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Mirroring: What it Means in Your Dating Life

by eharmony Editorial Team - June 13, 2024

Mirroring can be an incredibly useful tool in social dynamics, particularly when dating. Mirroring is a phenomenon when people reflect our words, attitudes and gestures while talking, almost creating a mirror-like effect on your interaction.

That is the standard definition of mirroring but what is more important is why the person is choosing to mirror you. Do they want to persuade you? Or are they emulating you just to win you over? But the most pressing question is, is mirroring something positive or problematic in your relationship?

What is mirroring?

We tend to encounter mirroring techniques in everyday life that we may not even be aware of. For instance, people often smile in conversations when others do, almost as a reflex.

Mirroring as a social tool may be the most important development in human evolution. Mirroring others is not a form of imitation or mockery but rather a fundamental desire to connect. To feel and see our emotions and thoughts reflected in others. To give us collective meaning and cohesion. This is part of something called Social Mirror Theory. But it may be so commonplace that we don’t notice its essential function in dating.

Mirroring in a relationship is an attempt to feel and understand your partner’s actions. It expresses both empathy and an intense curiosity. When partners start to mirror each other’s behaviors and patterns, it can help them reach greater depths of intimacy. 

What does mirroring look like?

Mirroring comes in many forms, but they generally revolve around expressing empathy and building stronger connections.

  • Social – The most common form where people tend to mirror the behavior, gestures and attitudes of their peer group, often consciously. This is how we first learn peer socialization
  • Mirroring in body language – This happens more during one-on-one interactions, particularly with people we admire, and is largely an unconscious action
  • Accents – This is often connected to code-switching, where we change our speech patterns and syntax based on the groups we interact with so we fit in more naturally
  • Emotional – One of the most potent mirroring techniques for communicating empathy and sharing emotions. For instance, contagious laughter. This is very important in relationships
  • Enthusiasm – This is mostly in large social settings where we often mirror the excitement of people around us, like at concerts

The social benefits of the psychology of mirroring

Let’s take a closer look at this age-old phenomenon, why it influences our relationships so profoundly and how you can use conscious mirroring to improve your sense of connectivity and empathy with your partner.

What it means in a relationship

Oscar Wilde said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And while he may have meant it more witheringly, he was onto something. Mirroring in a relationship isn’t just a subconscious attempt to deepen your bond but also gives them a conscious cue of how they are helping shape you in the relationship, as you do them. In essence, it’s a non-verbal affirmation.

It can also help with initial attraction and meeting new people. When you mirror a new acquaintance – like adopting their posture or repeating a specific word they used earlier – you trigger a reduced sense of anxiety and let them put their guard down. It can open up your interaction to new avenues and improve the chance of your connection growing. 

It’s important not to venture into mirroring as manipulation as this creates flimsy, shallow connections. Mirroring is most effective when you use it to build positive rapport and empathy rather than just win someone over. 

5 ways you can use mirroring to improve your relationship

This isn’t to say conscious mirroring is manipulative in and of itself. It’s important to remember this act predates our ability to verbally communicate. So it has a much more primal aspect which can feel more connective than a simple conversation. You could argue our body language is more honest and empathetic than whatever we choose to say to others.  

Let’s look at some healthy and positive mirroring tips that can help create affection and mutual regard in your relationship.

  1. Use basic mirroring body language to make your partner feel more at ease. For instance, adopting the same tone of voice, posture and gestures as them during certain interactions. This doesn’t mean ape them. Rather it’s about showing you’re there with them.
  2. Try to consciously take note of the qualities you admire in your partner – for example, how organized they are – and try to emulate them. This will not only show your partner that you truly see them but also improve your lifestyle in the process.
  3. When your partner shares something with you, try to repeat what they just said in your words. This shows you’re not just actively listening but critically engaging.
  4. Try to understand your partner’s feelings by mirroring their emotions and enthusiasm to show you care.
  5. Mirroring in relationships should always be done in moderation. Otherwise, it will come off as some kind of off-putting mimicry and unsettle your partner. You’re not trying to become their clone, after all.

5 benefits mirroring can have on your relationship

As long as mirroring is used for positive and healthy interactions, the benefits are profound. Here are our favorite benefits of positive mirroring in a relationship.

  1. Intimacy: When you mirror each other, you feel like you’re on each other’s team and in touch with their emotions. You become a unified front against each other’s problems.
  2. Bonding: You become adept at recognizing each other’s feelings and frustrations and responding to them without the need for verbal conflict. Although, some conflict is healthy in moderation to maintain relationship health. 
  3. Communication: It improves communication because mirroring often indicates a greater degree of openness. You will not only seem ready to listen to them but also fully take in what they’re saying.
  4. Trust: Your partner will feel they have more access to your interior and exterior life, and feel more attuned to what you’re experiencing. This makes you less likely to hide things from each other. 
  5. Lastly, you don’t have to work on it that much because mirroring starts to build naturally the longer you’re together. It’s a largely organic process of beginning to share a life. Watch a couple walking hand in hand down a sidewalk and you’ll probably notice they have the same stride and pace. This isn’t just the power of holding hands but the profound phenomena of mirroring.  

When mirroring can be a toxic relationship trait

Not everyone mirrors to build rapport and empathy. Some use mirroring as manipulation to get what they need out of situations, which is mostly love and attention.

A mirroring narcissist can use it as a manipulative tool

A study for Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience found that we have what’s called a Mirror Neuron System in our brain that is automatically activated when people mirror us1. The more empathy we have, the more active the system.

People with reduced empathy and narcissists – who tend to be adept at mirroring – tend not to experience the positivity of this sensation and see only its social and manipulative function.

A mirroring narcissist mimics in very similar ways to normal people, it’s their underlying intentions and motivations which are unhealthy. They don’t mirror to gain intimacy but to win people over. Narcissists also often have a very brittle sense of identity so they create an inflated sense of self-worth to mask a insecurity. They often abandon others before they get the chance to abandon them.

The problem with dating a narcissist is they often don’t bring their own identity to the relationship so superficially assimilate yours. This can eventually turn abusive. Neither is it a good recipe for a deep, meaningful relationship with someone who respects you or is capable of being in touch with your needs beyond surface level.      

4 ways to recognize problematic mirroring in a relationship

Here’s how to spot mirroring as manipulation in a narcissist and how to deal with them before they become too involved in your life.

  1. A mirroring narcissist’s reduced empathy means their mirroring can come across as basic mimicry. For instance, they often wholesale adopt your behavior, attitudes and tastes, which can feel inauthentic and overwhelming.   
  2. They tend to lovebomb you at the beginning of the relationship but pull away over time.
  3. Once narcissists feel as if they’ve won you over and are confident they’ve exerted control over you through excessive mirroring, they’ll often detach without warning. They repeat this process multiple times, leaving you in a confusing and abusive relationship cycle.
  4. Their toxic obsession with your sense of identity will often lead them to be dismissive of your emotional boundaries.

It’s easy to fall in love with a narcissist, particularly when they’re obsessively mirroring you and giving you constant attention at the beginning of the relationship. It feels like a deep and sincere romance.

What you need to look for is when this supposed dream partner’s mirroring behavior starts to feel overwhelming or obsessive, or they begin to make you feel worse about yourself rather than lifting you up.

A woman and a man sitting next to each other. The woman has a cup in her hands and smiles at the guy.

Body Language and Attraction

We take a deeper look at body language and signs of attraction, how you can read them and the more recent idea of digital body language on apps.

Mirroring is just a social tool

It’s important to remember mirroring is neither good nor evil. It’s simply a development technique we pick up to connect with others. Some use it to manipulate and control, some to make genuine connections and deepen their relationships. But when you use it to build a healthy and authentic foundation of trust and intimacy, then you’re definitely mirroring the right way.

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