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Making a Move: Romantic Expectations and Physical Intimacy

Learning when and how to make the first move—and then some!

Making a move and increasing physical intimacy in a romantic relationship can be a confusing and stressful process. On one hand, daters may worry about trying to get physical too soon and making their partner uncomfortable. On the other hand, they can also be concerned about waiting too long, making their partner feel rejected, and perhaps ending up in the "friend zone" as well. Thus, individuals at this stage of dating and relating often feel caught between two difficult options. This feeling can be even more anxiety-provoking in modern dating when mistakes in understanding a partner's desires and unwelcome physical interaction can have very serious consequences, too.

Given all that, individuals need a better way to navigate through this process with one another. Specifically, they need a way to more accurately read their partner's expectations and desires. Furthermore, they need a process to make a move and escalate the relationship in a way that is both considerate of their partner's feelings and confident enough to be attractive too. Fortunately, work in nonverbal communications research, called Expectancy Violations Theory (EVT), can answer those questions...and then some!

Expectancy Violations Theory

According to a review by Burgoon (2016), EVT began with research on Proxemics, nonverbal communication through interpersonal distance. Particularly, the theory was designed to explain situations where expectations around interpersonal distance were violated and individuals stood closer together than was anticipated in a particular situation or interaction (Burgoon & Jones, 1976). From that beginning, EVT research was used to explain additional types of nonverbal communication in other domains as well.

As Burgoon (2016) further elaborated, that research program yielded a couple of main concepts used to explain nonverbal interactions overall. Specifically, of central importance are the expectations individuals hold about how an interaction will proceed. In turn, those expectations are formed by the social norms for a particular situation, as well as any past interactions between those individuals. Thus, any nonverbal behavior that matches social norms or a pattern of past interactions confirms expectations and tends to be calming and reassuring. In contrast, nonverbal behavior that is more or less than what is anticipated violates expectations and tends to be exciting or stirring.

The other primary concept in EVT is the Communicator Reward Valence. Put simply, this is an evaluation of the desirability and attractiveness of an interaction partner. When a desired partner increases nonverbal interaction (e.g. gets closer, touches more, etc.) it is positive and rewarding. When a desired partner decreases interaction, it is negative and punishing. On the contrary, the reverse is true for an undesired partner—with decreased interaction feeling positive and increased interaction feeling negative.

Following the review by Burgoon (2016), it is also possible to combine these two concepts. As a result, we get three main categories of nonverbal interactions:

  • Positive Violations: This type of interaction has the best outcomes. Primarily, it occurs when a desired partner gets closer or does more than what is expected of them. In that case, the positive feeling they produce is magnified by the excitement of them doing more than expected. This combination increases attraction in ways similar to the effects of excitement found in other romantic scenarios. Nevertheless, a positive violation can also occur when an undesired partner stays farther away or otherwise does less than expected. In that case, the relief of avoiding a negative interaction is intensified instead.
  • Confirmations: This interaction type has medium outcomes. Essentially, when expectations are confirmed, an individual does not get as excited or stressed. So, if positive expectations are confirmed, then it is generally okay. If negative expectations are confirmed, then it is generally tolerable.
  • Negative Violations: This type of interaction has the worst outcomes. It can occur when a desired partner does less than is expected, like being avoidant or walking away. In that case, an individual might interpret their behavior as rejection or disinterest (even if that is inaccurate). Negative violations can also occur when an undesired partner gets much closer or more intimate than expected. In that case, an individual may feel scared or threatened instead.

Seven Steps for Making a Move

Given the above, increasing physical intimacy in a relationship is a balancing act between attraction and expectation. On one hand, it is about being attractive enough that a partner wants to get closer and more intimate. On the other hand, it is also about moving forward, step-by-step, in a way that meets (or slightly exceeds) their expectations.

Taken together, those two points help to avoid the negative violations of quickly escalating intimacy with a partner who is uninterested (and having them feel threatened) or failing to escalate intimacy with an interested partner (and having them feel rejected). Fortunately though, to make the task easier, we can break this balancing process down to seven steps below.

1. Check your own expectations

To understand and be successful with an intimate physical interaction, you need to first consider the romantic expectations about that situation. To start, that means understanding your own expectations about the situation. Specifically, if you have low self-esteem, you may sell yourself short and not notice when a desirable partner is attracted to you. If you have been hurt in the past, you may also find that you have trouble building trust with a partner, or hold other types of self-protective biases that lead you to expect the worst of others in the future too. In any case, rather than jumping to unrealistically negative conclusions, your chance of success can be improved by trying to be open and curious about your partner instead. At the least, it will help you move on to the next step and give the interaction a chance.

2. Develop your personal attractiveness

As noted above, being attractive and desired by a partner improves the chances of a successful physical interaction too. While that may seem intimidating, in reality, the requirements to be physically attractive to a partner are often more reasonable than you might expect or that media might lead you to believe. Also, there are multiple ways of being attractive to a partner. Specifically, having a positive personality, using attractive body language, and sharing your unique characteristics can make you more desirable to a romantic partner. Overall then, by developing and highlighting your unique strengths (and gaining confidence from them too), you will be in a better position to have your partner want to get closer to you as well.

3. Pay attention to your partner

After addressing your own negative expectations and working on your attractiveness, it will be time to turn your attention to your romantic partner. Particularly, the best way to understand their nonverbal desires and expectations is to learn to read their body language. In practice, this means noticing when a partner has positive body language (e.g. their posture is open, leaning in, and decreasing the distance between you) or negative body language (e.g. their posture is closed off, leaning away, and increasing the distance between you).

When you see a lot of positive body language, that is usually a good indication that moving forward a bit in the physical interaction could be well-received (e.g. a "green light"). In contrast, whenever a partner shows negative body language during an interaction, then the safest approach is to stay where you are (or even pull back a bit) to respect their feelings (e.g. a "red light"). If you are unsure at any time about the nonverbal signals your partner is sending, then building a good rapport and asking them about their feelings in a considerate manner can help clarify things too. Although speaking directly may reduce the romantic excitement for a moment, it also eliminates the possibility of accidentally having a partner feel pressured or coerced beyond their level of comfort.

4. Flirt to increase desire

Initially, your partner will often be far away from you—especially if you are meeting them in a public or social setting. So, you may have to flirt with them a bit to motivate them to get closer to you. Generally, this can be accomplished by being rewarding, making the right eye contact, and mimicking their behavior in a way that matches your personal flirting style.

From there, you will often get close enough together to be able to have a stimulating conversation and disclose more about yourself, which builds more attraction and intimacy. If you are close enough, some social or friendly touching can increase attraction as well. All the while, remember to pay attention to their body language, as an indication of their comfort level and interest too.

5. Observe (and change) the situation

As can be seen from the study of Proxemics, individuals stand at various distances from one another to communicate different levels of intimacy. Beyond that, however, different situations also influence interpersonal distances and nonverbal behaviors too. For example, even when you are getting along well with a date or mate in a public or social setting, they still might be more aloof and reserved due to the norms and rules of that setting. Put simply, the situation influences and constrains the level of nonverbal intimacy (i.e. public displays of affection).

Therefore, if you want to move beyond flirting, to get more personal and intimate, then it might be best to invite your partner to move to a more intimate setting to do it. Beyond that, whether they agree to "go over to that private corner with you," "take a walk outside," or "have a drink back at your place" will also give you a better indication as to whether they are motivated to get more intimate with you too.

6. Touch to increase intimacy

Once you are both in a more intimate or personal setting, are closer together physically, and have continued to flirt and talk in a positive way, you can then try to increase the intensity of touching. Particularly, this means first trying to transition from the social/polite touching you might have already been doing (e.g. arm, hand, or shoulder touching to emphasize a conversational point), to friendship/warmth touching (e.g. holding hands and hugging). Then, it means transitioning again from friendship/warmth to love/intimacy touching (e.g. cuddling, nuzzling, and caressing hair and face).

Again, especially as you consider making a leap to more intimate touching, remember to observe your partner's body language to see whether they appear relaxed and open to increased intimacy or are nervous and closed-off from it. For example, they may agree to sit next to you on a couch but sit upright with their arms crossed. In that case, either wait until they give you nonverbal signs that they are relaxed and opening up, or if you are confused, then ask whether they "want to cuddle up" directly instead.

7. Transition to kissing

Finally, we get to the point of kissing. Folks generally get nervous about this step, because kissing can count for a lot. Nevertheless, it is important to note that a partner who is cuddling up with you and letting you touch their hair or face is generally interested in you kissing them. This is especially true when their body language stays positive and they are making eye contact with you too. So, the corny romantic movies do get some things right. Therefore, when you want to kiss a partner, first make eye contact with them. Then, get close, lean toward them a bit, and gently touch their chin or brush their hair aside. If they do not shy away from you, turn away, or break eye contact, then lean in slowly for the kiss. From there, remember to follow the rules for good kissing as well.

© 2021 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Burgoon, J. K. (2016). Expectancy violations theory. The International Encyclopedia of Interpersonal Communication, 1-9.

Burgoon, J. K., & Jones, S. B. (1976). Toward a theory of personal space expectations and their violations. Human Communication Research, 2(2), 131-146.

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