The Eye Contact Exercise – how to instantly empower men and make them support their wives and the process of a marriage counselling that they more or less hated the thought of in the first place
By Martin Ostergaard, marriage and couple counsellor and author
It is very simple and complicated at the same time – as it is with the male mind.
I have been a marriage and family therapist and done couple counselling since 1996 talking to one, two or three couples every working day in an effort to help them recognize and better manage or reconcile troublesome differences and repeating patterns of distress. I love my job, the first one that keeps giving me energy, but very often I wonder why men look so ill at ease walking in the door to my consultation and also misplaced during counselling while women look like fish in the water when we talk about marital problems and challenges.
Most women are fast thinkers and learners during couple counselling. Women often juggle verbally with several vulnerable subjects while being both happy and sad, crying and laughing at the same time. Men tend to move more concentrated and cautiously from one subject to another and often lose track and the feeling of direction if not guided and supported. And a lot of men share the same expression during couple counselling – a frown designed to hide a lurking fear of what might happen around the next bend.
During the years I have tried various methods to turn the man into the person he would rather be during couple counselling – himself, confident, cocky and a hundred percent present. In order to nourish the process I need to make him feel equal and able to take part in recharging the relationship with long lost energy. But marriage counselling is a devious art form that you never really get to master. Sometimes I tried – one of several methods – to protect the couple´s relationship by attacking the wife, when she started nagging at her husband. Which often made the husband attack me back in order to protect his wife. More than once we ended up in a silly situation, where the wife told her husband to shut up, because she agreed with the harsh things that I – the counsellor – said to her, and that this was the kind of infuriated argument that she longed to be in with him, the husband. In bewildered disbelief the husband looked from her to me and back to her and asked her: “Is this what you want? You really want me to p… you off?”
In couple counselling I have met more than a thousand men that in the first place did not want to talk about feelings. They would rather break a leg than take part in couple counselling. But life is also larger than stereotypes. In fact most men have a lot to say without hesitation in therapy when they feel protected. At least until their wife or fiancé tells her version of the story. Then men often deviate from earlier statements and their personal truth in a strange mixture of silent loyalty and passive aggression. I don´t know if men think that we are not allowed to think what we really think or speak it out loud. Often when women have a very strong or emotional opinion in a discussion men stop talking but keep on saying without words: “I totally disagree but I do not want to get into an argument with you”. I do not know if this is special for Scandinavian relationships or if it is global.
I have no scientific proof that the majority of men do not like to spill their guts to their partner or the marriage counsellor when it comes to arguments about love. And sometimes the gender specifics are upside down in a relationship and the man is the most talkative, while the woman is continuously intimidated by the digging into her feelings and thoughts about her life. I build my experience on meetings with more than 2000 couples. In most cases it is difficult for men to maintain presence and motivation during couple counselling. Men often drift into absent mindedness. And women have learned to live with this distance, but they haven’t learned to cope with the frustration and hurt feelings that follow. My job is to show them what happens between them – and especially what does not happen – if they do not pay attention. So that they can start changing the course of their relationship.
Very often couples start out telling me that they have problems communicating. And they are right. In three seconds flat they hear each others attempts to reach out merely as attacks and fight back without hesitation. I try to make them focus on the fact, that there is much more fun and challenge in admitting your own mistakes and making amends than in constantly focusing on yet another faux pas of their partner. I ask them to try once again to explain – now without malice – what is on their minds. Sometimes it takes a very long time to learn how to lay down the arms. And during the process of getting to know a more emotional intelligent way of communicating we sometimes seriously need some good energy to flow between the war mongers.
I can´t remember when I used the eye contact exercise for the first time. It must have slowly grown and emerged from out of nowhere. Maybe I nicked it from somewhere without remembering. The fact is that it has been a big step forward for the counselling. There are a lot less accusations and remarkably fewer endless explanations in my office these days.
The technique is simple. It is well-known since the beginning of courting. It is about eye contact. I ask the couple to look each other in the eye. And to keep on looking at each other even though I talk to them during the exercise. In fact I tell them first of all: “This is a competition”. I do not know exactly why men wake up and smile every time I mention the word competition. Maybe men are more competitive than women. Or maybe we merely feel stronger and more relaxed when the rules of married life for at short while are crystal clear and manageable. Most men get an even broader smile, when I tell them: “You both win if the woman looks away and you both loose if the man looks away.” I tell them that in most relationships, the woman after a shorter or longer while starts longing for her partner´s initial optimism, compassion and interest in her wellbeing. By looking the woman straight in the eye for a while without shying away, the man once again makes the woman feel her partner´s strength and ability to see her – really see her and all her distress. When he keeps on looking at her, she feels that she can lay her weary head down on an imaginary pillow and cry just a little and rest for a while until she is reloaded with the calm power and balanced sensibility that comes from being connected.
What happens with the man during the eye contact exercise is sheer wonder. Every second he looks more calm and collected. Finally he can make her happy and feel relaxed at the same time. The haunted air leaves his face. He is self confident. I tell him that for the first time he looks totally like himself and present, and I mock him a bit by waving and saying “Hello”.
Often the woman starts talking to him or to me during the exercise, because it is normal for her to speak out her thoughts in order to sort out the mixed feelings inside. Instantly the man stops smiling and looks concentrated again. I tell him that he does not have to answer her or think about what she has told him, because she is not challenging him with her questions – as he thinks – only trying to be present by using words. He starts smiling again. I tell him that he must concentrate on only one thing – looking her in the eye and thinking his own thoughts. Doing one thing at the time is more than enough for most men. Talking and thinking at the same time that you are emotionally very open to the one person, who can hurt you the most is no big deal to a woman. But almost impossible to most men. I tell the husband that his wife talks, because that is the normal way for her to ease up in an insecure situation. Now she smiles too and gets a little silent because she considers if talking really is a tool that she uses in order to control her fears without considering that at the same time it might endanger the cosy and yet uneasy feeling of warmth and closeness with her husband.
I tell the man that right now his wife is happy that they have this eye contact and emotional closeness. It feels a bit awkward, yes, especially with a coupls counsellor on the side staging the show, but still lovely.
Suddenly the woman´s stare changes into a glare. I tell the man, that when she feels this connected and happy for the first time in what feels like a lifetime, she also gets angry and a little bit queasy remembering all the times she did not succeed in getting in touch with him though trying hard. What he looks at right now is the very essence of all the times she felt abandoned and rejected by him. I tell the man that behind this anger there is a vast sorrow, and when I talk about the sorrow, her eyes get wet. The man reaches out to take her hand or to stroke her arm and I grab a tissue and give it to her.
After a short while she regains her equilibrium and her eyes get warm again. Now she is very quiet and relaxed which is new to her husband. She feels even closer to her inner self and to her partner. He feels it too and often his eyes also get wet.
Sometimes I leave the couple alone for a few minutes. I say to them that the contact and energy is good, warm and very intense at the moment, and that it is time for me to withdraw for at few minutes so that they can share a bit of this intimacy in privacy.
At this point all three of us have forgotten about the competition. There is a feeling that we all have succeeded in creating a moment of calm yet fragile presence and bliss. This might sound like new religious mumbo jumbo. But the simple truth is that it feels wonderful and luxurious and also makes me want to cry just a little bit. For at moment there is no distance between the healer and the healed.
A brilliant thing about this eye contact exercise is that it does not require a therapist. I recommend men to exercise the eye contact whenever they feel insecure or out of contact. They do not have to say anything just look at their loved one. When she finds out that he is watching her, she might shy away or say “What?” in order to make him stop and look away. Maybe she will say: “What are you looking at?” Don´t answer, just smile and keep on looking at her. Or say: “I´m looking at you!” and keep on smiling. And when she asks: “Why?” he can reply, “Now that’s a secret”. The goal is to maintain the flirtatious feeling.
My simple and yet complicated aim and goal as a couple counsellor is to reconnect man and woman, so that they have the possibility to consider in a more conscious way what life they want to live with themselves and each other. They do not have to agree, they just have to connect. It is easier to be yourself and be together when connected.
My theory is that if we can strengthen men to be more self confident and keep their stamina when dealing with emotional crises in their relationships it will be a tremendous help for both men and women – and especially their children and family life.
The Eye Contact Exercise
1) Look each other in the eye.
2) This is a competition. If the man looks away you have both lost and must start over again. If the woman looks away you have both won.
3) The purpose of the exercise is to reconnect man and woman if possible and make them for a brief moment feel almost like when they first met.
4) The reason why they both win when the husband wins is that in most relationships the woman feel that emotionally and verbally and in family matters she is faster, stronger and wiser than her husband – and she longs for him to be more present, participant and powerful – in order to stimulate her feeling of being an equal partner and not in charge and left alone emotionally in the relationship most of the time.
5) Most women love and cherish eye contact with their partner. Most men have no problem with eye contact until they get involved with their partner. Then men tend to look away in order to get hold of themselves. Women accept this but also long for the contact and try to re-establish it but at the same time ruin it by talking to the man in an effort to reconnect.
6) In this exercise the man does not have to say anything. Just look. He must only answer questions if he can maintain eye contact at the same time – most men can´t. So keep quiet and look at your wife/fiancé.
7) Try the exercise anytime and anywhere without warning your partner. She will get an exclusive feeling of presence in her life.
8) The eye contact exercise does not solve any problems but offers a platform where current feelings and thoughts are welcome.
9) If you have established a heart-to-heart contact at any level of closeness it is far easier and faster to cope with any challenge at all.
10) The main problem in most relationships is not trouble with communicating and constant arguments. The main problem is lack of true connection behind communication.
Martin Ostergaard, 1962, relationship counsellor and owner of Martin Østergaard Counselling