This feels like a strange thing to complain about, but my partner smiles most of the way through sex. I know I should be pleased that he looks so delighted, but I find it off-putting. Should I tell him?
Smiling is a contagious human behaviour, so I’m surprised that his smiles don’t make you smile too.
Human beings mirror each other’s facial expressions and when a smile elicits a mirror smile in someone else, it should, in theory, create mutual feelings of happiness in that person.
Scientific studies show that even grins that are artificially invoked do the trick.
However, people also smile when they are being sarcastic, polite, nervous, embarrassed, or anxious.
Although most of us are capable of extracting emotional meaning from facial expressions in a few hundred milliseconds, research shows that it takes a lot longer to decipher expressions that might be at odds with the underlying sentiment.
When people are asked to evaluate the difference between fake and genuine smiles, they can’t tell the difference if they just look at the person’s mouth.
It is only when they see closed eyes and crinkled crow’s feet that they can tell if a smile is genuine.
If your boyfriend’s mouth makes the shape of a smile, but his eyes convey a different emotion such as anxiety, it could indeed be very distracting.
Real smiles express a genuine burst of joy that lights up a person’s face for a moment before subsiding. In contrast, smiles that carry on indefinitely look like rictus grins.
That your boyfriend smiles consistently all the way through sex suggests that it is not, as you suppose, an expression of delight, but an unconscious facial contortion.
Sex can involve extreme exertion and high emotion, and research by the psychologist Hillel Aviezer, working at Princeton University, found that during peak intensities of emotion it is impossible to discriminate successfully between positive and negative sentiment just by looking at faces.
In his study, participants were asked to identify whether disembodied faces had just won or lost a tennis match and the results showed that when overwhelming feelings set in, the subtle cues that convey emotion are lost; facial expressions blur so much that it is impossible to differentiate between winning and losing, or pleasure and pain.
Sex is an overwhelming physiological experience and a lot of us make strange facial expressions while we are lost in the moment, so your boyfriend almost certainly has no idea that he looks like the Cheshire cat while making love to you.
I hope that understanding the reasons behind his presentation will make it easier for you to ignore it, because I cannot think of any good way to communicate “I find the way you smile at me during sex off-putting” without causing offence.
Maybe try this psychological trick. Instead of telling him to stop smiling, you could try asking him to smile more during sex. This will make him attend more consciously to his facial expressions and that in itself may be enough to curtail his smiling.
A less subtle approach would be to grin back at him during sex. Such a sudden shift in your behaviour is unlikely to go unnoticed, and when he questions it tell him that he has the same expression on his face.
Even if he doesn’t fully understand what you mean, your feedback will make him more aware of how he looks. Finally, kissing will force him to activate his facial muscles in a different way. And if that fails, there are always blindfolds.
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