The Power of Facial Expressions in Relationship Communication

By Jessica Glynn, LMSW

Paul Elkman’s research showed seven universally recognized facial expressions of emotion. These seven emotions that we express through our face are joy, surprise, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and contempt. Since it seems that we literally wear our emotions on our face, then we can easily be showing our partner, friend, or family member how we are feeling without necessarily being completely conscious of it. 

In relationships, this can be very important to communicating effectively with your partner. Many times, when couples have communication disconnects there can be dialogue that keeps us from being able to hear one another. One person may chase the partner with their words trying to figure out what is wrong or prove a point, but this can sometimes send the other partner in the opposite direction and heading out the door. This is due to one partner setting off the other’s defense mechanism causing the Amygdala to recognize fear, setting of the fight or flight response. In this case, the flight response.

In addition to the unhelpful dialogue and tone, the partner who is doing the chasing may also set their partner’s defenses off with their facial expression. Expression of anger with one’s eyebrows lowered can tell the partner that they are angry and the partner may feel like they need to flee the situation immediately. This doesn’t lend for a conversation where the couple would be able to sit, talk, and express what they are feeling calmly and in a constructive manner .

It is important to recognize how facial expressions can be playing into one’s relationship. If there seems to be patterns arising that have caused the relationship to feel like it is moving in an unhealthy direction, it might be time to reflect and ask your partner what is going on and what they need from you. Ask your partner if there is anything about your facial expression when you are angry or hurt that causes them to react in a negative way. For example, you could be showing your partner a combination of the expression of contempt and anger because you don’t like the particular situation. However, the harshness of the facial expression may make your partner feel, in that moment, that you are don’t like and are angry with them, triggering their fight or flight response. Once the fight or flight response is set off, it is difficult to return to a place that can be productive.

Another method to try to curb unhealthy communication patterns is to look in the mirror and simulate your argument with your partner. Recognizing the parts of your facial expression that you wouldn’t like if someone was directing toward you, can help you empathize with your partner and soften your facial expression next time an argument arises. The softness can lend for a safer space for you and your partner to share and be vulnerable. This way of opening up can often bring couples closer again.

Jessica Glynn, LMSW is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like to work on communication in relationships, visit cobbpsychotherapy.com to learn more about how therapy can help.