The power of nonverbals
Have you ever listened to a two year old talk? As my two year old comes into her personality, one thing I’ve enjoyed is witnessing her self-expression. I joke that she has a lot to say, though I can only understand about half of it! We were playing this weekend and she came up to me asking for something. I looked at her, trying to make sense of the word she was saying, asking her to repeat herself several times. Finally, I see her hands continuing to point to her nose and ask, tissue? Yes, that was it! With her words alone, I was not able to make sense of what she was saying, but when I tuned in to her nonverbals, I could understand her and meet her needs.
Nonverbals are powerful in adult relationships too, especially within the marriage. How many times has your partner tried to convey something to you with their words and you just can’t make sense of it? Maybe they were never given the language growing up to express their feelings and needs. Maybe it feels risky and uncomfortable and they fumble around in their tentative expressiveness. Maybe their emotion is heightened and takes over, making the message jumbled and unclear. Or maybe it’s not the delivery at all. Maybe you already have a perception of what your partner is going to say, your emotions are already heightened, or you’re distracted by your own pain and struggles that it’s hard to focus and hear the words being shared. Either way, we can see from these few examples that a lot can get in the way of a message being clearly delivered and clearly received. Similar to what I did with my child, we sometimes ask for clarification, only to find ourselves still not getting the words. This is where nonverbals can be helpful for both the giver and the receiver.
What might nonverbals look like in the context of a marriage relationship? As the title of this post states, nonverbals are powerful, both in a positive and a negative way. For the sake of this post, I will speak to the wonderfully positive effect nonverbals can have. Nonverbals can be an effective communication tool for a spouse experiencing an emotion or a need. For instance, think about a time when you saw your husband or wife tearing up. No words were needed, as you understood that they were likely experiencing sadness and this hopefully made it easier for you to respond to a need that they didn’t even put words to (I.e., you comfort them with a hug). This nonverbal both conveys a message and elicits a response. Nonverbals can be intentional or something that occurs naturally and organically. They can be a safe way and sometimes a clearer way of expressing oneself. Tearing up is probably an organic nonverbal, whereas an intentional nonverbal may be the husband who’s had a hard day at work and comes home and hugs his wife. The specifics of what he’s feeling isn’t verbalized, but the need he’s requesting is clear. The wife who embraces her husband in this moment is able to meet his need seamlessly. Again, while no words are spoken, this nonverbal message might sound something like this:
Husband: “I’ve had a hard day. I could really use a hug to reassure me that everything is going to be alright. I need to know I’m not alone in my pain, in this life.”
Wife: “Of course you aren’t alone. I’m here to love you and support you and meet your needs. I will always comfort you in your pain and reassure you that everything will be alright.”
Husband: “It feels good to have my needs met. I feel close to you.”
Wife: “It feels good to be able to meet your needs. I feel close to you.”
Is this cheesy? Of course! But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true!
I’m certainly not saying we don’t ever need to use our words. Most of the time, it’s helpful and necessary to have both verbal and nonverbal ways of communicating to make the message clear. But in some instances, tuning in and relying on nonverbals can be that piece that really helps us understand the true message in order to respond appropriately. What nonverbals have you noticed from your spouse lately? Can you tune in and recognize what’s being conveyed? Can you respond to these nonverbals in a way that says, “I see your need and will respond to you?”