You may have heard of the old expression, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” If you haven’t heard it, it’s worth spending a little time thinking about. It actually says less about the value of work than it does about the value of play. Work can be wonderful, and not just for its economic value. It can provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment and an opportunity for personal growth. A problem arises, though, when devoting time to work crowds out time for recreation.
A similar problem arises in long-term romantic relationships. If your interaction with your partner almost exclusively involves household chores, or taking care of the kids or any of the other requirements of daily living, then you may feel like your relationship is stagnant. Or, to go back to Jack— it just may feel dull.
Writing for Psychology Today, Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D. delves into a related aspect of the value of creating time for play in a relationship. She begins by observing that if you think that you need to “work” on your relationship in order to keep it healthy or improve it, then you may be starting with a lot of negative assumptions about the notion of “working on.”
“Work” Cohan writes, “typically contains aspects of control and hierarchy and often power struggles and resentment. At work, we’re often inundated with, and constrained by, rules, procedures, and guidelines; we’re motivated by outcomes and deliverables. Relationships that feel like work drain our energy. This is because we’re spending a great deal of time trying to get through to the other person in order to feel understood. With work, we may be trying to prove ourselves, to show our worthiness, or to even outshine someone else.”
Cohan says that a far more valuable way to think about enlivening your relationship is to focus on the value of play. “Play implies freedom, experimentation, adventure, spontaneity, and creativity,” she says. “The play I’m talking about is not to be confused with all easiness and just fun and games, but rather the quality of ease. It’s the ease of trust, comfort, rest, and a sense of knowing and being known. It’s the knowledge that you’re assuming the best in your partner and the confidence that they assume the best in you. When that happens, there’s less to struggle over and less to prove.”
Your idea of play, of course, may be different form someone else’s. Some people may enjoy intellectual activities, anything from solving puzzles to or discussing a podcast, while others may share a common passion for a sport. If you and your partner have the same idea of play, conditions are ripe for spending quality time together. Cohan takes it a step further and puts together some characteristics of a healthy playful relationship.
“Through play, we learn the art of letting go. This capacity for letting go assists us in and out of the relationship.”
“Being right becomes less important when we’ve centered play. We admit when we messed up.”
“The knowledge that there’s an us, over and above either of us, that’s worth tending to.”
“Play fosters creativity, and in turn, creativity stimulates playfulness.”
If you’ve been trying to deepen your relationship by “working on it,” maybe it’s time to try a new tactic. Plan some time to play together. You just may find an alternate path to intimacy.