Three Nonverbal Behaviors That May Damage Your Marriage
Nonverbal research shows importance of monitoring eye contact, touch, and time
Posted Jun 12, 2017
It was a bright, sunny Sunday morning and church service had just let out, and a married east-coast pastor was showing off his brand-spanking new motorcycle to a large group from his congregation. He rode around in circles, demonstrating its wide range of motion, and revved the engine to show off its power. A young lady in the crowd requested a ride. Without hesitation, the young pastor agreed. She hopped on the passenger seat directly behind him, wrapping her arms tightly around his waist. She rested her head against his upper back. The pastor took the young lady around the church’s block, not gone more than two minutes. When he returned, the young lady hopped off. A few months later it was revealed they had had an affair together.
The pastor opened up about the affair shortly after, disclosing much of it to his closest friends and colleagues. They were interested in knowing many things, including when he thought their interaction became risky. The pastor indicated that the moment she hopped on his motorcycle that one afternoon in the church's parking lot, wrapping her arms tightly around his waist, laying her head on his back, he immediately felt a relational connection.
A moment of touch ended in devastation for this pastor’s marriage and this young lady’s reputation. Touch is not in and of itself evil, for as we know, babies need touch to grow and many men and women receive love and affirmation through physical touch. Though touching someone, or being touched, obviously does not guarantee an extramarital affair will occur, touch can send unintentional and often times undesired messages to the opposite sex.
Not all communication is verbal. In fact, a whopping 93 percent of our communication is sent and received nonverbally. Only 7 percent of communication is verbal. Many who are married would argue that they individually can fully control the communication messages they are sending to the opposite sex. Unfortunately, they’re wrong.
Though we can take every effort to be intentional with how we create our messages, we cannot control how someone is going to fully interpret those messages. The nuances in our nonverbals are often ambiguous, including micro-expressions in our faces (e.g. lips, cheeks, eyebrows), and kinesics (body movement, hand/head gestures) that often are exhibited without our control.
Just as touch bridged the gap for infidelity to poke its nasty head in the case of the pastor and young lady, there are countless other nonverbal factors, more than we can cover in this article, that if not stewarded well, have the potential to lead to marital infidelity (quick note for eventual comment critics: not monitoring these nonverbals certainly does not guarantee infidelity, yet it opens the door of possibility). In this article, we’ll cover three of the most important nonverbal behaviors you should be aware of.
Our physical bodies are wired to communicate. Take our eyes for example. Unlike most animals that lack explicit white sclera (some with none at all), encouraging them to blend in with their surroundings to avoid being spotted by predators or prey, humans have a large amount of sclera around the pupil. It communicates: open for business! When it's not visible to others, our communication is obviously closed, but when it's open, business is booming.
Many of you caught the attention of your present spouse with eye contact. Catching their eye felt almost like a game of sorts. When they looked up at you, making eye contact, they may have immediately looked down in apparent embarrassment, only to look up again intentionally to let you know they noticed you noticing them. Whether sitting across the room or directly in front of them, maintaining consistent eye contact with them may have aroused your curiosity. However, this same curiosity you once used to attract your spouse with your eyes, often can be used, whether consciously or unconsciously, in contrast to your marital relationship; often times to the appeal of emotional and/or sexual attraction with someone other than your spouse.
Research shows this can be devastating to marriages when eye contact is used to achieve these ends. When manipulated, consistent eye contact with someone of the opposite sex other than a spouse may encourage an invite to chat. Once the two are together in a conversation, topics may begin innocently, which once again, in and of itself is not immoral, but often times topics that may seem innocent in nature may lead to more intimate conversations about feelings and desires. Research suggests that these intimacies in conversations are more likely to occur when individuals take their emotional and/or sexual attraction to social media; private text chatting capabilities provide a false sense that their digital interaction is not subject to real-world marital consequences, which encourages self-disclosure that may lead to extramarital activity.
So what can you do? Monitor your eye-gaze. This is something I have had to work on simply with my observational tendencies. I’m a people watcher. Many of you may be as well. Be careful though that your people-watching tendencies aren’t misinterpreted. As a married man or woman, though it takes time, you can train your eyes to avoid unnecessary eye contact with the opposite sex that may be on the prowl. Eye contact is important when carrying on everyday conversations, and this article is not suggesting you go out and purchase horse-blinders, but monitor your eye-gaze to avoid giving to the opposite sex the kind of eye gaze you only give to your spouse on date night.
Haptics research has long supported the advantages of human touch. Physically, touch can help decrease blood pressure, heart rate, and mental stress. Emotionally, touch provides support and encouragement in times of grief as well as in times of joy. However, as touch can be almost electric, used improperly or in vain, an individual receiving the touch may interpret it in a manner unintended by the giver, sometimes inadvertently exhibiting emotional and sexual feelings.
Your hand left indefinitely on the arm of an opposite sex colleague or co-worker during a conversation in your office may communicate emotional or sexual messages that you would never dream of communicating with them verbally, let alone nonverbally. Consistency with this may cause you or the person you’re touching to exhibit feelings or desires, meant exclusively for your spouse. If this happens to you, and you’re on the receiving end, you may begin to compromise on giving to your spouse emotionally or sexually. Marital detachment can occur, with something as trivial as consistent bodily touch.
Equally important, if you’re not the one connecting with the opposite sex through touch, that certainly does not mean they aren’t connecting with you. Remember, just as with other nonverbal behaviors, the full interpretation of your behavior is left up to the one on the receiving end.
So what can you do? Monitor your touch when talking with the opposite sex. Make mental notes of how often touch accompanies your words. Also, make note of their behavior when you touch, after you touch, and later on after the conversation concludes. If you notice they become increasingly friendly/flirtatious, you may need to adjust your own behavior, or even have a conversation with them to let them in on the unintentional messages sent, and then potentially even apologizing for sending those unintended signals.
Time spent in private text communication
Think of private text communication equivalent to a conversation happening in your locked bedroom, without your spouse. Just as there may exist temptation in your bedroom to say or do things that would cause you great guilt, not to mention devastate your marriage, there exists equal temptation to say or do things in a private text communication that you wouldn’t otherwise say to someone of the opposite sex face-to-face. Time is a behavior that can be manipulated nonverbally and in a digital setting such as text, the ability to formulate a relational attachment with someone skyrockets due to the false sense of privacy and security, which can encourage disclosure of feelings and desires.
Just as detachment would occur if you were to apply double-sided duct tape to the bumper of your car, and try to attach the bumper of another car to it, then drive each car in the opposite direction, expecting the duct-tape to keep attached the two cars, so is the illusion of remaining attached to your spouse if you try to give to another emotionally or sexually.
Time communicates; it can be innocent or it can potentially communicate desire, both through emotions and sexual topics. Either way, consistent text communication with the opposite sex says, “I really enjoy talking with you.” This can either be innocently interpreted or dangerously misinterpreted.
Research often shows that texting between a married person with someone of the opposite sex, exhibiting potential characteristics of extramarital attachment, whether emotional or sexual, may take upwards of a week, but in some cases, taking only a few conversations. Numbers are inconsistent to say with definitiveness which end of the time spectrum attachment occurs the most. What is clear, however, in much of this research, where emotional and sexual communication was exhibited in text communication, though the two in the conversation were attaching, the married party was often detaching from their spouse. Either way, the longer that text communication lasts, the higher probability you are of discussing topics that typically are reserved for marriage.
As we’ve discussed, as you increase your private text communication with someone other than your spouse, chatting about feelings and desires, whether slowly or quickly attaching to that other person, you most likely will decrease feelings and desires for your spouse, detaching from them over time. It’s impossible to give 100 percent of yourself relationally to your spouse and simultaneously give of yourself 100 percent relationally to someone other than your spouse.
You may be thinking, “My spouse will never find out.” But think on this: Although you personally may be able to avoid connecting outside of a text setting while discussing feelings and desires with someone of the opposite sex through text, you cannot guarantee that the individual on the other end of that conversation, whether single or married, are in the same boat of self-control. You actually may find yourself in a marital predicament; that is, that person may disclose to your spouse your inappropriate texts, or equally as devastating, if you have connected with someone through text, you may then find that you have lost relational interest in your spouse.
So what can you do? This is a rebellious, counter-culture, hyper-critical comment-thread declaration: Avoid private text conversations with the opposite sex at all costs. At. All. Costs. Don’t even go there. Exercising self-control in these settings is tricky. That is, though you think your the master of self-control, consider this: self-control in psychology tells us that humans’ capacity to do so is limited: in other words, we like to reward ourselves for good behavior (e.g. “I’ve never exchanged emotional or sexual texts with the opposite sex, so this one time won’t hurt a thing) Communications like these are slippery slopes. It is very hard to monitor your (and the other’s) subtle emotional messages when sending and receiving private texts. It is equally hard to avoid temptation when smack-dab in the middle of these consistent conversations. When you spend time talking with someone through text privately, it is easy to send mixed signals, whether emotional or sexual. It's just as easy to find yourself wanting to have these conversations. Know your limits and even your capabilities for extramarital behavior, and live above reproach.
Overall, have an ongoing discussion with your spouse about nonverbal communication expectations and guidelines with the opposite sex. Collective marital guidelines should be established in a marriage relationship, and in this digital age of communication, should extend beyond face-to-face interactions. Just as you may have guidelines and expectations for respecting your spouse verbally with the opposite sex, you should have a similar conversation with how you both will monitor your nonverbals as you speak with them, too. For more specific recommended guidelines for you and your spouse's social media usage, please check out my article titled, Facebook Infidelity: 10 Safeguards Your Marriage Needs Today.
Check your heart
Finally, check the status of your heart. Does your marital commitment entail explicit expectations for honoring and respecting your spouse, or are those expectations loosey-goosey, take them as they come? Being a part of your collective, married relationship requires strategic and intentional living, similar to the strategy and intentionality you had as a single person once, maybe pursuing endeavors such as your education, vocation, or career. Strategy and intentionality in human relationships encompass all ways in which we communicate both verbally and nonverbally. To honor and respect your spouse completely, you must respect them with your words and actions, until death do you part.
For more articles written by Zack Carter, Ph.D., regarding how to steward well your communication in an effort to improve your self and your relationships, please check out his Psychology Today blog column by clicking the link below:
Clear Communication deals with the day-to-day blind-spots in communication. Blind spots in communication are defined as those thoughts, words, or actions you may or may not be cognizant of as you live day-to-day, but often times can negatively affect you and others in the long run. Want to know how to avoid communication blind spots in your personal and relational development? By raising your awareness of these blind spots, in both every day and in social and digital media settings, you can potentially elude relationship heartache and devastation. Achieving relationship success in this 21st-century environment requires healthy, consistent communication stewardship. This blog will help you learn about how to apply social psychology in your personal and relational settings to avoid these blind-sided communication moments. My goal is to educate my readers on how strategy and intentional communication behaviors are necessary to the development and management of your self, and your relationships.
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Farley, S. D. (2014). Nonverbal reactions to an attractive stranger: The role of mimicry in communicating preferred social distance. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 38, 195-208.
Moore, M. M. (2010). Human nonverbal courtship behavior: A brief historical review. Journal of Sex Research, 47, 171-180.
Walther, J. B., Tidwell, L. C. (2009). Nonverbal cues in computer-mediated communication, and the effect of chronemics on relational communication. Journal of Organizational Computing, 5, 355-378.
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