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Online Dating Magazine > Columns > Office Hours with Dr. Jim > Happy Relationships Body Language

Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.


The Body Language of Happy Relationships


Visit any mall in your city and you’ll easily see that people are inherently social and talkative creatures. However, it may surprise you to learn that many relationship experts have characterized courtship and rejection in humans as predominately nonverbal rather than verbal. I guess you could say that the proverbial phrase “actions speak louder than words” has much truth to it.

With this in mind, I wanted to relate a story. A newspaper reporter recently asked me to analyze some photos of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and, based on these images, determine whether there were any signs in their body language to give clues about the status of their relationship. Some of these photos were taken at a red carpet event, while others were taken while the couple was out casually in public. It was a fun exercise but not overly scientific. Photos are static images that represent only a small time frame and hardly give any context to why the people shown are acting the way they are. That said, body language can be revealing, but only if you observe how two people interact with each other over time and during different types of situations.  In fact, one psychologist is well known for being able to predict the likelihood of divorce for a couple given their verbal exchanges.

Still, a couple’s nonverbal communication can also be quite revealing. In this installment, I thought it would be both fun and instructive to educate people on three major pieces of body language that reveal happiness or strain in a relationship. The next time you’re with your partner, pay close attention to these signs. They aren’t always definitive by themselves, but taken together they are a good gauge for what’s being felt but maybe not spoken:

Close proximity:
Happy couples are consistently in close proximity to each other, such as holding hands, leaning against one another or simply acting they are “joined at hip” as the old saying goes. Strained couples tend to be very rigid when they are near each other. For instance, an unhappy couple often stands closely in parallel form as opposed to appearing like they are "falling into each other" as would be natural and expected were they acting genuinely flirty and affectionate. So, watch out for the proximity factor when it looks and feels “forced and unnatural.”

Good eye contact:
Happy couples often show the "starry eyed" effect in which the pupils are dilated -- indicating great interest -- while at the same time the couple gives each other strong eye contact. This simple act is a great indicator of whether the couple enjoys being in the company of the other.  By contrast, strained couples tend to look “past” or even “through” each other. Of course, poor proximity and a lack of eye contact is an even stronger red flag for relationship tension.

Congruent facial expressions:
Happy couples consistently and unwittingly smile around each other -- especially when showing off each other in public. Read that again, guys…  ladies really like it when you show a strong “public identity” or stated in another way, when you show off your “couplehood.”  It tells them that you’re proud, committed and enthused. Yet, strained couples show marked incongruence in their affect and facial expressions. For example, a couple is not likely content if the two people never really seem to be smiling at the same time. Or, as another example, when the couples smiles simultaneously but each person’s smile seems directed at other people. Tightness and rigidness in the face is also a tip off that significant tension of some sort is present.

The negative and cumulative body language discussed here pretty much advertises the fact that a couple is experiencing some type of strain at that moment. In all fairness, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the couple has deep relationship issues. The source of the discomfort, strain or tension can come from many sources. Sometimes stress is related to work, illness, pressures from extended family or friends or even the occasional bad mood. Further, strain can be temporary or it can be chronic. Chronic strain is the biggest risk factor for couples. If your intuition tells you that your partner’s body language is expressing strain or disdain, use the situation as an opportunity to start a meaningful dialogue to get facts from the person. Never jump to conclusions and take hasty action; instead seek out opportunities to confirm or debunk what you think is happening in your relationship.


Dr. James Houran's "Office Hours with Dr. Jim" column is published every Monday.

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