signal that you're just exhausted. Or, you may be annoyed by something you don't see as a big deal.

Maybe you're not buying whatever excuses someone is feeding you, but it's a matter of being honest about the situation so the two of you can get past it.

Of course, 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.

If you're a teenager, eye rolling is practically a whole language unto itself.

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Why people roll their eyes

Rolling your eyes is a learned behavior.

It is a sarcastic, passive aggressive, nonverbal gesture that never clearly states the reasons or source of your disagreement and, therefore, leaves your partner not knowing how to respond.

Eye rolling is more common in men, as it is a low-risk form of aggression, whereas men are more likely to yell or get physical.

Whether it's mostly harmless in the long run or a sign that your partner can barely contain their contempt for you, eye rolling is a passive-aggressive way of showing one's dissent, disapproval, judgment, or otherwise negative reaction to something.

This behavior can leave the person on the receiving end of the eye roll feeling uncared for, insulted, looked down upon, and disrespected.

Eye rolling can damage any relationship, especially a marriage.

When children roll their eyes at their parents, it's generally assumed this has to do with their immaturity or inability to know effective ways of dealing with their feelings.

When partners roll their eyes at each other, it is seen more as a deliberate way of showing arrogance or dismissing the other's thoughts or concerns. It can even be perceived as abusive, causing distancing between partners.

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

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How to deal with eye rolling in your relationship

Becoming aware of what it means when you roll your eyes at your partner and taking care to stop that behavior is the first step, but getting to the heart of the reasons behind is critical if you want to save your relationship.

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."

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 MEd, LPC is a psychotherapist, author, speaker, and intimacy and sex counselor.