The Psychological Eye Trick That Helps Rekindle Love When One Person Isn't Feeling It Anymore

Ground-breaking therapist Stan Tatkin shares a simple exercise any couple can use to get the love flowing between them again.

couple making eye contact - Yuri A / Shutterstock

I often tell couples who are striving to recreate and hold onto a more intimate connection that lust is at a distance, but love is up close.

I advise them not to confuse the two and not to depend on lust to rekindle their romance. This is a mistake too many couples make.

The Primitives’ Appraisal: Seeking Familiarity

Of course, partners aren’t always up close. At least, we don’t start that way.


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At the beginning of courtship, as new lovers, we generally first meet at a distance.

We visually appraise one another according to a variety of factors: gross physical anatomy, apparel, grooming, hair color, and so on.

Our brain plays an important role in this process. It relies on different senses to gather information about people in our environment, depending on whether they’re at a distance or close to us.

When you see someone across the room, for instance, you use your far visual system (which some refer to as the dorsal visual stream) to track if they remain still or move toward or away from you.


This visual system works in tandem with your amygdalae and other primitives to determine whether the person is safe or unsafe, attractive or unattractive, and whether you want them to approach.

Remember, our primitives’ main objective is to not be killed. Beyond that, they are invested in perpetuating the species.

For this reason, they are experts in detecting the potential for lust and do it best from a distance.

When it comes to mate selection, our brain prefers a simple neurobiological load; in other words, it prefers familiarity.

A person who appears too unfamiliar is likely to create a complex load and thus repel our primitives.


Too much stranger-ness is threatening. (I use the term stranger-ness — as opposed to strangeness, meaning weirdness — to refer to the quality of being like a stranger.)

Familiarity with just the right amount of stranger-ness to spice things up can cause an attraction that brings us into closer physical proximity.

Then, at close range, our ambassadors have a chance to become engaged and begin the process of psychobiological vetting to determine whether this person meets our criteria for a long-term relationship.

In the end, romantic love must pass muster with both our primitives and our ambassadors. Lust only has to pass muster with our primitives.


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Love Is Up Close

So, what exactly happens when two people are in close proximity? What makes the sparks — and I don’t mean just lustful sparks — fly?

I think it’s worthwhile to examine the neurobiological dynamics that come into play when we first fall in love because these same processes are the key to rekindling love throughout the relationship.

The Ambassadors’ Appraisal: Close and Personal

Most notably, as we approach a potential partner, our near senses become engaged. These include first and foremost our close-up visual stream (which some refer to as the ventral visual stream), reserved for people or objects deemed safe and those being closely observed.


As you move toward another person and come within an approximate distance of two to three feet, you may find yourself hesitating as your brain adjusts to the near visual stream.

Meeting another person, your brain is predisposed to take in the face: the fine, smooth muscles of the face as they shift and change, the kaleidoscopic fluctuations in skin tone, the eyes dancing and pupils opening and closing in tune with your buzzing nervous systems as the two of you interact.

woman smiling on a first date Dean Drobot / Shutterstock


You can see more detail in the face and body. A person looks quite different up close than at a distance.

Most of us initially scan the face in close range, focusing first on the mouth and then the eyes.

Because our brain’s right hemisphere specializes in social and emotional perception, we tend to look more at the other person’s left eye (the right hemisphere is cross-connected to the left side of the body). Our gaze triangulates between the mouth and right and left eye, but we tend to focus on the left for cues about safety.

There are, of course, many exceptions to this. People in some cultures, for example, consider direct eye contact impolite or inappropriate. Other individuals, independent of cultural influence, avoid eye contact either for safety concerns or because they find it easier to look for cues on the mouth or other parts of the body and are unable to pick up cues in the eyes.

Another near sense that engages during closeness is our sense of smell.


We appraise another’s body odor on several levels, including but not only on the obvious level of perfumes, colognes, and soaps. We also can smell more subtle scents produced by the neuroendocrine system that suggest friendliness, sexual arousal, fear, and even dislike.

We may engage in brief or sustained touch. We may even engage a variety of implicit sense perceptions that seem energetic and indescribable, for example, when someone says, “I felt my heart beat strongly just by standing next to her.”

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How We Fall in Love

We fall in love in close proximity. I mean real love, not the imagined kind that some can conjure up through fantasy or at a distance, or that is really just lust masquerading as love.


The eyes play an important role in igniting real love.

When you gaze into your partner’s eyes, you can see not only their or their essence but also the entire play of the nervous system. You can witness the live, exciting, and rapidly changing inner landscape of emotion, energy, and reality that belongs to and defines your partner.

It is an unavoidable fact that the body shows signs of deterioration as we age. The most obvious signs, such as changes in hair color, weight, posture, or agility, are apparent at a distance. Closer up, signs of aging include wrinkled skin and gnarled fingers.

But have you noticed the one body part that seems miraculously immune to aging? The eyes!

As long as we’re mentally and emotionally healthy, they remain beautiful, vibrant, and vital.


It’s as though, through them, we have the means to fall in love at our disposal.

A few minutes of sustained gazing can lead to relaxation, a sense of safety, and full here-and-now engagement.

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Meeting Again and Again

Kent and Sandra are in their fifties. They have been married for twenty-five years and have grown children who are now out of the home.

Though each remains physically fit, neither has done anything radical to offset the natural aging process. Many of their friends have undergone plastic surgeries and injection treatments, but thus far, this couple has resisted the peer pressure to remain unusually youthful.

Kent and Sandra realized early in their relationship that gazing into each other’s eyes had the power to rekindle strong feelings of love.

Kent says, “When I look into Sandy’s eyes, it’s as if I’m meeting her for the first time all over again.”


Sandra echoes that sentiment. “I never tire of looking at Kent. I see so much in his eyes, beyond anything I could put into words.”

couple making eye contact - Yuri A / Shutterstock

Recently, Kent and Sandra have noticed that friends who complain of boredom and dissatisfaction in their long-term relationships tend to avoid close gazing. These couples often talk and joke about lusting over strangers at a distance, as if that could solve their problems.


Kent and Sandra wonder if the tedium their friends suffer isn’t partly due to a lack of close gazing and the inability to rekindle love.

I would agree. In fact, it’s easy for two people to settle into dulling familiarity when they are living off static notions of one another, notions that are easily maintained at a distance.

When we look into one another’s eyes close up, it becomes impossible to remain in a total state of familiarity.


This is because at close range, as we are looking into another’s eyes, what we see is inherently strange and complex. We become aware of each other’s stranger-ness, which makes us aware again of novelty and unpredictability.

This allows for just enough familiarity and stranger-ness to rekindle love and excitement.

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Exercise To Help You Reconnect With Your Partner: From Near to Far and Back

Try this exercise with your partner. You will need a large room or a large outdoor area where you can be alone together.

I suggest doing this exercise when you meet each other at the end of the day, but you can do it at any time that’s convenient for both of you.


1. Stand or sit close, no more than two feet apart.

Ask your partner how their day was. As you listen and ask questions for clarification, pay attention to your partner’s eyes. What cues do you glean from them? See if you can listen and attend to the eyes at the same time. Don’t stare! Keep scanning your partner’s eyes for information.

2. After a few minutes, before your partner has finished talking, move apart from each other.

If possible, have at least twenty feet between you. Again, attend to your partner’s eyes. Do you feel as connected as before?

3. Finally, conclude the conversation in close proximity.

This time, however, keep your eyes closed and use only your other near senses, such as smell and touch, and of course, hearing.

4. Switch roles.

And repeat steps one through three with your partner asking you about your day.


5. Compare notes.

How did the experiences of relating close up (with eyes open and closed) and at a distance differ? At what moment did you feel most connected?

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From the book Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner's Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship by Stan Tatkin. Copyright © 2024 by Stan Tatkin and reprinted with the permission of New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is a clinician, teacher, and developer of A Psychological Approach To Couples Therapy(PACT). He specializes in working with couples and individuals who wish to be in relationships.