No couple is going to be touchy-feely with each other all the time. But body language experts say something may be amiss if there’s a marked difference in how your partner gives or responds to physical affection.
“The truth is, how we use our space and how we physically position ourselves in relation to our partner can tell a lot about how we are intrinsically feeling about them,” said Lisa Mitchell, a body language expert and forensic interviewer.
Below, Mitchell and other body language experts share five nonverbal cues that a relationship might be in trouble.
You tend to face away from each other.
Couples who are emotionally connected are in sync in their body language, sometimes without even realizing it: They tilt their heads toward each other in conversation and lean in as a nonverbal way of saying, “I’m engaged and genuinely care about what you have to say.”
Couples in dire straits do the opposite. If you’re ill at ease with your partner because of an argument that happened right before a party, for example, you’re not going to be effusive in your physical contact, or even in sync with their body language, Mitchell said.
“We tend to distance ourselves ― sitting further apart, sitting across from each other instead of beside each other ― when we aren’t feeling connected emotionally,” she said. “There also will be less fronting, which is where we face our partner squared up with our shoulders, hips, and knees, and more standing offset or beside each other in less intimate positions.”
There’s a lack of eye contact.
Never underestimate the power of a sustained gaze in a relationship. In an oft-cited 1970 study, social psychologist Zick Rubin attempted to measure romantic love by tracking the eye contact of couples left in a room alone together. Couples who reported a stronger love connection when surveyed also held eye contact for longer periods of time than couples who reported feeling less in love.
When there’s a dip in loving gazes, it’s worrisome, said Traci Brown, a body language expert and author of Persuasion Point: Body Language and Speech for Influence.
“Eye contact takes some level of intimacy,” she said. “People look at things they like! If it diminishes, you know you’ve got trouble.”
You grimace or don’t often smile at each other.
Relationships are fed by little interactions, physical or otherwise, that remind your partner you’re still invested in them after all this time. That’s what renowned researcher and psychologist John Gottman found in his over four decades of studying what causes some couples to stay together and others to split.
In one experiment, Gottman and his team conducted a study with newlyweds and then followed up with them six years later to see which couples had lasted. Those who stayed together were better at one thing in particular: Turning toward each other instead of turning away. Couples that had stayed married turned toward one another 86 percent of the time. Gottman explained that couples who turned toward each other made “bids” for affection or attention: These bids could be verbal ― a request for help or opinion on a weighty matter ― or small physical bids for connection, like a smile or wink.
An upturned smile, no smile at all, or a grimace often spell trouble, said Lillian Glass, a behavioral analyst and author of I Know What You’re Thinking: Using the Four Codes of Reading People to Improve Your Life.
“Couples who are at odds stop smiling with a genuine smile ― there’s no crinkled eyes, raised cheeks or open mouth,” she said. “A half smile shows ambivalence and a tight-lipped smile shows inner anger and resentment toward you.”
Your feet point away from each other.
A pigeon-toed stance might not exactly scream “sexy,” but pointing inward with our feet is a subconscious way we show our attraction. By pointing our toes inward, we attempt to shrink in size and appear more approachable and more harmless. When we do the opposite, it’s a sign of emotional discord, Glass said.
“When their toes no longer point inward ― or in your direction when they are sitting or standing next to you ― it’s a red flag,” she said. “It really is telling whenever the body leans away or there’s too much space between a couple.”
You shudder when you talk to each other.
Nothing is as visceral or as telling as a shudder when you see or interact with your partner, said body language expert and psychotherapist Paul Hokemeyer.
“This reaction, especially to romantic advances, is primal,” he said. “It occurs deep within a person’s emotional brain. In relationships that are finished, the partners automatically recoil from each other with a shudder.”