Couples do all sorts of things together. There’s the enjoyable stuff – think movie marathons, late-night ice cream runs, or going on vacation. And then there’s less-enjoyable activities like cleaning up after dinner and running errands.
What’s grown-up playtime?
All of these things are goal-oriented – even if the goal is an enjoyable one. But what about having fun for fun’s sake? In other words, what about playing? We grown-ups play a whole lot less than kids do. There are different reasons for this. One is that playing is not always seen as the most acceptable way to spend your time. Of course, another is that there’s just less time to begin with.
The thing is, play might be worth making time for as a couple. That’s the theory researcher Meredith Van Vleet had, anyways. The idea came to her while she was watching videos of couples playing Pictionary together. ‘Some people seemed to be getting all the fun out of the activity that they possibly could, whereas others were half-heartedly engaged and didn’t really seem to be having much fun at all,’ she told Love Matters in an interview at the International Association for Relationship Research (IARR) Conference. That got her to wondering about the way grown-ups play and what it means to their relationship.
First, she had to decide what exactly play is as an adult. ‘If you’re doing an activity and you’re trying to have fun out of it instead of trying to have some other type of goal to accomplish – that’s the first part,’ she explained. ‘Then the second part is when you’re participating in the activity and doing it fully – full out and enthusiastically.’
Next, Van Vleet tracked down just over 160 newlywed couples. She had the couples fill in questionnaires before giving them a box of toys and games. They were then told to play with each other for ten minutes, and were videotaped while they dug into the fun box. That way Van Vleet would be able to analyse the newlyweds at play. One year later, the couples were back at the lab to answer questions about their relationship and also about their own mental health. Would those who played together do better together one year into their marriage?
More fun, less fighting
People who play with their partners are more likely to feel good about their relationship, Van Vleet learned. One year into their marriage, newlyweds who were into playing with the games and toys said they felt closer to their partners and trusted them more. Couples who played together also said they fought less.
Interestingly, the effects of play on a relationship seems to be stronger for men. ‘Play behaviour does a little bit more for husbands than for wives,’ says Van Vleet. Men into playing also reported less anxiety and anger down the road.
What is it about play that's good for a relationship? For one, it's a way of showing how close you feel to your partner. After all, most people don't feel relaxed and comfortable enough to play with just anyone. Playing can also buffer against fights and help couples deal with stress. ‘It’s a way of connecting with one another - it’s not only a way of buffering these negative experiences but also can lead to stronger and happier relationships,’ Van Vleet explains.
Convinced that you and your partner need some play time but not sure where to begin? Start by setting aside time to have fun, Van Vleet suggests. Though it sounds obvious, if you don't make the time, it's definitely not going to happen. ‘Lots of young couples spend time watching TV or Netflix and those are fewer opportunities to interact in enthusiastic, in-the-moment, and fun ways,’ says Van Vleet. ‘Try to find other ways to connect with one another that you both find mutually fun and that you both can get wrapped up in.’
Ways to play
Van Vleet asked newlywed couples how they play together. Here are just a few of their answers.
- Go out dancing
- Have sex! (Of course!)
- Play hide-and-seek or chase each other around the house
- Share inside jokes
- Bake cookies together
- Presentation: Consequents of Play Behavior In Adult Close Relationships at the International Association for Relationship Research (IARR) Conference
- Interview with Meredith Van Vleet
This article was first published on December 17, 2016.