Intimate love — 04 July 2009
Reading the nonverbal cues for physical intimacy

During courtship couples easily convey and receive the nonverbal invitations for physical intimacy. They are very positively tuned into each other and share their anticipatory excitement about their lovemaking. During marriage, the transmission and reception of messages is not as fluid as it had been during courtship. Yet, married couples level of relationship satisfaction is related to their ability to accurately determine their spouse’s communication.

In “Observational ‘Windows’ to Intimacy Processes in Marriage”, Linda Roberts and Danielle Greenberg of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, summarizes this behavioral pattern, ”Love, respect and affection may draw partners together, but it is the inability to handle effectively the inevitable conflicts that arise in marriage that is seen as leading to marital unhappiness.” In turn, discontent in marriage reduces the capacity to read each other’s cues and diminishes the couple’s connection and intimacy.

A UCLA study estimated that up to 93 percent of communication is garnered from nonverbal input (38 percent through intonation and 55 percent through body language). Being able to accurately interpret nonverbal messages is an invaluable communication tool between all people and is crucial in love relationships.

Valerie Manusov, Associate Professor of communication at the University of Washington, studied married and unmarried couples’ nonverbal communication in their intimate/romantic relationship. She found that nonverbal messages, (body orientation, leaning, shifting, head holding, facial orientation gaze, touch, postural relaxation, animation and vocal fluency, pleasantness, volume, animation and fluency), are used to assign meaning to the spouse’s behavior.

According to attachment theory, adult mates seek from their mates the four elements that infants need from their primary caregiver: Proximity- physical closeness, Safe Haven- source of safety and reassurance, Separation Anxiety- distress when apart, and Secure Base- a source of trust and safety. These four fundamental attachment cores are also accompanied by physical attraction and sexual desire between mates.

Roberts and Greenberg found that couples who secured these four elements were able to share enjoyable memories, felt respect and admiration for the mate, were comforted by the relationship and experienced attraction and desire for the other. They demonstrated these emotions in verbal and nonverbal ways during their study interaction.

Feeling positive emotions toward your spouse is automatically programmed in your body and transmitted in nonverbal cues. Verbally appreciating each other, speaking kindly and cooperatively, making mutual decisions well and acting in a caring manner, create the safety you need to be receptive to physical intimacy.

In addition to reading general cues of positive regard and attitude, most couples have their own signals that they send to each other about their sexual interest and availability. Regrettably, many couples do not discuss these hints and thus sometimes cause lost opportunities for lovemaking. It is wise for lovers to have an agreed upon verbal or nonverbal signal initiating physical intimacy.

• Accept that your emotions, attitudes, interests and desires are communicated to your partner mostly nonverbally.
• Maintain a positive internal dialogue about your mate in your mind. It will help you relate better and have a more satisfying relationship.
• Here are a few positive, loving and receptive nonverbal behaviors:

  • Stand or sit close to your mate to see the color of his/her eyes, but not too close to be uncomfortable.
  • Have an open body posture facing your mate. Avoid folding arms across your chest or standing with feet parallel spaced apart. Sit with your arms by your side.
  • Look into your partner’s eyes with interest and warmth.
  • Smile. It provides emotional safety for your mate.
  • Avoid expressive hand gestures as you speak.
  • Lean forward, nod and maintain eye contact when your partner speaks.
  • Touch gently in a non-sexual way.
  • Use your soft voice.
  • Be relaxed and curious about your partner’s conversation.
  • Feel free to flirt with your mate – it elevates desire.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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