Let's play

Is your relationship missing 1 key ingredient? New study reveals the answer

An underrated quality is important for love.

Originally Published: 
romantic couple
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Kids on a playground engrossed in an imaginary world. A pickup basketball game. Dogs chasing each other at the park. Or, if you’re me as a little kid, pretending to be a dog chasing other dogs at the park (I was a weird kid).

These are likely some of the images that pop into our heads when we hear the word “playful.” We associate it with youthful abandon — something we may still have as adults but is often overshadowed by work, financial obligations, and a slew of other responsibilities.

New research suggests, as adults, we may want to begin associating it with something else: successful romantic relationships.

What’s new — Researchers at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany have been studying the connection between playfulness in romantic relationships and successful romantic relationships. Their work makes a compelling argument for being more playful with our paramours.

In an analysis published Wednesday in the journal Sociology and Personality Psychological Compass, they summarize their findings, suggesting a link between playfulness and longer relationships. Playfulness, the researchers explain, helps strengthen bonds with our partners and elicits positive emotions. Those positive emotions, in turn, foster social skills and help us communicate — all of which increase relationship satisfaction.

What can improve romantic relationships?

First author Kay Brauer is a psychology researcher at Martin Luther University Halle‐Wittenberg. He says the benefits of playfulness extend to different components of solid relationships.

“Our studies have shown that those high in playfulness experience greater satisfaction with their relationships, in general, but also with regard to aspects such as sexual satisfaction,” Brauer tells Inverse.

Brauer’s findings are supported by other research as well. In their article, Brauer and his team cite some of the limited research that’s been done on the subject, suggesting “playfulness is a consequence of a partner’s trust, mutual acceptance, priority on pleasure, freedom to be oneself, and a deep valuing of the relationship.” For example, in 1998, a researcher studying playfulness in intimate relationships found being playful reduced tension and increased intimacy. Pro‐social teasing, role‐playing, and playful interactions all contributed to happier relationships.

How do we define playfulness? — Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and pornography, we know playfulness when we see it, but defining it is harder.

In his previous work, co-author and psychology researcher René Proyer defined playfulness in part as a “variable that allows people to frame or reframe everyday situations in a way such that they experience them as entertaining, and/or intellectually stimulating, and/or personally interesting.” He adds that playful people are “are capable of using their playfulness even under difficult situations to resolve tension.”

The traits of playfulness — Playfulness may allow us to reframe situations and potentially relieve tension, but how do we do it? If we had to break playfulness down into parts to better study them, what would those parts be?

We can use the OLIW model, developed by Proyer. It stands for “Other‐directed, Lighthearted, Intellectual, and Whimsical.”

Playful people are “are capable of using their playfulness even under difficult situations to resolve tension.”

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Furthermore, the study team describes “Global Playfulness” as when “an individual differences variable that allows people to frame or reframe everyday situations in a way such that they experience them as entertaining, and/or intellectually stimulating, and/or personally interesting.”

“Other-Directed” playfulness is “characterized by the use of playful behaviors in social situations. High scorers use playfulness to ease tense situations, and cheer other people up, they enjoy horsing around with friends and engage, generally, in a playful interaction style with other people.”

Whimsical playfulness, they say, is “characterized by a preference for breaking ranks. High scorers are amused by oddities and have a preference for extraordinary things and people. Others often regard them as extravagant.”

Why this matters — While this can all sound a bit technical and dry for something that’s supposed to facilitate playfulness, Brauer says it’s not in practice.

“Playful people often engage in ways that support to reimagine and redefine one’s relationship,” Brauer says. “For example, by surprising the partner, assigning playful nicknames or a secret language with the partner, reenacting joint experiences, or teasing the partner in a lighthearted way. It helps both partners with developing feelings of security, intimacy, and closeness.”

The playfulness, while fun, gets at a deeper and more serious core. It’s a way to communicate and feel loved by your partner. Being playful can even help you express things you might not feel comfortable doing otherwise. For example, Brauer says that being playful with sexual fantasies is a way to communicate desire and needs.

If your partner is more playful than you are? Brauer’s research should be reassuring.

“What we find in our data is that the playfulness of partner A often corresponds to the level partner B's playfulness,” he says, “However, the happiness of couples is not determined by their similarity in itself but how each partner uses their playfulness in the relationship.”

The playfulness allows a couple to tap into something more serious — it’s a vehicle that allows them to show affection and support for each other.

The big takeaway — The notion of playfulness being important to relationships makes a great deal of sense when you think about flirting and courtship.

So often, flirting is predicated on inside jokes, shared experiences, and whimsical adventures. While the other components of a successful intimate relationship are also important — things like trust, mutual support, and shared values — they’re not the only components of a relationship that matter. And the one you may have been overlooking just might be the one that’s the most fun.

Abstract: There is increasing interest in the study of individual differences in playfulness in adults; the way people frame or reframe situations in a way that they are experienced as personally interesting, and/or intellectually stimulating, and/or entertaining. In this review, we describe and discuss its role for romantic life. After a brief introduction, we will describe theoretical approaches as to why playfulness is important in romantic life (e.g., the signal theory of playfulness) and give an overview on empirical findings on assortative mating and its role in romantic relationships (e.g., for relationship satisfaction). Finally, we discuss future directions on playfulness in romantic life and singles and open research questions.

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