Editors' Note: Guest blogger Jeff Lutes is a psychotherapist who lives with his husband and their three adopted children in Austin, Texas. He is the principal consultant for ContemporaryCouples.com, where he teaches online dating and relationship workshops to the LGBTQ community.
This morning as I sipped on a second cup of java, my 7-year-old approached wearing his doctor's outfit complete with surgical mask and horn-rimmed glasses. He clutched a prescription pad in his left hand and a medicine bag in his right.
I played along and began to moan about agonizing headaches and intolerable nausea. First, he took my blood pressure. A thorough diagnostic workup followed, with an examination of my heart, lungs, tonsils, pupils, lymph nodes, eardrums and sinuses. I suppressed a four-letter word when he whacked my left knee with his toy reflex mallet. He scribbled something on his notepad, applied two gigantic band-aids to my triceps, and injected an imaginary substance into my right thigh with a green syringe. Mission accomplished. Patient healed. License to practice by Mattel.
Today's silliness at sunrise reminded me of the importance of play in building and maintaining strong interpersonal connections. At age seven, my son intuitively knows what research repeatedly shows - - regular doses of playfulness are an essential component to resilient and healthy love relationships.
Play improves mental health, smoothes tension, enhances creativity, elevates mood, puts things in proper perspective, and creates a bond between two people that helps them weather future periods of conflict and adversity. When shared play leads to laughter, studies show that the brain releases powerful endorphins that lift our spirits, override emotional and physical pain, and boost the immune system. Ironically, as our ability to tolerate negative emotions grows, so does our capacity for experiencing playfulness, humor, and joy.
Psychologist and relationship researcher, Dr. John Gottman, found that playful couples have significantly higher odds of staying together than those who do not play well together. Years of research (including a twelve-year study of same-sex couples) reveal a crucial ratio that every person in our community should emblazon to memory. 5:1.
Happy long-term couples, regardless of sexual orientation, engage in five positive interactions for every negative one. Daily injections of playfulness and kindness can be one way for couples to develop what Gottman calls "Positive Sentiment Override" - a mental and emotional buffer that alters how couples remember past events, view future challenges, and cope with stress.
The good news is that those interactions don't require expensive gifts, fancy dinners, or elaborate entertainment (though these don't hurt), but are more about spontaneous acts of silliness, tenderness, and caring. A smile, a hug, a wink, an endearing pat on the rear end, a mutual belly laugh, a compliment, a thoughtful question about the other's day, a comical face, a witty pun - - these are the magical moments that create a well of goodwill. Playful communication inks a love map that gives us much needed guidance and direction for later when the relationship hits a rough patch.
On a pre-parenthood evening, many years ago, my husband and I settled in for a marathon of Janet Jackson videos. Before long, we found ourselves dancing across the living room floor in our socks and underwear, lip-syncing "What have you done for me lately?" and "Oh, you nasty boy!" Ridiculous moments such as these - - the very kind that would cause you to climb under a rock with mortification if anyone outside the relationship saw you - - are exactly the types of interactions that are vital for keeping love relationships fresh and vibrant.
Irish playwright and Nobel Prize winner George Bernard Shaw said "We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing." Here are ten ideas to keep you young at heart and connected to the one you love:
- Climb a tree together with a bottle of wine. Find a sturdy branch and share a glass over conversation.
- Sing duets in the shower.
- Make a funny face in the middle of sex (you do anyway).
- Tickle your partner just before going to sleep.
- Learn the sign for "I love you" so you can express affection to one another from opposite sides of a crowded room.
- Surprise your partner by being naked on the couch when he or she arrives home from work (recommended only if your mother doesn't have a key to the house).
- Read your partner's favorite poem to them at sunset.
- Kiss your partner passionately in an elevator and don't let go until a split second before the doors open (a dash of risk and danger enhances bonding).
- Eat mangos in the buff.
- Kiss your partner on the cheek in the middle of the night.
Without enough playfulness, relationships fall into a monotonous and boring routine. You've worked too hard to let that happen. Today's prescription? Cherish the children hidden within you and your partner, inject daily doses of playfulness and spontaneity, and recapture the youthful glow that made you fall in love in the first place.
It's just what the doctor ordered.