Actions can speak louder than words in a relationship. There’s nothing more powerful than the feeling of locking eyes with a lover, or the thrill of scanning the room to find a potential match.
The result of making a non-verbal connection: Butterflies. And if one look progresses into full-fledged love, there will be health benefits to match—from the induction of oxytocin, which lowers stress and blood pressure and improves mood, to a higher resistance to the common cold, to accelerated healing.
Non-verbal cues are key to figuring out what’s really going on in the game of love, but there’s more to it than just assuming lackluster hand-holding indicates a commitment phobia.
Like feelings of love, body language has both biological and physiological roots. “Body language is all autonomic nerve responses,” says Dr. Lillian Glass, an expert on the subject. “It’s the biological response in the brain to the dopamine and norepinephrine in the limbic system. As a result, these neurotransmitters trigger responses from the muscles to mechanisms that cause you to act the way you do.”
For example, when a potential mate licks his or her lips, it’s not necessarily a conscious signal of sexuality. “A lot of times, when you’re attracted, you get cotton mouth,” Glass explains. “Your autonomic nervous system goes into overdrive. Sometimes, your mucus membranes become underactive, and so often times you may want to lick your lip.” Licking your lips can signal anything from excitement to nervousness.
Then there’s the adorable head tilt. It’s got a reputation as a sign of endearment—so what’s the biological explanation? Some experts say that it exposes one of the carotid arteries, which provides oxygenated blood to the brain. Typically, a person displays this vulnerable area only to people with whom they feel safe and comfortable.
Of course, the eyes can speak volumes (it’s that “window to the soul” thing they’re known for). Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma, references a three-second count in initial interactions. “Women, if they’re interested, will linger in that initial eye contact past three seconds. We tend to open the eyes very wide in an eyebrow flash.” This is what’s known as a microexpression.
Another one of these split-second cues is the nasal flare, when the sides of the nose get wider. “In essence, it’s a primitive biological response to wanting to sniff in the other person’s pheromones,” Glass explains. So, if you notice this quick cue in a potential partner, it means they’re at least initially engaged.
While the most obvious cues tend to come from the face, Wood says feet can also be very revealing. “Feet are the most honest part of the body,” she explains. “They’re under the least amount of conscious control—typically the first part of your body that needs to move in times of danger or stress, since prehistoric times.” Paying attention to the orientation of somebody’s feet—whether they’re pointed towards you or halfway out the door, can be a strong indicator of whether they literally want to stay or go.
So what’s a good sign that a relationship or even just a rendezvous is headed in the right direction? When a person mirrors your movements, it’s not only the ultimate sign of being in sync, it can also show that that person feels good about themselves. “It’s a natural limbic brain function to match and mirror,” says Wood, “and it’s a constant process, it’s a big load, so it’s hard to do when you don’t feel great.”
Mirroring another person’s body language comes naturally when we feel good—and being in a good place as an individual is a pretty good indicator of how loving and attentive a person is prepared to be in a relationship.
Does some of this sound a little obvious? That’s because, as Glass says, “reading body language is intuitive. If you’re on a date with someone and you are not connecting and there are a lot of cues that are showing up that show disharmony, excuse yourself and don’t look back because it will never work. Your initial instincts are pretty right on.”
But before taking on a complete make-or-break philosophy towards body language in love, consider that once a relationship becomes more established, sometimes the worst thing to do is try to interpret non-verbal cues. Both Wood and body language expert Susan Constantine warn against assuming what your partner feels just based on their facial expressions or posture.
“To read [body language] more clearly is to not interpret it,” Constantine says. “Reading people has nothing to do with judgment. Body language cues are physiological responses to an emotional stimuli; you don’t know what that stimuli is until you start asking questions.”
Instead of assuming your partner’s restless feet mean an impending breakup, just talk to them. As Wood advises, “instead of making assumptions, say, ‘I’m feeling like something’s not right, what can I do to help?’ It’s not just pointing out their behavior, it’s asking what you can do and how to make the other person feel safe enough to share.”
Photo credit: Alicia Cho
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