Just press play: The joy of playfulness in relationships

Illustrator: Cat Finnie

Picture this: You are in a crowded bar (post-COVID and fully vaccinated). You are chatting with your friends when you spot someone attractive across the room. They laugh a little louder, you glance their way. They smile a bit, then look away. You look away, take a sip of your drink. Then you look back together, both smiling at the same time.

Magic.

It’s not a board game. But it sure feels like one. And it is a game of sorts. The best relationships start with playful banter and keep the fun going.

Science agrees. A recent study published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass highlights the importance of play in adult romantic relationships. The authors of the study looked at several different kinds of “play” and found that a general sense of playfulness among two adults in a relationship helps foster feelings of attraction and love—leading to greater relationship satisfaction over time.

“Our literature review and studies from our lab show that being playful contributes to most people’s love lives,” lead author Kay Brauer, MSc, of Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, told Science Daily. “Playful behaviors such as surprising the partner, retelling and reenacting joint experiences with the partner, or jointly forming new experiences often contribute to the happiness and longevity of relationships.”

Finding Your Happy Place

Amy Kuras of Detroit, Michigan says she definitely didn’t need a study to confirm this. She has been married to her partner for 20 years, and their sense of play has never diminished from day one. They make each other laugh all the time, have inside jokes only they know the punchlines for, and tease each other endlessly about their bizarre and quirky habits. “We are never mean-spirited, though,” says Kuras. “I’ll tease him about his musical taste forever, but would never mock anything [about which] he’s sensitive.”

That’s the key, says Katie Lasson, a sex and relationships advisor for UK-based Peaches and Screams: “Humor is a very important resource in a relationship, but we must distinguish sarcasm, which is a form of aggression.”

We all know those couples who make fun of each other or publicly blame each other in the presence of others. But that’s not playfulness; it’s cruelty. Playfulness feels fun and light. It’s a way of highlighting—and celebrating—that you know your partner better than anyone.

 “We have created an entire dance routine to ‘No Scrubs,’” Kuras says, laughing as she remembers the moves. “Honestly, that’s the secret weapon of our happy marriage and a major reason we made it through the pandemic still mostly liking each other.”

In my own marriage, my husband of 20 years and I have silly nicknames for each other, share inside jokes, and have found ways of laughing at each other’s idiosyncracies. I remember even in our early dating days, our flirtation always felt like a game. A little push here and there. A childlike show of affection. Playfulness is what makes us us.

Reconnecting to The Kid In You

“Playfulness truly is a key element in relationships,” says Anahid Derbabian, a Michigan-based relationship counselor and therapist. “When we connect with ourselves in very real ways and are willing to be open and vulnerable, we can naturally reflect the young parts of ourselves and our playful energy that yearns to be expressed.”

Consider it an excavation of sorts, in which the people we fall for remind us of something in ourselves long buried. A playful relationship may evoke childhood curiosity and that sense of freedom that we often lose as adults. In essence, that is what the study from Compass found—that we are attracted to people who bring out our positive emotions.

Much of that is tied to who we were and our earliest forms of communication, which is often nonverbal. Just ask Jeanne Sager and her husband Jonathan, who have a little game they always play in stores.

“We do this ridiculous thing where we bump into each other on purpose,” says Jeanne. “One will randomly bump the hip against the other, and then the other has to respond in kind, and it becomes a bit of a war of who can bump the other one farther, but then we both burst out laughing. It’s really silly and stupid, but it’s emblematic of the way we communicate without ever using any words.”

Finding Your Version of Playful

The ability to be playful with a partner, to make them laugh, to see them as no one else does, is what differentiates a romantic relationship from a platonic one. It’s a form of letting loose and making it clear to the other person that they can relax, too.

Lasson offers hope to those who don’t feel particularly funny or playful, too. “Playfulness is a personality trait,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean more serious-minded types have to lose out.” Often even the most serious people find they can be lighter with a person to whom they are attracted.

Even more encouraging: the person who brings that lightness out in you may be well-suited to longevity.

“I can be too serious sometimes, so I am thankful for my husband’s playfulness. It often lightens things up and brings us together,” says Laura Pascrell, who has been married for six years. “In a way, it’s akin to being with my kids and just tickling them and laughing. It’s tension and stress relief.”

The trick is to really pay attention early on to how that other person makes us feel. Do we feel like we can be ourselves? Let down our guard? Laugh and be light? If those answers are all yes, the signs point to something good. 

Stoking the Flames

The trick, long-term, is to keep that lightness alive.

“Couples naturally play together when they are first dating and falling in love,” says Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a psychologist and relationship coach. “The problems come over the years when they stop playing together, which makes them feel less in love. Playing together with your partner adds variety, excitement, and fondness, which are all necessary ingredients for staying in love.”

How does playfulness show up in your relationships? Let us know by dropping us a line at community@lovekeepler.com!

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