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Play Together, Stay Together

Mike and Maria were under stress – a lot of it. Maria had just started a new job as an executive at a high-stakes financial company, and Mike was trying to get his new restaurant off the ground. They were also grappling with the pressures of parenthood and some recent family traumas. Their 18-month-old daughter, Tess, was born right around the time that Maria’s sister died of a complicated illness and Mike was diagnosed with a heart defect that required surgery.

By the time Mike and Maria (not their real names) finally sought help at the Gottman Institute in Seattle, they’d both gained more than 50 pounds and had developed snoring problems that forced them to sleep in separate rooms. Their shared life was “long on drudgery and short on fun,” as John Gottman, PhD, and Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD, describe it in their book 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage. They were managing to pay the bills, keep the restaurant open and spend time with Tess – but that was about it.

In other words, the Gottmans write, “Mike and Maria have become terrific teammates – sharing the responsibility of caring for their daughter and supporting their household. But they have lost their identity as lovers.”

By sacrificing the time they spent having fun together in the name of simply coping with life’s logistics, Mike and Maria weakened the emotional connection that first brought them together, and that only made the difficult times worse.

Willard Harley Jr., PhD, author of His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage, outlines the concept this way: You fall in love – and stay in love – with the person who brings you the most joy. So, as life’s everyday pressures mount, couples must actively find ways to have fun together to sustain a healthy relationship.

The good news is there’s no need for busy couples to choose between their obligations and their relationship.

The good news is there’s no need for busy couples to choose between their obligations and their relationship. By making room in their lives to enjoy each other more by relaxing together and exercising, Mike and Maria were able to lose weight, rehab their sex life and construct an emotional gas station where they could both refill daily. After that, their Big Busy Lives didn’t feel quite so overwhelming — and they found more joy and connection with each other.

The Fun-Love Connection

Science backs up this fun-love connection. Studies have shown that the activities associated with falling in love release oxytocin, a hormone that relaxes blood vessels and lowers blood pressure. It also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, working to deepen feelings of connection and trust.

A recent study at the University of Liverpool showed that laughter produces a similar surge in relationship-strengthening endorphins and oxytocin. Professor Robin Dunbar, PhD, asked two groups of people to watch short videos. One group viewed comedy sketches and the other a more serious documentary. Before and after each viewing, Dunbar tested participants’ endorphin levels by measuring how long they could hold a frozen object against their skin (endorphin surges increase a person’s pain threshold). Participants who watched the comedy held the object “significantly longer” than the other participants.

Making intimacy a priority, be it in the form of a quick hug or a romantic evening, also boosts our connection with our partner. According to a 2005 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, a 20-second hug releases healthy oxytocin and lowers blood pressure and stress hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine, and the less stressed we feel, the easier it is for us to bond. As therapist Harley notes, perhaps the most basic thing we can do to overcome stress is to enjoy our lives together.

Hugs and Kisses

If stress has your partnership in its destructive grip, one of the best ways to start upping the fun factor is simply to minimize the damage around your bickering. “When you’re fighting, you’re not thinking about how to deal with the situation with your spouse,” says Harley. “You’re thinking about how to destroy your spouse.”

Get adrenaline out of your system by taking deep, calming breaths, and focus on working with your partner to solve the problem together instead of working against him or her in order to be “right” or “better.” Fights aren’t contests; when one partner tries to win, both lose.

Once you’ve done basic damage control, try counteracting daily hassles with daily uplifts. Marriage expert John Gottman points out that it takes five positive interactions to counter one negative interaction. So pile on the good stuff by returning to the basics: Do nice things for your partner, share thank yous, I love yous, hugs, kisses and compliments, says Jan Hoistad, PhD, author of Big Picture Partnering and Living Your Dreams Together. These little changes may not seem like a big deal, but they build a solid foundation.

“You could compare this work to piloting a plane cross-country,” the Gottmans explain. “A turn of a few degrees over Ohio may seem like a small adjustment – merely fine-tuning. But in the long run, it determines whether you end up in San Francisco or Los Angeles. So it is with long-term relationships.”

Actively making time to play is important, too. Because remember, as Harley points out, we tend to fall in love with the people around whom we experience the most joy. Not the most bill-paying, kid-scolding or dishwashing, but the most pleasure and fun and laughter and satisfaction.

So make time daily to have fun together, even when time is limited – and remember that the activity should be enjoyable for both people (not something one enjoys and the other simply tolerates).

Think back to the first few dates with your partner: How did you spend your time together? What did you talk about? What made you happy? What made you laugh? What made you light up? Talk with your partner about what each of you most enjoyed, then begin looking for common ground. Re-create some of those favored moments in the present, or discover their modern-day equivalents.

Your partnership will be stronger and more rewarding as you develop your “play together” habits.

Where will you find the time? Here’s one expert’s suggestion: For 30 seconds or 30 minutes “take a break from trying to train or teach your partner,” suggests Wayne Sotile, PhD, coauthor of Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back! Maximizing Your Happiness in Work, Love and Life (Stewart Tabori & Chang, 2007). “Allow yourself to stop being the Keeper of the Rules, and work on creating safe spaces where your partner feels that he or she can come out and play.”

Your partnership will be stronger and more rewarding as you develop your “play together” habits. Harley likens the time you carve out for fun to making an emotional deposit in a “love bank.” Think of yourself and your partner as each having accounts at this bank, and you can either make deposits in your account and fill it up, or withdraw funds and deplete it. Think of fun as your deposit slip. Bring yours to the bank today, and cash in those relationship dividends.

Extra Credit: Active Fun

Like sharing a good time or a deep belly laugh, exercise triggers a surge of endorphins in the brain that reduce stress and promote bonding. Exercising together with your partner maximizes these positive feelings.

For the competitive couple: Try a one-on-one sport like tennis or racquetball to get those competitive juices flowing. But make sure to keep your matches from getting too heated. Your goal is fun, not victory.

For the noncompetitive couple: Running, walking, skiing or any side-by-side sports are well suited to the less competitive couple. Try out a handful of activities to see which suits you best as a couple.

For the exploratory couple: Learn a new active skill together like dancing, rock climbing, fencing, martial arts or yoga. Both people are on an even playing field in a new sport and can learn the ropes together.

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