When it comes to relationships, the question I am most often asked is, “How do I know my relationship is OK, that he or she is still into me?” To which I answer, there are two well-kept secrets to knowing how others feel about us: one we see with the hands, the other, less well-known, with the belly. Little behaviors can give us valuable insight. Here are two examples that accurately reveal when a relationship is good or in trouble.
The hands and fingers are very powerful transmitters of our emotional state. Remember that great scene in the movie Ghost when Patrick Swayze envelopes Demi Moore’s hands as she sculpts the clay? Touch matters, and how we touch is crucial to relationships.
We learn the power of touch from the moment we are born. Mothers will gently touch their child using the full palm of their hand, which is warm and relaxed, rich with blood-flow due to vaso-dilation. This is called “palmar touching” and it contributes to the bonding process and the comfort of the child. The child will touch back, in kind. For both mother and child, this mutual caressing releases a cascade of chemicals, including oxytocin, which serves to solidify the connection between them. Oxytocin, usually released during touch or caress, as well as sex, also helps to solidify the relationship between adults.
The act of touching is a highly effective pacifier, which is why we do it to others (children crying) and to ourselves (combing or stroking hair, rubbing hands, touching our noses, massaging our foreheads and neck). It is also a highly effective way to say "I care" and "I love." Touch is so powerful that it is essential for good physical health and mental well-being.
In relationships, touching becomes very important as a medium of expression, especially for communicating comfort and discomfort, which in essence is a report on our emotions and feelings at any moment. When we touch someone we care about, subconsciously we do so with our full palms. The hands are relaxed, fingers are spread; the touch communicates positive emotions. The frequency of touch, the duration of touch, and the intensity of touch, also communicate how we feel. These behaviors are governed by our limbic brain, which regulates emotions, sexuality, and whether or not we are comfortable or uncomfortable around others.
When couples care about each other there will be a lot of palmar touching of the face, neck, shoulders, torso, arms, and of course hands. Once more it’s that comforting full hand that transmits so much information. We can feel it, even through clothing. And yet, hands can be beguiling because we fail to differentiate between full palmar touching and its colder companion which can alert us when something is wrong.
When a relationship is troubled or there is not that much emotional commitment, we tend to touch only with our fingertips or touch ever so briefly. This is called “distal touching” and is our subconscious way of touching those we dislike or can barely tolerate. When you or your partner begins to touch less or merely with the fingertips, loving sentiments have probably been withdrawn. Over time, distancing will become even more pronounced and if not checked early may bode ill for the relationship. This is one of those behaviors that lets us know this individual is pulling away.
As one lyricist put it, “... and there's no tenderness like before in your fingertips.” This is part of our limbic heritage, which guarantees that when we don’t find comfort in something or someone we distance ourselves, even if it’s with our fingers.
As with our hands, our bellies or ventral sides have a lot to say about how we truly feel. I introduced ventral fronting and ventral denial in What Every Body is Saying to explain a phenomenon that I had observed around the world which subtly transmits how we feel about others.
For millions of years, our species has in one form or another communicated to others how we felt about them through the exposure of our ventral side. We reserve this for those whom we trust and care for, which is why you see it with babies (belly up), couples in love, and even with dogs and cats expose their belly side when content. It is how we show others we are relaxed, comfortable, and we care for them.
However, the very instant we feel uncomfortable with someone, ventral denial kicks in as a vital limbic defense and as a means of communicating our honest feelings. During the give and take of a conversation, our feelings and sentiments will be reflected in our ever-changing nonverbal behaviors. If we hear something distasteful one minute and something favorable the next, our bodies will reflect this through ventral denial and ventral fronting respectively, depending on how we feel about what is being said.
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Yet many people miss this very telling behavior. Watch a woman at a bar when someone makes her uncomfortable. She will immediately turn away slightly (ventral denial), gather her purse placing it on her lap, and only make limited eye contact. This is not only distancing, this is also visceral protection—an evolutionary response that protects our most vulnerable side (belly).
Another good example is watching people at a party. When someone arrives that is not particularly liked or welcome, others will begin to turn away slightly or shield themselves by blading their bodies slightly away, giving what we often call “the cold shoulder.” The extreme of this is when we literally “turn our backs” on someone and walk away.
Ventral denial is one of the best indicators that a relationship is in trouble. When couples start denying each other their ventral side as they deal with each other, things are likely to be over. And yes this is even at a distance. I am reminded of a picture I saw of Prince Charles and Princess Diana each denying the other their ventral side even as they tried to socialize with others. It was very clear to me what they felt about each other and where the relationship was headed.
Obviously, there are many behaviors that can assist us to determine what someone is thinking or feeling, but when it comes to interpersonal relationships, how we touch and how we present our ventral side says so much about the health and longevity of our relationship, and that’s nothing to quip about.