Editor's note: This article was originally published on Lori Cluff Schade's blog. It has been republished here with permission.
Around this time last year, I was wandering the aisles of a department store with one of my good friends, hatching a plan to surprise our husbands with an unexpected double date. I had arranged for an aerial yoga instructor to give us a private class in contorting ourselves in long scarves and on bars hanging from the ceiling, trapeze style. The whole idea appealed to me, since I had a background in gymnastics and competition cheerleading. What appealed to me more was the anticipation of seeing the look on my husband's face when I told him what we were going to do.
Our plan was to tell our husbands that we were going somewhere they would find completely unsavory (e.g. the opera) and then to show up at the yoga studio with outfits for them to change into for the class. "I know … tights," I mused, "If we put the word 'cycling,' in front of them, my husband will think they're legit … Look, green shorts … They'll be like oversized leprechauns!" We laughed and schemed and found just the right clothes to fit their tall frames, and laughed some more in anticipation of their reactions.
The planning was a lot of the fun. The evening went as planned, and fortunately our husbands were good sports, even though my husband protested that he does not wear "outfits;" the best part is that we have a great memory to laugh about when we go out with our friends.
The "American Journal of Play," recently reported findings that playfulness is a significant role in not just attracting a mate, but in creating long-term relationships. It makes sense to me that playfulness is very appealing in attracting a mate. At least it was in my case. Every boyfriend I had won me over in large part by making me laugh and playing off of my sometimes quirky personality.
When I met my husband, I had no interest in pursuing a relationship beyond friendship, and yet he kept showing up every time I turned around. I remember that I was not particularly playful with him because I just wasn't interested and didn't want to get his hopes up, despite the fact that he did, as the quintessential All-American basketball player, represent my "type."
One evening, he was walking me across the university campus and invited me to come watch him play intramural football. "OK….maybe," I offered hesitantly in order to be polite, with no intention of showing up. Later that evening, I was thanking the heavens above for the snowfall that gave me a convenient excuse for not showing up without hurting his feelings. When someone knocked at my door a few minutes later, I opened it to see him standing there with a bag over his head, illustrating the fact that I had "dogged," him by not attending the game. He made me laugh, which was in large part how he eventually won me over. I wasn't trying to impress him, because I still didn't want to pursue a relationship, so I felt free to be my quirky self without recrimination. Once, I showed up to go on a date wearing black lipstick just to see how his conservative side would respond. He just played along, acting like he didn't notice.
Because we were clearly "just friends," and he wasn't going anywhere, we spent months in a relationship absent of physical affection, but rich with playful friendship types of experiences. If I was running at the track, he would show up and run alongside me (and around me). If I was going to play tennis with a roommate, he would show up with a tennis racket and the skills of a country club trained tennis player (literally). He kept making me laugh. Our natural abilities to be increasingly playful facilitated a more secure courtship.
After we married and had children, life started to become more serious and stressful, but I still valued our playfulness, and I would use holidays like April Fool's Day to play tricks on him with my children, continuing our tradition of whimsy. One year I read my children a book about a little boy who hid insects in homemade chocolate, and that was the year we made homemade chocolates for daddy with gummy worms and bugs hidden inside. One year, because I had all boys, I dressed the baby up as a girl and tried to hand my husband his "daughter," when he walked through the door.
I still believe in the power of play for couples. There are many benefits in a long-term relationship:
1. Increased well-being
The byproduct of playfulness increases coping ability.
2. Expressing affection
It's a way of conveying that the other person matters.
3. Increasing excitement in relationship
Relationships are often created and fueled by novelty, which diminishes in long-term bonds. Playfulness brings that novelty back, which has been significantly associated with increased relationship quality in marriage.
4. Cultivating the relationship
There is an exploratory aspect of playful behavior that generates memories, securing bonds.
5. Increased problem solving capability
Playfulness accesses creativity, which broadens the ability to seek solutions to common relationship problems.
The problem is, being playful requires some vulnerability and risk, and couples who are distressed have often lost this element in their relationship. It's not safe to be playful with someone who might be critical or contemptuous in return.
If a relationship has lost its playfulness, one of the best segues back in is reminiscence. Sometimes my husband and I play the "remember when," game. Viewing old photo albums or watching home movies from the past can also be useful. This usually invites positive emotions and can lead to an instant feeling of connection. It's the perfect launching pad for additional playful behavior. Come to think of it, I might even break out the black lipstick …
Lori Cluff Schade, Ph.D., is a licensed, practicing marriage and family therapist and supervisor and adjunct faculty member. Her research has been covered in national media outlets and addressed in television and radio interviews. More importantly, she is a mother of seven and owner of a metaphorical gray picket fence.