Look at your ceiling. Now look at your wife. Now back to your ceiling. Now back to your wife.

What’s on your wife’s face? It’s a scowl.

Why? Because while you were busy looking at your ceiling, your eyes were rolling back into your head. And while they were rolling, your wife was reading your nonverbal communication loud and clear. It said, You, wife, exasperate me.

Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking, That's not fair. Sure, apparently 93 per cent of communication is nonverbal, but my wife knew I wasn't rolling my eyes at her.

You may be right. But does your wife’s body know that too?

Whether you realize it or not, your glance, or other subtle gestures, surge emotion-altering hormones through her brain and body – and yours too!

But while research shows that a single smile can boost a couple’s feelings, immune systems and intimacy, what does a frown do? Clinical psychologist Dr. Craig Malkin claims that acting in love can help you stay in love, but what does it take to make the first move?

To explore this chicken-egg relationship and for tips on how to stop bad body talk and hone your positive nonverbals, read on!

On acting like a couple

Has this ever happened to you? You’re at a dinner party with your friends and you reach over to stroke your wife’s glistening hair. You long for a touch of her luscious locks, but right when you go in for a feel she pulls a Matrix-move and dodges your advance.

Ouch! She acted instinctively to protect her perfect ’do, but you read the dodge as an intentional snub.

Sometimes bodily miscommunications are even more subtle than this example. Sometimes they hardly even register in your conscious mind. But your body is intuitive, reading and reacting to these signals whether you know it or not.

For your bodily behaviour to intentionally increase marital favour, your first step is to just do something.

Whether you want to boost an already passionate marriage or to reignite the flame in a humdrum relationship, "don’t wait until you feel like doing it," Malkin writes. "The feelings will follow" when you start behaving lovingly.

Your next step is to learn to be in-the-know of these head-to-toe body language dos and don’ts:

Face

Facial fail: Your expressions can impact the strength of your marriage. According to Dr. John Gottman and colleagues, marriages are more prone to fail when one spouse responds to the other’s happy face with an expression of contempt.With this lack of empathy, the grumpy spouse wipes the smile off the smiling spouse’s face – then no one’s happy.

Loving look-alikes: Have you ever noticed that older couples tend to look like each other? This isn’t because they use the same face cream! Social psychologist Robert Zajonc discovered that couples do indeed grow to look alike after 25 years, and happy couples grow the most alike! Why does this happen? Because healthy couple’s engage in facial mimicry. So if you want to be a fine-looking couple later, keep up the flattering facial expressions now!

Eyes

Eye gazing: In one of their social experiments, Allan and Barbara Pease, body language experts, found that "extended gazing can create intimate feelings." The catch is they were experimenting with complete strangers, so how much more so must gazing at your husband or wife boost intimacy!

Eye lazing: When chatting with your spouse, do you glance sideways, behind them or over their shoulder? Body language experts agree you’re making it clear that you think focusing on anything – a different person or a cobweb on your ceiling –would be more enjoyable than talking to your spouse at that moment.

Smile

To be happy: "When you smile at another person," write the Peases, "they will most always return the smile, which causes positive feelings in both you and them." They continue, "Studies prove that most encounters will run more smoothly, last longer, have more positive outcomes and dramatically improve relationships when you make a point of regularly smiling and laughing to the point where it becomes a habit."

To be healthy: "Evidence shows conclusively that smiles and laughter build the immune system, defend the body against illness and disease, medicate the body, sell ideas, teach better, attract more friends and extend life," the Peases claim. Now that’s therapy that won’t cost you an arm and a leg!

Head

A nod to nodding: Pay attention to your head bob. A slow nod will tell your husband or wife that you not only hear them, but you are listening intently and are affirming their thoughts. Fast nodding, on the other hand, "tells the speaker you've heard enough or that you want them to finish or give you a turn to speak," write the Peases. So if your husband is telling you a story about fishing and you’re not hooked, simply nod your head slowly and try to engage in the conversation. The Peases claim you will begin to experience positive feelings toward your hubby and his hobby!

Torso

Don’t leave: In a heated argument, you may be tempted to turn your back and walk away to escape the flames. But don’t. Rather, let your face express displeasure, but don’t let your body communicate that you’re leaving.

Lean in: Experts agree that it’s good practice to lean toward your spouse, with arms lowered, to show you’re interested in hearing what they have to say. In any case, you adore your husband or wife, so why not lean a few inches if even just to be closer to them?

Hands

Crossing your spouse: Folding your arms across your chest may be a comfortable position for you, but it typically carries a different connotation. According to the Peases, crossed arms say you’re closed to discussion. To make matters worse, they found that of the lecture listeners they studied, those with folded arms retained 38 per cent less information than the unfolded group. The arm-folders also had a "more critical opinion of the lectures and of the lecturer."

You wanna hold her hand: "A simple caress of the hand releases the hormone, oxytocin, which relaxes us and deepens feelings of trust," Malkin writes. He says that the resulting boosts in dopamine, a hormone responsible for reward behaviour, feel so good that we keep returning to the source (i.e., our spouse) for more!

Legs

Pace, don’t race: Want to pace like a marriage pro? Don’t walk 10 steps ahead of your spouse or deke and dodge like you’re trying to out-walk your husband or wife! And no random direction changes without somehow cueing your walking buddy. Moving in synchronization is bonding and shows that you are both on the same team.

Walk and talk: Having an intense argument? Take it outside – on a walk, that is. Try walking together, in synch, holding hands, headed toward a common goal. You’ll diffuse angry feelings, increase happy hormones through exercise and take the pressure off of analyzing each other’s body language. Oh, the irony.

Toes

Footsies: Enough said.

Take it in stride

Of course, you know your spouse better than we do. You know whether crossed arms is his comfy position. You know when a fast nod indicates excitement rather than boredom. You know that when your husband walks away mid-conversation, "he may be finishing his thought while moving to save your toddler from falling down the stairs," says Karin Gregory, a counsellor at Focus on the Family Canada.

You know these things because you observe your spouse.

Observation is especially helpful to gauge when to open difficult topics. When you foresee a doozy of a discussion, your first step is to figure out what his or her body says, then plan your moves accordingly.

Perhaps your spouse is enthralled with the World Cup on TV; maybe he needs "decompression time" after work; or maybe the slope of her shoulders shows her boss has been ragging on her all day and she’d prefer a massage over a meal request.

Gregory says that if you "hear" these nonverbal signs and act accordingly, you can avoid setting yourself up for conflict before opening the conversation. In action, this could mean asking yourself, Is this the best time? Does his body language tell me he’s going to be engaged? before jumping into a discussion about property taxes.


Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individual’s external work or their respective organizations.


© 2014 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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