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June 28, 2017

Infrequently Asked Questions: Do long-time couples start to look like each other?

Aging Aunt Susan and Uncle Fred are starting to look an awful lot alike as they get older, and you wonder: Am I imagining these similarities or are they really taking each others' shape?

Curious, we reached out to Rita DeMaria, a marriage and family psychotherapist for the Council for Relationships and an adjunct assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University, for an explanation. 

You'll occasionally hear someone remark about how two people in a long-time relationship have started to look like each other, and there was some research done in the '80s related to this subject that turned up largely speculative answers. Looking at it through a modern lens, is there any truth to these observations?

Well, if you're 5'4" and your husband is 6'5", you certainly won't look alike, because of those mismatches. But, I think that science has shown the impact of one person on another in a long-term relationship, a marriage. It's a whole process of mimicking

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There's a YouTube [presentation] called "The Neuroscience of Empathy," and the speaker is Thomas Lewis, a psychiatrist from the University of California [at San Francisco]. He didn't do this particular study around couples aging together and starting to look like each other, but what I thought was interesting was that he kind of tracked how our brains work and how the process of empathizing with someone involves a certain mimicking; sort of like monkeys mimicking adults.

So, the brain adapts to a situation, and when we do that over time we might mimic emotional expressions, the way we look at each other, and those things do show up over time. You see this a lot on Valentine's Day: news shows broadcast those photos of long-time couples when they're young and then today, and I"ve always said 'A lot of them look alike.' It's a lot of simpatico, in facial expressions. So there is some science -- we are emotionally driven to connect [with] people. When we emotionally enjoy a person's company and time with them, then some people call it "emotional resonance." And I think that is the underlying substance of how people tend to look like each other. Facial expressions, certain mannerisms, that sort of thing.

In a sense, we share a language, and therefore share emotional responses and then that manifests physically?

Physically, in our facial expressions, in our body posture and hand gestures. I've been with my husband for many years -- 35 this year -- and by and large, he is the person I've danced with the most in my life. So, at a wedding, I dance with my husband and we switch off and it's very awkward to dance with someone else because we have our own way we step and move and do things...

That's another example of the [shared] rhythm.

Does a shared diet contribute, do you think?

Possibly so; I don't know much about that. But another thing is smell -- that's something else about couples. They tend to be attracted to someone who has the right kind of smell...

And the way people touch -- some people have relationships where there's not a lot of hugging and touching, and people who hug more tend to be [different] in posture, how they stand. All these things, how [couples] communicate in non-verbal ways like facial expressions, these are probably 90 percent of how we communicate [as couples] anyway.

And the gist is the face changes alongside your partner because of similar facial movement?

How they mirror each other. That, I think, would explain part of it.