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Column: Body language – can it tell us what people are thinking and not saying?

Non-verbal communication is key at the beginning of a relationship, but it should be kept up, writes Lisa O’Hara.

MUCH HAS BEEN written and researched about how to tell what someone is really saying through their body language. How much of our communication is non-verbal? It would seem that if we believed many researchers, the spoken word counts for little when it comes to communication.

It could also be argued that there are several ways to interpret body language and there is no definitive meaning to any one gesture – a simple example being the body gesture of arm-crossing. Must it absolutely mean a sign of defensiveness, or could it also be the person is cold, or perhaps just simply shifting position to become more comfortable?

Building relationships

Indeed, when we want to build a relationship with someone regardless of the context (be it profession or personal, a fleeting few minutes in a doctor’s office or when we meet someone out socially), we will find ways to connect with another, more than likely looking at them and smiling. Then a chat begins even if it is just about the weather.

It’s hard to ignore the obvious signals of two people who are engaged with each other, even if they’re in the midst of a heated debate. They’ll usually be looking at each other, they’ll be listening to what the other is saying even if it is to disagree and, generally speaking anyway, they’re not as bothered about what is happening around them. The focus is primarily on each other.  It can be intense even if it is brief.

Love too, can start off the same way. Even if some relationships are pretty much instant with mutual attraction, others will take a while to warm up with the couple gradually getting to know each other.  And then there’s the relationship where neither really like each other to start off with but somehow a bond forms in spite of their differences. Again, the focus is on each other.

Efforts at connection

In the early stages of a relationship, we will look to connect and share as much as possible with our new partner. According to the Gottman Institute, efforts at connection can be described as follows:

“I hear you”

“I’m interested in you”

“I understand you (or I want to understand you)”

“I’m on your side.”

“I’d love to help you (whether or not I can)”

“I’d love to be with you (whether or not I can)”

“I accept you (even if I don’t accept all of your behaviours)”


It’s arguable about the time it takes for the intensity of the early stages of a relationship to wear off and settle into a more normal ‘okay so you’re not perfect but I still like you anyway’. It’s probably an individual thing but it will cool down at some point within the first year if a relationship lasts that long.

At the beginning, you’re keen to find out what pleases/displeases the other and their expectations. When we have a handle on this, do we relax and become more confident that we like them and they like us so the urge to make an effort isn’t as strong? Or have we made all the effort and decide that it’s enough, that we don’t have to try anymore?


So little by little, the rest of our life reclaims us from the possible heady start and we become complacent with making the little gestures of love and affection that helped to gel us together in the first place. Some of us are better than others at asking for attention, affection, and/or acknowledgement.  But no matter how good we are at asking for our needs to be met (and in fairness, many of us (especially women) think we should never have to ask for them, that our partner “should just know”), it also  requires the other person to stay in tune with us and to be able to take it in.  If we don’t believe we’ve been heard and understood, or what we’ve said has been dismissed, it can cause a person to withdraw somewhat and the gap to intimacy opens up.  Of course, this may all happen unintentionally and unconsciously.

I wonder how many in long term relationships still remember to check in with the other upon waking and just before turning out the lights (after the smart phone or lap top have been relegated to second place)? Do we still  come in the door and remember acknowledge the other by somehow communicating ‘hi, how are you?’ (maybe we say it or maybe it’s a gesture like a passing touch or caress) This is a clear signal that even for just a moment, our focus is on them. Or when we say ‘goodbye’ and it’s not just a cursory mutter (and a peck if you’re lucky) A six second kiss is still long enough to be considered by most to be romantic! 

Lisa O’Hara is a counsellor for Relationships Ireland. Relationships Ireland offers confidential counselling and support services that offer you the opportunity to understand and resolve difficulties in your relationship. For more information or to book a consultation you can contact 1890 380 380 or email

Read more articles by Lisa O’Hara here>


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