A 2014 study by the University of Halle’s René Proyer asked real people to reflect on how play served their relationship. They came up with a variety of answers.
First of all, people said, playfulness simply feels good; it makes us laugh. It also supports the relationship itself, in a variety of ways, they added. People talked about using playfulness to seduce their partner and make sex enjoyable, and to communicate things more effectively. For example, sometimes teasing our partner about their faults and oddities can be a way of quietly pointing them out, without the sting of criticism.
The very fact that play is unserious can make it a safe way to raise issues that are, in fact, quite serious. You can bring something up playfully—maybe a domestic request or an emotion you’re feeling—and gauge the response. Or it can work the opposite way: Serious relationship issues might crop up in your jokes and sarcasm, a signal that something needs to be dealt with. (Take, for example, the partner in one study who realized the repressed hostility embedded in her new nickname for her better half: “Moldy Oldy”).
A playful remark or gesture can also loosen up a tense situation, reminding your significant other that despite whatever stresses you’re under, you’re still in a safe and loving relationship. It takes a great deal of social intelligence to know when a gentle joke in the middle of a fight might make your partner crack a smile—but the research suggests that’s a skill well worth developing.
What Does Romantic Play Look Like?
Of course, there are many playful paths we can take toward intimacy—and there’s something we can learn from the way researchers have enumerated, categorized, and cataloged all the different ways partners play.
One of the most common forms of play seems to be the secret language that develops between couples, from nicknames to private jokes. In my relationship, for example, Fred invented a word that’s an amalgamation of a Korean expression and our cat’s nickname—which makes absolutely zero sense—to communicate exasperation. I have to remember not to utter this word in the presence of others, lest it provokes strange looks.
Roleplay is also common. In the comfort of the romantic bubble, one might feel safe enough to pretend to be a puppy, do their best Elvis impression, or imitate the neighbor’s oddly high-pitched laugh.
Some play, of course, requires no words at all—my partner’s dancing being one example. We can playfully pilfer a cookie from our beloved, turning a normally selfish act into an affectionate exchange. Teasing is another behavior that walks the line between positive and negative, which is why play is a delicate negotiation: Our partner has to perceive our playful intent and join in the game, lest they be annoyed by our frivolity or put off by our kindly jabs.
Some play is more structured, like the rules and games that couples invent. When I’m debating Fred over a Google-able point of fact, we often bet three kisses on the answer before looking it up—and the loser has to immediately pay their debt.
In these ways, play seems to spontaneously arise. But then those one-off comments or behaviors turn into habits, morphing and evolving over time but always expressing an underlying affection and understanding.
So, it probably comes as no surprise that playful couples are often happy couples. In studies that survey people about their behaviors and feelings, those who are more playful in their relationships tend to experience more positive emotions, be more satisfied with their union, and feel closer to each other. They report that they communicate better, resolve conflicts better, and see their relationships in a more positive light.
As a participant in one study said: “Feel[ing] free to be silly together . . . reaffirms a closeness and sensibility to one another that would be hard to express in any other way—it makes me aware of how relaxed I feel with him and he with me.”
What Kind of Play Will Work for You?
However, achieving those warm, fuzzy benefits of play might depend on what kinds of play we engage in.