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Why the Best Relationships Are Play, Not Work

The case for adult playdates, even silly ones.

Key points

  • Play is crucial in the lives of adults and especially in intimate relationships.
  • Conflictual, contemptuous relationships create a lack of trust and make play much harder to come by.
  • Through play, we can deepen our curiosity about the other person, the outer world, and our inner selves.
Juanje Garrido/Shutterstock
Source: Juanje Garrido/Shutterstock

We’ve all heard that relationships take work. What if I could show you that intimate relationships need not be work, and that the best ones are more play than anything else?

When I hear that relationships require so much work, I feel weighted down and tired, and it sounds like drudgery. Work implies something we have to do, especially in order to achieve some sort of desired outcome for the short and long term. We work for money, for the hope of success, for getting ahead, and for giving shape, structure, and purpose to our days. If we’re lucky, we may find meaning through our work and feel valued for doing it.

Work typically contains aspects of control and hierarchy and often power struggles and resentment. At work, we’re often inundated with, and constrained by, rules, procedures, and guidelines; we’re motivated by outcomes and deliverables. Relationships that feel like work drain our energy. This is because we’re spending a great deal of time trying to get through to the other person in order to feel understood. With work, we may be trying to prove ourselves, to show our worthiness, or to even outshine someone else.

On the other hand, play implies freedom, experimentation, adventure, spontaneity, and creativity. The play I’m talking about is not to be confused with all easiness and just fun and games, but rather the quality of ease. It’s the ease of trust, comfort, rest, and a sense of knowing and being known. It’s the knowledge that you’re assuming the best in your partner and the confidence that they assume the best in you. When that happens, there’s less to struggle over and less to prove.

Relationships that feel more like play have the advantage of feeling lighter, freeing, and more spacious. We get to reconnect with our authentic selves, even our sense of our inner child. A huge benefit to a playful relationship is that it tends to be built on affection and admiration, rather than contempt, so our time and energy can be directed to other things that matter to us in our lives, and we can return to rest in the trustworthiness of the relationship.

In 2012, when I first started dating my now second husband, Mike, I had no idea what a gift it was to me when every Wednesday or Thursday evening on the phone he would ask, "Where do you want to play this weekend?”

See, I spent the better part of my life witnessing relationships that did in fact seem more like work than play. The first intimate relationship we’re exposed to is typically that of our parents but when that’s riddled with abuse, the way my parents’ marriage was, intimacy didn’t look all that intimate and instead appeared tense, disconnected, and alienating. I observed so much strife, criticism, resentment, and contempt, and while many of their friends brushed it off, jokingly referring to them as "The Bickersons" and minimizing their conflicts, I was privy to the darker side, in which they were nestled in relentless dynamics of struggles for power and control. This made opportunities for playing much harder to come by, both for them and for me.

It’s no surprise that in my first marriage, I found myself writing anniversary cards about how much I wanted for us to more regularly revisit two of the seven blessings we chose for our wedding, which happened to be passion and joy. I yearned to find ease and any available lightness.

Research by psychologist Rene Proyer reveals the extent to which play can strengthen communication, resilience, and overall relationship satisfaction. Notably, he distinguishes between four types of playfulness, all of which can enhance relationships: "Other-directed playfulness involves good-natured teasing of other people, lighthearted playfulness involves seeing life as more like a game than a battlefield, intellectual playfulness can be seen in people who like to play with ideas and solve puzzles, and whimsical playfulness involves liking unusual activities, people, or objects."

I’ve spent my career teaching and writing about the tangles of intimacy and relationships, and now that Mike and I are in our 11th year together, I’ve been reflecting on the key dimensions that distinguish a playful relationship. So, here they are:

  • Through play, we learn the art of letting go. This capacity for letting go assists us in and out of the relationship.
  • Being right becomes less important when we’ve centered play. We admit when we messed up.
  • The knowledge that there’s an us, over and above either of us, that’s worth tending to.
  • Play fosters creativity, and in turn, creativity stimulates playfulness.
  • To keep intimacy fresh and imaginative, we have to stay curious about our partner and ourselves, and the larger relationship in which we’re situated. We have to trust the beauty of the lifelong process of continuing to get to know someone.
  • In a relationship, we want to share what we’re seeing and doing with the other person. I call this the “hey, look" quality, where one person summons the other to see a spectacular sunset or to look at something they made. Rather than feeling irritated by the person calling out to get our attention, we’re curious to see what they’ve discovered, relishing in their joy. The willingness to be open and receptive to the play that the other person brings is essential.
  • Night after night, going to bed with your best friend is more like a slumber party.

When play is at the center—rather than relegated to the periphery or postponed as something to enjoy when everything else is done and settled—it becomes an oasis. The play is like a buoy in a rough sea and reminds us that there is safe harbor and refuge we can regularly access.

In my case, the love story goes something like this: A once-worried little girl, who longed to see all that fighting stop, met up with a goofy, hilarious boy for a lifetime of play dates, and together they made silliness and mischief.

Facebook image: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock


Proyer, R. T. (2017). A new structural model for the study of adult playfulness: assessment and exploration of an understudied individual differences variable. Pers. Indiv. Differ. 108, 113–122. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2016.12.011

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