The 2 Intimacy Languages: Verbal and Nonverbal

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Mating in Captivity" by Esther Perel. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What exactly is intimacy? What’s your preferred way of expressing intimacy—verbal or nonverbal?

In modern times, our concept of intimacy has become more precise⁠—we consider it to be achieved mainly through verbal communication. But talking isn’t the only intimacy language, intimacy can also be fostered through nonverbal communication.

Keep reading to learn about the two languages of intimacy, how and why they sometimes clash, and what can be done about it.

The Two Languages of Intimacy

Modern relationships demand self-disclosure, sharing our feelings, and being good listeners (non-judgemental, validating, and so on). We want to feel known and expect our partners to share as much as we do. However, talking isn’t the only (or even best) way to develop intimacy. There are two methods of communicating intimacy, verbal and physical.

Verbal Communication: Women’s Arena

Women’s intimacy language tends to be verbal communication because, throughout history, they haven’t had access to power. Instead, they became experts at building relationships. Even today, girls are taught to develop relational skills.

The emphasis on talking as the primary method of developing intimacy started up at the same time that women began to grow their economic independence. As women became less financially reliant on their husbands, they began to expect more from marriage. Women wanted an emotional connection in a relationship, and because they were so comfortable with verbal communication, they used it to develop intimacy.

Physical Communication: Men’s Arena

However, men haven’t been socialized the same way as women. Men are taught to compete and perform, and to be in control, fearless, and invulnerable. For men, expressing feelings is sometimes not only not in the curriculum, but actively discouraged. Trying to create intimacy only through talking can leave men trying to cram a language they don’t speak.

Some of the restrictions on men’s socializing have led them to self-express and communicate with their bodies. Most people are aware of the stereotypical aggressive male sexuality, but not everyone considers that sexuality can also tap into tenderness. Sex is a way of connecting without words.

Friction Between Communication Styles

People who value verbal communication have trouble understanding that there’s any other way to express intimacy. This leads to the talker trying to get the non-talker to switch languages. However, nonverbal communication can be just as important as verbal, and the talker could work on a second language too.

For example, Eddie was dumped by many women because he didn’t talk to them. They thought he had a fear of commitment and was reluctant to be open about himself. He ended up marrying a Japanese woman who spoke little English (he spoke no Japanese). The two literally couldn’t talk, so they communicated their love in other ways, such as showing each other art, washing each other, and cooking for each other. They communicated, just not by talking.

Downsides of Talk-Only Intimacy

There are four downsides of engaging only in talk intimacy:

One: Women’s sexual repression. Men might have more trouble talking than women, but focusing on talk has negative consequences for women too⁠—repressed sexuality. If women talk only with their voices, not their bodies, they’re cutting out an entire language. Single-mode communication also gives weight to the idea that women have to love someone to be allowed to sexually desire them (historically, men could like sex but women who did were immoral). Women are still trying to figure out how to be everything they want to be today, and focusing only on speech, rather than all forms of expression, only makes this harder.

Two: Tension. There’s a spectrum of communication: pure physical communication on one side, and pure verbal communication on the other. Some people hate communicating physically⁠—their body is confining. They feel self-conscious and awkward, and for them, words are much safer. Other people feel freest and least inhibited in expressing themselves through their bodies. When two people on opposite ends of the spectrum are together, there’s often tension, because for the speech-preferring person, sex creates anxiety, and for the nonverbal-preferring person, sex is a balm for their anxiety.

Three: Control. Talking, and having no secrets, doesn’t necessarily lead to intimacy. In fact, it can lead to things like coercion, intrusion, and control. The person who’s less inclined to communicate verbally might feel forced to share because their partner is sharing and they need to reciprocate. Additionally, pushing for details about where your partner goes and who they meet can turn into surveillance and erode personal boundaries. And ironically, knowing every detail of your partner’s life doesn’t necessarily even create intimacy. What time your partner left work probably doesn’t give you much insight into their personality.

Four: Loss of distance. The better you get to know your partner through talking, the less distance there is between you. Remember Chapter 4: Intimacy vs. Desire—desire requires distance to flourish. 

How to Translate

When two people on opposite ends of the communication spectrum are together, there can be tension. There are a few possibilities to working through it:

  • Possibility #1: Acknowledge that there are multiple ways to communicate and none is better than any of the others.
  • Possibility #2: Practice different methods of communication in a non-sexual context.
  • Possibility #3: Reflect on how communication methods affect sex life.

Extended Example: Mitch and Laura

For example, Mitch and Laura speak totally different languages, each conforming to gender stereotypes. Laura thinks Mitch is the usual sex-obsessed man, and Mitch thinks Laura is sexually inhibited and feels disgust or contempt about sex. What’s really going on is this:

For Laura, sex comes with a lot of baggage. As a child, the only things she can remember her father saying about her body were comments about her breasts, and her mother always told her that boys are only interested in sex. She grew up thinking she could be pretty or smart. Laura’s lack of connection with her body has nothing to do with Mitch.

Mitch is completely comfortable with sex. His childhood experiences with sex were very different than Laura’s. He fell in love with a girl named Hillary at eighteen. Hillary had a lot of experience with sex and Mitch’s first experiences were all positive. He’s not very good at verbal communication and prefers to communicate via his body. Sex makes him feel emotionally safe.

The first step for Laura and Mitch was to understand that each of them speaks a different language. Next, with the author’s guidance in therapy, they communicated nonverbally, playing games like leading each other around the room, trust falls, and mirroring each other’s movement. It was physical communication, but it was non-sexual, and this helped them both see their areas of resistance. Laura learned that when she doubts her own appeal, it’s harder to believe that Mike desires her. Mike learned that he was dependent on another person to make sex feel safe for him.

The 2 Intimacy Languages: Verbal and Nonverbal

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  • Why it's difficult to have a good, erotic life within a long-term relationship
  • What makes up our individual sense of desire and our desire for our partners
  • Tips on how to retain desire in a committed relationship

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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