Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How Playfulness Keeps a Romance Alive

The surprising value of silly, meaningless chit-chat.

Key points

  • A new study tracked how couples relate on a daily basis, finding that playfulness can keep the romance alive.
  • The behavior of withdrawal was found to be associated with relationship dissolution.
  • Through life's mundane activities, adding some silliness with your partner can have surprising benefits.
Juanje Garrido/Shutterstock
Source: Juanje Garrido/Shutterstock

As you go about your daily activities, how much do you and your partner enjoy some kidding around? Does the sort of meaningless patter you engage in focus on issues that have little consequence? If so, you may be on the right track in promoting your relationship’s health.

Much of the research on long-term relationship satisfaction focuses on the need for partners to express their true thoughts, feelings, and concerns. The deeper, the better, some might argue. The opposite, running away from areas of conflict and concern, can only drive your partnership into the ground.

Does this mean the superficial back-and-forth you and your partner enjoy is a bad idea? Maybe, based on this prior research, you and your partner should instead use the time you have for exploration of each other’s needs and wishes.

The Mundane Nature of Couple Interactions

Thinking about that meaningless chit-chat between you and your partner, how much of it concerns the various tasks that you face on a daily basis just to keep your household running? If you don’t happen to live together, think about how much you discuss your plans to spend evenings and weekends together. With so much going on just to maintain the practical aspects of adult life, it’s likely that you feel the need to coordinate your schedules and, if you’re parents, the schedules of your children. These are serious matters, but they also offer the opportunity for teasing and joking as you compare and contrast to see who owes whom a favor.

According to University of Southern California’s Yana Ryjova and colleagues (2024), the problem in previous research on couple communication patterns is that most studies are carried out either in the lab or in the artificial situation in which researchers visit a couple at home to observe their daily interactions. As you can imagine, these situations would put couples on the spot to be on their best behavior. Even if couples are instructed by researchers to discuss areas of conflict, their conversations are likely to be geared toward their audience.

It’s the “mundane, everyday interactions that occur outside of staged lab-based conflicts,” Ryjova et al. argue, that “may, over time, contribute to relationship dissolution.” Moving out of this arena, therefore, became the focus of their study in which couples wore recording devices to use in their own homes. Furthermore, because so much prior research was dedicated to understanding negative communication patterns, the USC authors believed it was important to look at the opposite types of conversations couples have. Positive interactions should, they maintain, be predictive of relationship dissolution, but without prior research to go on, the authors didn’t offer specific hypotheses about how these might work.

Testing Positive and Negative Communication Patterns

The sample of 106 young adult couples in the Ryjova et al. study participated first in a laboratory visit in which they completed questionnaires and received their recording devices to use in their own homes. Instructed to use these on a day when they spent at least 5 hours together, the couples wore a smartphone that was programmed to record 3-minute intervals every 12 minutes during their waking hours. Participants knew they were being recorded but didn’t know exactly when (if they wanted privacy they could pause the device). One year later, participants returned to the lab, where they responded to questionnaires regarding the relationship they were in during the in-home testing. These questionnaires also asked partners to report on their satisfaction, the amount of relationship aggression they experienced, and their current relationship status.

Because the data were gathered using naturalistic methods, the research team needed to devise coding categories to capture their activities and the content of their communication. Driving constituted a large percentage of joint activities, as did listening to music, watching TV, cooking, eating, talking, interacting with pets, engaging in physical affection, and playing games. In other words, these were truly mundane activities of daily life.

The coding categories for types of communication fell into four main categories (the behavior of withdrawal did not fall into a specific category):

  • Hostile: dismissing/invalidating, badgering and baiting, insulting/criticizing/blaming, whining, interrupting, and dominating the conversation.
  • Vulnerable: expressing vulnerability, serious or anxious tone, complaining
  • Playful: silly/playful tone, using humor, enjoying interaction, enthusiastic tone, and being engaged.
  • Warm: warm/supportive tone, validating

Turning to the prediction equation of relationship dissolution, that single behavior of withdrawal was positively associated with relationship dissolution. Conversely, the categories of warm and playful behavior were negatively associated with the ending of the relationship over the study interval. However, hostility did not predict the relationship ending, “echoing growing recognition that negative communications are not always detrimental to relationships.”

Interpreting the effects of positive communication, conversely, the authors point out that “Warmth and playfulness appear to promote relationship stability, underscoring the value of small, lighthearted, and kind gestures in couples’ lives.”

Adding Playfulness to Your Daily Relationship Behaviors

Now that you know how much a loving sense of playfulness can enhance your relationship’s stability, think of some ideas for building this factor into your daily life. Do you tend to get overly hung up on details or become all too serious when coming up with plans, sharing a meal, or just sitting and watching a movie or TV show? When was the last time you actually played a game together or talked about nothing at all? If you have children, playing a board game, tossing a ball outside, or telling jokes might provide a similar type of relief from the strain of your many responsibilities.

However, one finding from the study provides a bit of a caution in this potential new formula for communication. Partners' ratings of their own playfulness predicted relationship satisfaction in a negative direction, suggesting that being jocular with your partner may not protect your own ability to remain satisfied. It’s important, then, to keep playfulness combined with warmth to have a positive effect. Teasing your partner mercilessly may not serve either you or your relationship.

To sum up, you can use the method of this study to do your own cataloging of communication patterns with your partner. Tallying up the times when you enjoy each other with no real agenda might provide the formula for a relationship that continues to thrive through both the mundane and big moments of your life.

Facebook image: - Yuri A/Shutterstock


Ryjova, Y., Gold, A. I., Timmons, A. C., Han, S. C., Chaspari, T., Pettit, C., Kim, Y., Beale, A., Kazmierski, K. F. M., & Margolin, G. (2024). A day in the life: Couples' everyday communication and subsequent relationship outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 38(3), 453–465.

More from Susan Krauss Whitbourne PhD, ABPP
More from Psychology Today