“Okay, why are you mad?” my husband asked me. “What do you mean? I’m not mad!” I responded. “You flinched. I saw it. That means you’re mad,” he said.
I didn’t want to be mad, but it turns out I was. It was a few months into our marriage, and I was amazed that he was so aware of my emotions and how my body expressed them. Body language is a part of communication — one we often don’t consider. Not only do most people have ingrained habits when it comes to how they react and channel emotion, but it is easy to misread or misinterpret the other person’s body language, and that misreading can cause a lot of miscommunication.
What do I mean by ingrained habits when it comes to channeling emotion? Some people respond with an eye roll when frustrated, others might need to start moving and pacing when angry. You might cry when you’re frustrated or freeze up with arms crossed and refuse to make eye contact when processing something. Figuring out what someone’s body language means, and exploring your own, can help increase and improve how you interact tremendously.
One thing that has helped my husband and me a lot is to recognize and name our go-to reactions when we encounter strong emotion. When my husband is upset about something, especially perceived injustice, the pitch of his voice changes and he starts talking. He wants to figure it out by talking it out in this moment right now. I had to learn to give him space to talk it out so he can figure it out and move on.
For my part, one thing he’s pointed out to me is that when I don’t want to continue discussing something because I’m frustrated or overwhelmed, I stop making eye contact.
When you’re able to talk about what your body language says emotionally, it helps you both start down the road to realizing what is going on in conversations. That way, my husband can say, “Hey, you’re not looking at me anymore, do you need some time to process this?” and help me figure out how to re-engage with the conversation. That might mean that we reconvene a little later, or it might mean that I decide to move past my desire to withdraw and work harder to rejoin the discussion. But either way, him pointing that out and voicing it helps us to have a more productive conversation.
The part that makes body language more complex is that you may have been in another relationship where a certain reaction or emotional response meant something different than it means in your current relationship. So, if in the past your former girlfriend would use crying as a way to win arguments and manipulate you, then chances are you will expect your fiancee to be using that same tactic. Now, crying cues you to back away and protect yourself. Instead, however, it turns out that your fiancee cries when she is frustrated, and craves your reassurance and presence in those moments. But instead, you backing away makes her even more frustrated and has started a negative cycle where she doesn’t feel cared for and neither do you, as you are protecting yourself as soon as the tears come.
Figuring out what the other person is truly saying with their physical reactions can clear up many issues in your relationship. Sure, it’s hard; it requires a lot of grace from both individuals, and the willingness to realize that this other person is not your former date, or your mom or dad, or best frenemy from high school, and that he/she has a unique way of channeling emotion.
Holy Family and all you married saints, pray for us! St. Gabriel, patron saint of communication, pray for us! Blessed Giuseppe Tovini, married saint who wrote letters to his wife whenever he had to be away, pray for us!