When was the last time you and your partner really had fun together? When was the last time you were truly playing together?
When working with couples at the Center for Couples and Families, one of the most consistent questions I ask to evaluate the current vitality of their relationship is about their level of fun and play. I’ve found in both my therapeutic and educational settings that couples overwhelmingly underestimate the power of play and fun in their long-term relationships. In fact, two findings consistently show up in the research: 1. Couples give too little notice to fun and play in their relationship and, 2. playing together and having fun is a key contributor to marital happiness among couples.
You might contend, “We are too busy for fun.” If this is your sentiment, let me be the first to validate that concern. Yes! our lives have become increasingly busy. Having fun just doesn’t seem productive when there are jobs to go to, rooms clean, kids to feed, and activities to attend. I know. It’s tough. However, humor me and let’s see if I can bring in another perspective to the importance of fun and play in marriage.
Dr. John Gottman, an award-winning marital researcher, has interviewed and observed couples in his “love lab” for the last twenty-five years. He found that when couples maintain at least five times as many positive interactions as they do negative interactions their relationship is more likely to be stable. However, few people have wedding vows that state, “I promise to make this relationship stable all of our married life.” At the genesis of most marriages, couples hope for their relationship to be full of vitality and happiness for the length of their lives. Thus, the goal for couples should be to have 10 to 20 times as many positives as they do negatives. I believe the main reason this is important is because during times of tension, conflict, or frustration, if you don’t have a reservoir of positive interactions stored up, the negative interaction can drain any positive feelings you have for your partner and create more tension than the issue probably deserves.
So, what is a positive interaction? A positive interaction is any pleasant interaction (great or small) where a bond is strengthened and fortified. Therefore, having fun and playing together as a couple is a form of positive interactions. This can include dates, surprises, romantic acts, flirtations, appreciation, physical affection, or just plain silliness. An example of a simple positive interaction occurred the other night between my wife and me. As we were winding down from the day, she found an app on her phone where one can take a picture and manipulate a self-photo with crazy hair, make-up, morph their face, and so on. We sat there for about 15-20 minutes making a variety of different silly pictures of me, her, and other family members. It was fun, silly, and, most importantly, bonding. That simple act, created a positive interaction between the two of us.
In my experience with couples, those relationships that do the best are those that are proactive and intentional about positive relationship habits. Most relationships don’t just accidently succeed but rather it is two partners committed to intentionally nourishing and enriching their relationship daily. So, let me help you be a little more intentional by giving you a little homework or, what I like to call, Home Practice. Tonight, set aside 20 minutes when you are both relatively relaxed and wound down. Then, with your partner, engage in the following activity:
1. Separately write down five ideas of things that would be fun.
2. Together share your ideas and be open to your partner’s ideas.
3. Do your best to engage in activities that are, for the most part, fun for both partners. But also try to stretch yourself a little.
4. Make a plan for this upcoming weekend to engage in one of the activities.
5. Finally, make a point to not shy away from moments in your day together where you could be more spontaneously playful, affectionate, flirtatious, and/or silly.
Make fun and play a healthy habit in your relationship and watch the fruits begin to blossom.
About the Author: Jeremy Boden, PhD, LAMFT, CFLE is a therapist at the Center for Couples and Families. He has a PhD in Family Studies and is a Certified Family Life Educator as well as an instructor at Utah Valley University.