Whether it’s a funny nickname, an inside joke, or being flirty with your partner, playfulness is so much more than just the occasional laugh. In fact, research shows that being playful in a relationship is a big part of what makes it last.
Scientists looked into how play affects romantic relationships and have found that what might seem insignificant or superficial can actually tell you a lot about relationship quality and satisfaction.
Playfulness can foster a sense of closeness, offer a way to communicate better, and even help resolve conflicts within a relationship. Basically, couples who play together, stay together.
Play and being playful can mean different things to different people. The famous 20th-century psychiatrist Jacob L. Moreno described playfulness as both an inner and an acquired skill we can develop.
While you may associate playfulness with childhood, it has an important place in your adult — and romantic — life, too. Playfulness enables us to practice being spontaneous and discover new, creative solutions to problems.
Couples who are playful in their relationship are more likely to feel connected, satisfied, and overall happy. They’re also able to communicate and navigate conflict better, while a recent review even found that being playful with your partner can even build trust and improve your sex life.
Moreno described how we need to practice spontaneity and playfulness with others to become more spontaneous and playful. In other words, “practice together makes playful!”
But as everyday stress and busy schedules get in the way, it can be tricky to make time for play, which often leads to a relationship rut.
Depending on how trusting and secure we are, our attempts at play can have a positive or negative effect. For example, “I was only playing” can be an excuse for clumsy or hurtful behavior. More negative types of play need to be recognized for what they are and be replaced with more consensual, collaborative play.
Let’s consider a case study of a man called Roger who learned during his early school years that taunting other children in the playground was fun, so long as you were a part of the group doing the taunting.
Roger’s stepfather, who constantly teased and made fun of his failures, led him to develop a negative style of playfulness and humor that was inappropriate, hurtful, and provocative.
In his work with a therapist, Roger eventually saw how this experience of teasing and bullying play had impacted his current attempts at communication. As a result, a more thoughtful, and less hurtful playfulness evolved in his relationships.
Author and therapist Sue Jennings has written about three types of developmental play:
The first is the kind of play we sense through our physical senses and our bodies. This includes movement, sound, touch, tastes, etc. Being cuddled by mum or dad as part of a game is a good example of how this is first formed.
The second type is play based on external things — what we see and interact with, such as a teddy, a picture book, or a favorite piece of music.
And finally, social skills arise from role-playing — from playing doctors and nurses alone or with others as children, to experiencing the role of boy or girlfriend, to eventually testing or changing career roles in the wider world.
Play is therefore a developmental process, but trauma or difficulties in our developmental years can affect our sense of playfulness later on in life.
For example, through a lack of basic trust developed in the first stages of play we can become fixed within a safe, predictable role or escape into a solo hobby — missing out on the achievement and challenge of a more adventurous, shared, physical or social world.
A good balance between all three types of play in a relationship is a fortunate position to be in, suggesting that you have a wide range of “play possibilities and abilities” to draw from.
Here are a few questions for you and your partner to consider:
Is your favorite idea of playfulness sensual and physical? This can include things like high-adrenaline sports activities, a gentle massage and sensual contact, or perhaps the enjoyment of different types of food and drink.
Or is your playfulness projected to external things and activities? This can include things like going to concerts, galleries, or festivals. Playing instruments, keeping pets, or decorating your home.
Or perhaps your playfulness is about the roles you play? Volunteering for a cause or adventure, organizing fancy dress parties, trying out new and exciting activities, or learning a new skill together.
This week try out a type of play that you usually avoid, either alone or together. By doing so you’ll extend your shared playground and start to discover more of your own or your joint creativity.