Maybe you have nicknames, share specific movie quotes over and over again, dance like fools when you’re cooking dinner, or have a secret gesture that you give from across the room to signal, “Come rescue me from this conversation.” While these small, silly gestures might seem inconsequential, they’re a big part of what makes a relationship tick. To put it another way, couples that play together, stay together.
While we may think of play as children’s territory, adults need it too. On a personal level, being playful helps manage stress, promote mental health, and boost creativity. In romantic relationships, it increases satisfaction and may even lead to longer connections, according to a new study in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass.
“Playful behaviors contribute to strengthening the social bond and increasing intimacy and mutual trust,” says lead author Kay Brauer, MSc, professor of psychology at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany.
There are many reasons why this may be. For one, well, humor tends to make us feel good. And those positive emotions help build and strengthen bonds.
“It’s easier to be in a relationship with someone who’s very humorous,” says Jeffrey Hall, PhD, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas. “They make everyday life more fun.”
Playfulness can also be a lifesaver during tense or boring situations, like when you have a spat over who’s loading the dishwasher or have to sit through your uncle’s long story about how all of his files are now on this thing called the cloud.
Last but not least, finding the lighter side helps us open up. And when we feel we can truly be ourselves with our partner, we tend to be more receptive to trying new things. And couples who grow together and learn together are always happier and more connected.
The Traits of Playful Couples
Playfulness is a top trait in any relationship. And while it looks different to everyone — no, not all of us go for pet names or poking fun — here are six common playful acts that, when done right, have proven to be very beneficial for couples.
There’s still this idea that flirting is something that should be done by singles or still-dating couples. But flirting is a way of cultivating appreciation, affection, and, yes, playfulness in your relationship.
It can take various forms: words, looks from across the room, love taps on the butt… All of this works to keep your relationship fresh, remind your partner how much you like them, and invites them to reciprocate. Plus, as licensed marriage family therapist Sulonda Smith, LMFT says, flirting is a great way to build up anticipation before you have sex.
Maybe it’s babe, bae, honey. Maybe it’s schmoopy, gigglepoo or hambone. Whatever the case may be, nicknames express affection, reinforce love, and promote satisfaction, notes clinical sexologist Rachel Sommer, PhD, co-founder of My Sex Toy Guide.
Now, there can be a fine line between playful banter and critical teasing, and oftentimes that line depends not only on your partner’s personality but also their current mood. But when done correctly, poking fun at each other helps keep things light and relieves tension. “You can use it during a conflict to deescalate the situation and remind yourselves that you still love each other,” Sommer says. Just remember: You need to both give and take teasing.
4. Inside Jokes
Nobody else gets them, but you two are crying laughing. While it might leave your friends giving you weird looks, that’s a big form of connection. “Having a secret language that is only understood by you and your partner often leads to greater feelings of intimacy,” Brauer says.
5. Role Playing
Whether you’re acting out a fantasy in the bedroom or acting like you’re meeting for the first time for a blind date, role-playing frees you of inhibitions, lets you try on new behaviors, and amps up the excitement and intimacy. “Evidence suggests that role playing allows people to assume an ‘as-if’ persona that might help to fulfill sexual desires,” Brauer adds.
6. General Silliness
Maybe you bust out dancing in the middle of the grocery store, or adopt a Julia Child voice when cooking. Maybe your partner sings “99 Bottles of Beer” when you ask them to sing your infant a lullaby. Whatever the case, these playful interactions lighten the mood, make you both smile, and strengthen your bond. “Knowing you can bring out your inner child is about safety,” says Smith. “When a partner feels safe, they give and receive more.”
How to Have a More Playful Relationship
Life is full of serious things that need to be taken of seriously. Sometimes it can feel wrong or a waste of time to prioritize playfulness. But the key, per Brauer, is to “find new ways to express your love both explicitly and implicitly.” It’s all about timing and understanding when to infuse some silliness and levity into a moment.
“One of the most important parts to nourish playfulness is to reciprocate, engage, and open yourself up to being playful in the moment,” Hall says. “It’s not always easy to do, and it doesn’t change the fact that you may not like it. But it’s hard to play when the other person doesn’t want to.” For the sake of your relationship, it’s worth both of you trying to be open.