At What Point Does PDA Mean a Couple Is Back Together?

In their attempts to divine the relationship statuses of celebrities from paparazzi photos, onlookers are scrutinizing two PDA moments this week: Arnold Schwarzenegger touching Maria Shriver’s butt at their daughter’s graduation, and Justin Bieber kissing Selena Gomez (and disgusting Taylor Swift) at the Billboard Music Awards, as depicted above.

After a breakup, every action is meaningful. Eye contact, Facebook “likes,” dramatically timed exits — all speak volumes, but none more than physical interaction. (Well, except actual words, maybe.) Whereas the Schwarze-touch probably signals commitment, the Jelena kiss is ambiguous. To explain why, here is an illustrated guide to ten physical interactions between exes, and what each one means.

Kiss on Lips: Back Together
In private, lip-kissing could just mean no-strings-attached ex sex. In public, it usually means the couple is back together, because “publicly acknowledging that we bone” is basically the definition of a relationship.

Kiss on Cheek: Just Friends
Cheek kisses suggest intimacy, but between two people who used to swap spit, it is the equivalent of sticking out your hand for a handshake when someone is going in for a hug. That is, it’s a purposeful distancing mechanism within an already-intimate realm. Exes who cheek kiss in public are close (weirdly close, I’d say, unless European) but nonetheless announcing that they are not what they once were. If they were that, the kiss would have been on the lips.

Jelena Fake-Out Kiss: It’s Complicated
Taylor Swift’s reaction to Jelena’s kiss overshadowed how loaded the act actually was. See how Justin initially leans in for a kiss on the lips, then switches to the cheek at the last minute? This is either the ice-cold action of a man who is totally banging his ex-girlfriend, but can’t decide whether he wants to acknowledge her publicly; or the heartbroken actions of a boy trying desperately to win back the affections of his first love, obeying the rules she sets even as he pines for more.

Consensual Butt Touch: Back Together
Attending their daughter Christina’s Georgetown graduation, Arnold Schwarzenegger rested his hand on Maria Shriver’s right butt cheek, letting it linger for several seconds while the duo walked in tandem. This level of comfortable intimacy — particularly at a family event — suggests that the fact that Arnold and Maria still haven’t filed for divorce is, yes, on purpose. 

Nonconsensual Butt Touch: Never Ever Getting Back Together
Not all butt touches are created equal, however. Schwarzenegger in particular is believed to sometimes touch the butts of women who have no desire to date him. That’s why the butt touch itself does not indicate love; the response to and longevity of the butt touch does. For instance, if Maria had responded to Arnold’s touch by whirling around and slapping Arnold, we would know that the relationship was irreparably broken.

Holding Hands: Back Together
Sexless intimacy is sometimes the most meaningful intimacy of all. Platonic adult friends simply do not hold hands in America. If a couple is holding hands, they are back together.

Shaking Hands: Never Ever Getting Back Together
Like the distancing mechanism of a kiss on the cheek, the formality of a handshake between two people who have previously been far more intimate suggests not only that the attraction is dead, but that their relationship is too chilly, even, for a hug. Exes who shake hands are never getting back together.

Caressing Hands: Totally Having Sex, Relationship Status TBD
“Hand sex,” as the act of sexily caressing a partner’s hands is sometimes called, only occurs in a state of extreme eros. Between exes, that means something combustible is happening. Passion is alive! If a pair of hand-caressing exes are not already boning, then they will definitely be boning soon. Are they back together, though? Their irrepressible hand-lust suggests the togetherness is still new, so it’s anybody’s guess. After the Jelena kiss, Justin and Selena probably caressed hands all night. 

Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images

Red-Carpet Appearance: Definitely Back Together
All of the above PDA signals are, of course, imperfect relationship indicators. One signal, however, is utterly irrefutable: When a celebrity couple poses together on a red carpet, they are absolutely, completely, unquestionably back together. (Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne announcing their reunification last week, above. That chin kiss is inscrutable, but the fact that it took place during an arm-in-arm red-carpet appearance is all you need to know.) If only non-celebrities had red carpets to stroll across! Relationships would be so much easier to define. 

Doing Any of the Above While Drunk: It’s Complicated
The legal system holds us culpable for the crimes committed under the influence. The rules of love are more complex. A blood alcohol content of .08 percent or more results in automatic “It’s Complicated” status. “Got drunk and made out in the back of a bar, then asked how his dog is doing, what does it mean?!” is actually the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “It’s Complicated.” Awkward morning-after text messages optional.

When Does PDA Mean a Couple Is Back Together?