By LINDSAY GELLER
When it comes to expressing romantic interest in someone, there’s no easy-to-follow guidebook to ensure happily ever after, or even a second date. But that’s why those looking for romance should — in the words of a certain famous sea witch — “never underestimate the importance of body language.”
While interpreting another person’s body language is no easy task, daters should be up for the challenge. That’s because small public displays of affection (PDA), like hand-holding, putting an arm around someone, or even just touching their knee, can help a person gain insight into their partner’s private thoughts.
To help us understand these small forms of PDA and what they can mean for our love life, A Plus spoke to three relationship experts: Thomas Edwards of The Professional Wingman, Susan Winter, and Rachel Moheban-Wachtel, LCSW.
Here are 8 things you should know about PDA from those in the know.
1. Everyone could use a little PDA.
While many people wouldn’t feel comfortable making out in the middle of the street, most people appreciate some sort of light physical contact from their love interest. “Ultimately what it comes down to is that, as humans, we do have a need of physical interaction,” Edwards says.
This need is so intrinsic to human nature, it crosses the “boundaries” of established gender roles. “I think that usually women seem like they need it more, but both sexes need it,” Moheban-Wachtel says. The reason, she explains, women give off this impression may be because they are more vocal about this need. “But everyone needs it on some level. Sometimes the person who is more affectionate or insecure needs it more, and that goes across the board for men and women.”
While Edwards acknowledges that “generally, guys need [PDA] more at the beginning of the relationship and women need it more through the duration of the relationship,” relationship roles trump gender roles. Courtship involves someone who acts as the pursuer and another as the pursued. So how a person initiates or reacts to PDA depends more on those “particular roles” than any outside roles they may have in a traditional gendered society. “If you’re the pursuer … you’re probably gonna look for those indications upfront,” he concludes, “Whereas, if you were the pursued, you wouldn’t necessarily need [PDA] at the beginning, but you’ll definitely need it more later on.”
2. But you might want to talk about it first.
That might sound counterintuitive, or even scarier than simply reaching out to hold someone’s hand, but figuring out someone’s PDA comfort level is an important step toward understanding their overall “love language,” Edwards notes. Winter agrees and explains, “Some people are fine with letting the world know they’re in a relationship, yet culturally have been taught not to advertise it. They may shy away from hand-holding or a quick kiss.“ When this happens, she advises daters not to take immediate offense and instead ask their partner’s preference.
Edwards adds that two people might have totally different ideas about appropriate PDA. “As a guy, my big indicator of whether or not the first date went well is if I’m able to kiss you,” he says. “Now, you may not necessarily be a first-date-kisser-kind-of-gal, but if I don’t know that and there wasn’t really any indication otherwise, I would go home thinking that date didn’t go well.”
The key, according to Moheban-Wachtel, is mutual respect and understanding of each other’s comfort levels. “As long as you’re happy in the relationship, and as long as that person is giving you what you need in other ways, you need to respect their preferences.” In the later stages of a relationship, partners with different PDA preferences can work toward a compromise that ensures both feel “happy, content, and fulfilled in the relationship.”
So although the PDA conversation might be as awkward as the good ole movie theater arm stretch, it’s probably one worth having.
3. The smallest show of physical affection can go a long way in feeling relaxed around a new person.
When you’re around the person you like, you’ll probably feel butterflies in your stomach. Those butterflies only multiply the moment you feel their hand in yours. According to the experts, that’s not just a good, but great, thing.
Edwards considers physical contact of any kind the “primary indicator” of how someone feels about another. “When you’re first starting to date someone or even when you first meet someone, the most important thing that [physical contact] establishes is comfort,” Edwards says. Moheban-Wachtel concurs. “Generally speaking, I think [PDA] is important in the beginning stages,” she says. “Non-verbal cues speaks volume about how the other person feels about you.”
When a person wants to be more intimate with someone they like, Edwards adds, “It’s so important to create that comfort where you guys cannot only be physically deeper and more intimate, but also more emotionally connected.“ This is especially true for those who, as Winter explains, “don’t feel comfortable expressing their emotions verbally.” If you’re someone who doesn’t normally wear their heart on their sleeve, Winters advises daters to “make sure they cover their bases by using physical signs of endearment.“
4. Even that tiny bit of PDA can be a huge risk — but it’s one worth taking.
“At the beginning … when you’re not familiar or don’t reach that level of comfort, everything you do is considered either a bold move or a serious risk,” Edwards says.
With that risk always comes the chance of rejection. “Every time you put yourself out there, you’re doing it to gauge what their response will be,” he explains. “So even if it’s a small gesture as hand-holding or putting your arm around them or even just touching them in general — just initially breaking that physical barrier to create that comfort — there is a much more perceived fear of being rejected because it’s so early on in that relationship.”
To combat this initial fear of rejection, Edwards advises his clients to embrace vulnerability. “Everything we do is at risk of being rejected,” he says. “[But] I also tell people the path to acceptance and love and connection is through rejection.”He believes that embracing your vulnerability will ultimately lead to your greatest confidence.
5. Partaking in small forms of PDA can provide validation.
All three experts agree that PDA is especially important in the beginning stages of a relationship. Several people rely on physical cues to feel out (literally) their romantic situation before having the “what are we?” talk. “It’s one thing to say it, and that’s powerful, but to demonstrate it physically — that’s the icing on the cake,” Moheban-Wachtel says.
More importantly, “PDA can can serve as the cement to validate a partner’s willingness to make the love affair official,“ according to Winter. “When hand-holding or placing our arm around a mate is done in public, we’re showing the outside world that we’re proud to claim this person as our partner,“ she explains. “It’s a form of validation that establishes ‘coupledom.’ “
When it comes to declaring “coupledom” in front of friends or acquaintances, Edwards says the level of acceptable PDA depends on the environment. For example, many couples or even casual daters who might normally show their romantic interest in one another through physical touch will most likely minimize this in more formal, business environments. In casual environments with friends, however, their level of touch may increase.
So daters shouldn’t necessarily be worried if their partner’s level of PDA changes from one situation to another. Those levels may have nothing to do with their feelings toward you and everything to do with their feelings toward a given situation instead.
6. Even if it doesn’t, it can provide answers.
Winter encourages daters to seek validation by “testing the waters with a small PDA, such as hand-holding.“ If you’re correct in thinking you and your partner have something more than a “hookup,” she says, no one will feel the lesser for taking this small risk. Even if you end up being wrong, you’ll quickly know where you stand with this person, which, she adds, is still valuable information.
While no one likes being rejected, Edwards believes daters shouldn’t try to avoid it. “In order to really get over that fear [of rejection], you have to be able to experience it enough to ignore that fear,” he explains. “So you have to practice. You have to lather, rinse, repeat it until you feel comfortable knowing that that fear is always going to be present and have the courage to do it anyway.”
7. It doesn’t really matter who initiates the PDA. It matters how it’s received.
Some daters might feel that by continuously initiating PDA, they’re “pushing an agenda forward” rather than letting physical intimacy develop naturally.
Edwards, however, doesn’t think it matters who initiates the PDA so long as the other person responds positively to it. “If they’re reciprocating in terms of their response to your initiations, then ultimately that’s all that matters,” he says. “If you reach out to someone, and they’re showing up with energy and love and affection, then does it really matter how it’s created? What matters most is that it is created.” And after that PDA is created, the initiator might not hold that position for very long. Winter explains, “Once a couple has established a pattern for public behavior, then either party is free to initiate.”
Overall, Moheban-Wachtel believes one person’s tendency to initiate PDA more than the other has little to no bearing on their private relationship. “I don’t think it makes a difference,” she said. “Sometimes one person can be very affectionate in public, but their partner could be the one who initiates sex, or that partner could be the leader in social activities.” So don’t be discouraged if you’re always the one reaching for your partner’s hand when you walk down the street. As long as you’re both reaching toward the same relationship goal — and know it — it doesn’t really matter how you get there.
8. Light physical contact can lead to a deeper emotional connection.
“It’s one thing to be a lover in the bedroom. That’s our private knowledge,” Winter says. “But that same love affair takes on a whole new meaning when it’s acknowledged in the outside world.“
Besides its importance in the beginning stages of a relationship, PDA can help couples reaffirm their love and commitment to each other “in times of disconnect and internal challenges,“ according to Winter. “These are the times we’re most vulnerable to doubting our love. We need all the reinforcement we can get,“ she says. “Though we may be struggling as a couple, a well-timed PDA can provide a spark of hope that’s desperately needed.“
At any stage, relationships need honest verbal communication to thrive, but holding a physically-oriented person’s hand or rubbing their shoulder can complement this communication by ensuring they feel desired and supported. By receiving this additional form of affirmation, they will feel more comfortable expressing themselves. “People who require a lot of physical affection and touch … [often] think it’s really important for that to be sustained throughout the duration of the relationship,” Edwards says. “Even something like putting your arm around someone’s shoulder or their waist or holding their hand — or even something as simple as putting your hand on their thigh or on their leg — these acts, these gestures are ways where people can feel connected to one another.”