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Body Politics: What McCain's Smirks, Tics And Jaw-Clenches Really Mean

John McCain's body-language patterns are about as subtle as the flashing lights on a sign that says "Danger Ahead."
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How John McCain Can Help You Have A Better Relationship

Understanding the language your body speaks can help you attain much deeper intimacy in relationships. One of the big complaints we hear from partners in relationship therapy is, "I can't figure out what he/she's really feeling." A related complaint is, "I don't know how to figure out what I'm feeling." Knowing what you're feeling and what your partner is feeling is essential to a healthy relationship. When people can't, won't or don't know how to speak about their feelings openly, their bodies are left to communicate about those feelings in the form of blinks, twitches, clenches and other bits of Body-Talk. Electing a president is like signing up for a four-year marriage, a marriage in which about half of us will end up being married to someone we wouldn't even want to share a cab with. In this political season, it behooves us all to get better at Body-Talk, so we can understand what those blinks, smirks and clenches are really trying to tell us.

Body-Smart Or Body-Dumb

The morning after the first debate we saw something odd. Several pundits made mention of the remarkable display of twitches, smirks and jaw-clenches that flickered across the face of John McCain throughout the debate. Others mentioned his lack of eye contact, particularly his unwillingness to look Obama in the eye. We were pleased that the commentators observed those things -- many people overlook these important but subtle communications, in the spirit of "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." But here's the odd part: some of the pundits seemed to be apologizing for having noticed McCain's pyrotechnic display of facial flare-ups.

On MSNBC, Mika Brzezinski apologized for possibly sounding "superficial," then went on to discuss McCain tics and smirks. Why did she and others feel like they had to apologize for noticing something that all of us should be paying a great deal of attention to? It's probably because we're taught, as part of our social training, to overlook the language of the body. We are trained to think of it as superficial or not to notice it at all. That training makes us body-dumb instead of body-smart, and it costs us mightily in terms of health and love. If we don't know how to listen to and understand our body's organic language, we can't articulate our feelings in relationships and we can't understand the emotional underpinnings of many diseases.

Any good therapist learns to read the language of the body, but you don't need an advanced degree to understand John McCain's. His patterns are about as subtle as the flashing lights on a sign that says "Danger Ahead." Since we may end up married to him for four years, we need to pay particularly close attention to two patterns of his: smirking and jaw-clenching.

The McCain Smirk:
The Mouth Of Contempt
You probably noticed how often McCain smirked, particularly when he was being forced to listen to Obama speak. It's his expression of contempt. If he were speaking the truth behind his smirk, he'd be saying something like "I hold you in utter contempt. I am superior to you. My disdain for you is boundless." Any seasoned relationship coach knows a lot about contempt, because it's one of the most destructive patterns in relationships. One of our colleagues in the relationship counseling field, John Gottman, calls contempt one of the Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, behaviors that signal doom for a relationship (along with criticism, defensiveness and sulking.) Beware of electing a president who wears the Mouth of Contempt. If McCain is elected president, we'll see a lot of it, because he particularly seems to wear it when someone he disagrees with is speaking.

The McCain Jaw-Clench:
The Painful Art Of Biting Back Anger
Out of politeness one is tempted to look away from McCain's jaws, because his left jaw has a permanent bulge from his bouts with cancer. We encourage you, though, to turn your attention to his right jaw; it's a symphony of clenches that played practically non-stop every time he was forced to listen to Obama in the first debate. Since McCain won't release all his medical records, we don't know the story behind the cancer in his left jaw. However, we know a great deal about what causes his right jaw to clench repeatedly. People clench their jaws when they're angry and can't, won't or don't know how to say it plainly. If his jaw-clench could speak, it would be saying: "I'm mad as hell and trying desperately not to show it." The anger shows in 3-D, though, thanks to the eloquence of Body-Talk. That's a good thing. We need to know when people are trying to conceal their feelings, in our relationships at home and in politics. We need to know what's going on behind the denials and delusions of Mouth-Talk.

Mouth-Talk Vs. Body-Talk
Body-Talk always tells you the truth about what's going on. If your mind thinks you're not scared, but you feel speedy-queasy butterfly sensations in your belly, believe your body. If your mate says he or she isn't mad, but you see him or her clenching those jaws repeatedly, believe the Body-Talk not the Mouth-Talk. Mouth-Talk is useful and often entertaining, but you've probably noticed that we humans can speak a lot of twisted stories, wild justifications and outright lies out of our mouths.

What will be very interesting in future debates is watching how John McCain tries to conceal the Body-Talk that was so obvious in the first debate. He's getting media-coaching around the clock, and will likely try to hide his contempt and anger from us next time. It probably won't work, because the twitches and clenches he'd be trying to hide are caused by trying to hide feelings in the first place. John McCain has been widely reported to have a volcanic temper. A ten-year-old, walking into the room and seeing him on television said, "That guy looks like he's about to blow." Frankly, we'd rather see him go ahead and blow his stack, rather than hide his anger and contempt under more and more layers of deception. We've seen enough of that already.