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4 Reasons Why Being Silly Is So Good for Relationships

New research on playfulness shows how it can build a better relationship.

Key points

  • Being playful brings joy and laughter into social interactions and may help build strong bonds in romantic relationships, recent research shows.
  • Playfulness includes several components, such as other-directedness (for example, engaging in gentle horseplay) and being whimsical.
  • Couples can increase their playfulness by using silly words, reminiscing about enjoyable experiences, and improvising more often.
Rocketclips, Inc./Shutterstock
Source: Rocketclips, Inc./Shutterstock

How much time do you and your partner actually spend doing things just for fun? Although your pandemic and post-pandemic life can seem to squeeze the levity out of your relationship, do you still find ways to share moments of laughter? Can you even remember the last occasion when you forgot about your daily stress and goofed off with your partner? How about a recent time when you were just plain silly for no other reason than to bring some lightheartedness back into your relationship?

The quality of playfulness is one that is relatively understudied in psychology as an attribute of adult personality or relationships. Yet, the well-known psychologist Erik Erikson gave initiative, or the ability to engage in imaginative play, a central place in his lifespan model of personality. Emerging in the preschool years, initiative allows the child to explore new activities just for fun. As the individual develops, imagination retains its role in personality, theoretically allowing adults to take a creative approach to life.

According to Martin Luther University’s Kay Brauer and colleagues (2021), not only can you benefit from playfulness in terms of your own personality development, but so can your closest romantic relationship. In their words, “adult playfulness supports fostering and maintaining social relationships.” Being playful allows you to bring the positive emotions of joy and laughter into your interactions with other people, building social solidarity. This doesn’t mean that you tease your partner mercilessly, but that you are able to explore the more frivolous side of life with your partner, allowing you to ease tension for at least the short term so that you will be better able to tackle those daily stresses.

The Four Components of Playfulness

In evaluating various theoretical approaches to playfulness as a personality trait, the research team provides evidence supporting the value of the "OLIW" model developed in prior work by study co-author René Proyer. This acronym stands for the terms Other-Directed, Lighthearted, Intellectual, and Whimsical as represented in these brief descriptions.

Other-directed: Using playful behaviors to ease tense situations, cheer other people up, and occasionally engaging in physically amusing activities such as gentle "horseplay."

Lighthearted: Being able to take a spontaneous, carefree approach to life and being able to improvise rather than always sticking to a set routine.

Intellectual: Enjoying the opportunity to play with ideas and puzzle over problems to come up with new and creative solutions.

Whimsical: Being amused by oddities and enjoying extraordinary things and people.

Because, according to the German authors, people bring their “relationship personality” into their romantic life, their levels of playfulness on an individual level should influence their expectations about relationships and the ways in which they engage with their partner. If being playful can benefit your individual personality, according to this logic, it should also affect your interactions in your romantic relationship.

What’s Your Playfulness Quotient?

The following items developed by members of the German author team (Proyer et al. 2020) will let you measure your own propensity to be playful. Rate yourself on the following 12 items using a 1 to 7 scale (disagree strongly to agree strongly):

  1. When thinking about a problem, I look for a fixed scheme for the solution and only rarely rely on a playful approach to solve the problem.
  2. I don’t worry about most of the things that I have to do, because there will always be some kind of a solution.
  3. As an adult, I still like to play good-natured, funny tricks on others; to play small good-natured pranks on others.
  4. I like to swim "against the stream."
  5. If I have to learn something new under time pressure, I try to find a playful approach to the topics—this helps me learning.
  6. I am a lighthearted person
  7. I enjoy re-enacting things with close friends that we have experienced together (e.g., a funny incident that we like to remember).
  8. I have the reputation of being somewhat unusual or flamboyant.
  9. If one has a concrete task to perform, there is no room for playfulness. This only detracts from the work.
  10. Many people take their lives too seriously; when things don’t work you just have to improvise.
  11. I can express my feelings towards my romantic partner in a playful way
  12. I do not generally like to allow myself to be categorized and have my own style in many respects.

Now score yourself along these four subscales:

  • Other-directedness: 3, 7, 11
  • Lighthearted: 2, 6, 10
  • Intellectual: 1 (reversed), 5, 9 (reversed)
  • Whimsical: 4, 8, 12

On two of their samples of adult participants (averaging 40 and 30 years old, respectively) the average scores that Proyer et al. report were in the 4 to 5 range (per item) with most people scoring between 3 and 6.

Now that you understand its scoring, you might want to try asking your romantic partner to respond to these questions, or you could also just rate your partner yourself. One of the studies establishing the OLIW measure’s validity actually had other-ratings in addition to self-ratings, suggesting that you can use the scale as a way to measure your partner's playful tendencies.

How Can You Bring Playfulness Into Your Relationship?

This background on the theory and assessment of the OLIW model can provide you with concrete steps to improve your relationship using its four components. If you scored low on any of these scales (or believe your partner would), here are some tips for improving your playfulness quotient:

Improve your other-directedness by following recommendations of the German author team that you surprise your partner once in a while with a new nickname or term of endearment. You might inject some ridiculous words into the vocabulary you and your partner share. As noted by Brauer et al., one previous researcher cited a couple who started saying “blye” rather than “bye” to each other referring back to a time when one partner mispronounced the word, which then became a standard joke between them. As this example suggests, reminiscing about enjoyable experiences with your partner can also help bring playfulness back into your relationship.

Looking next at the lighthearted factor of the OLIW model, you may not want to go so far as to completely improvise every moment with your partner as suggested by the scale items, but maybe it’s okay once in a while to veer from the script. You’re in the middle of the grocery store aisle and although it’s important to get your weekly shopping done as efficiently as possible, consider throwing in a box of children’s cereal for yourselves, not for the kids. How about putting on one of your wackiest t-shirts to wear around the house on a lazy weekend afternoon?

The intellectual component of playfulness can, similarly, help you put a new twist on old routines. Perhaps you and your partner regularly exchange greeting cards for holiday occasions. Although you often choose sentimental cards full of flowery language, have you ever tried to mix it up those from the “funny” section of the card rack? How about decorating the card’s envelope with little cartoon figures that make sense only to you and your partner?

For the whimsical side of playfulness, one idea you can incorporate into your relationship could be to try a new approach to your standard methods of lovemaking. Eric Berne, author of the well-known popular psychology book The Games People Play, suggested that couples bring sexual games into the bedroom as a way to increase intimacy. This can promote trust as you and your partner agree that it’s okay to try certain things that you would only do with each other.

To sum up, being an adult in an adult relationship doesn’t mean you have to give up your childlike qualities all the time. Being silly is a way not only to have fun together, but also to help you build the strong bonds that positive emotional experiences can provide.

Facebook image: Rocketclips, Inc./Shutterstock

References

Brauer, K., Proyer, R. T., & Chick, G. (2021). Adult playfulness: An update on an understudied individual differences variable and its role in romantic life. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. doi: 10.1111/spc3.12589

Proyer, R. T., Brauer, K., & Wolf, A. (2020). Assessing other-directed, lighthearted, intellectual, and whimsical playfulness in adults: Development and initial validation of the OLIW-S using self- and peer-ratings. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 36(4), 624–634. doi: 10.1027/1015-5759/a000531 (Supplemental)

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