Guest Blogger

A Prescription for Playfulness

Filed By Guest Blogger | July 31, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living
Tags: couples who play, long relationships, play therapy, playful couples

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.

Jeff-Lutes.jpgThis 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:

  1. Climb a tree together with a bottle of wine. Find a sturdy branch and share a glass over conversation.
  2. Sing duets in the shower.
  3. Make a funny face in the middle of sex (you do anyway).
  4. Tickle your partner just before going to sleep.
  5. Learn the sign for "I love you" so you can express affection to one another from opposite sides of a crowded room.
  6. 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).
  7. Read your partner's favorite poem to them at sunset.
  8. 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).
  9. Eat mangos in the buff.
  10. 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.


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Health is wealth as they say, mange your stress through play is a wonderful idea. The 10 tips to keep young at heart with a loved one is quite a list of fun ways I will try out myself.

Glad to see you back again, Jeff. Playfulness is really important. Jerame and I have been together for 13 years and some of our favorite moments are playing games together.

Thanks Bill. Congrats on 13 years - you must be doing something (or a lot of things) right!

Tom Carpenter | August 1, 2010 11:50 AM

Having had two long term relationships lasting almost 20 years each(the fist ended when my partner died), I couldn't agree more with Jeff's excellent analysis. In addition to some playfulness, you shouldn't take yourself too seriously. Self deprecation can be a wonderful way to share your vulnerability and let your partner show understanding, support and love.

playfully written AND great advice.thanks for reminding all of us of the 5:1 ratio.

Wayne Besen | August 1, 2010 12:03 PM

Great post Jeff.

Lisa Rogers | August 1, 2010 12:08 PM

Well said, Jeff! Thanks for the reminder. Twenty-nine years and 29 zillion giggles later, Maurine and I can second that emotion. Play is our favorite four-letter word. Two people, four letters each = foreplay, an eight-letter word. I'm just jealous you have a son who's a doctor.

ChristopherH | August 1, 2010 12:13 PM

Great piece Jeff! Something to keep in mind if/when I ever find that special someone! Glad to see you're well! ;)

Good stuff! Thanks, Jeff. It is easy to forget playfulness as a necessary quality in relationships and you have reminded us in a gentle and amusing way. Thanks, again.

All those years together. Three children. And, you are always smiling. I need to read more about your formula!

I especially responded to "kiss your lover on the cheek in the middle of the night." I've occasionally been awakened by just such an expression of affection and it has always pleased and thrilled me. Kip and I have been together nearly 27 years now and we make a point of staying affectionate with one another. Playfulness is a great addition to affection. Thanks, Jeff, for the nice reminder and wise article.

Jerry J Bigner | August 1, 2010 3:01 PM

Excellently expressed, Jeff! I can't think of a better essay on the importance of playfulness in intimate relationships, gay or straight! You are truly blessed by having such a wonderful child to help you remember this important life lesson.

thanks for the reminder to stop and smell the roses. Its way tooooo easier to cruise on autopilot....the regularity of work and other demands slowly rocking us into unconsciousness. Note to self....wake up and play occasionally. All benefit.

WOW! I am so excited to see you on here as a guest blogger! YOU are my FAVORITE relationship guru ever! and bilerico is SO LUCKY to have you writing. i wish they would let you write a blog everyday. become a regular! belerico people: please let jeff write more often. he is so smart, witty, funny - i've attended a relationship conference where he spoke and he is such an incredible teacher! thanks for this jeff :) PLAY IS KEY!!!

Darlene Bogle | August 1, 2010 8:36 PM

What a great reminder to have fun together. I like the singing duets in the shower! Actually I also like 5 kisses at bedtime. Don't know why, but 5 is usually enough!
Your advice is going to keep couples trying to be origional!
Thanks Jeff.

Great blog and I couldn't agree more! Thanks for the reminder that playfulness is just as good for a relation as other, more conventional acts of romance and intimacy.

Well said Jeff! I certainly need more playfulness in my life and this is a great reminder. The pressure of being a grown up is heavy. Add a kid or two or three and the pressure can seem enormous. Your insight makes a lot of sense as I recognize how much more relaxed my partner and I are in the pool! Thanks for sharing!

Underwear on! Music blasting: "Nasty! Nasty boys, don't mean a thing!"

Though my favorite JJ song is, "Love will never do without you!" Why, I think I;ll play it right now.... !

Thanks Jeffy!

Jim Rainbolt | August 2, 2010 8:08 AM

Some great insights, Jeff! Thanks for your creativity and bringing new perspectives to the table.

Carlos Soto | August 2, 2010 11:28 AM

Playfulness, oh what fun it is to engage two people, and get laughter out of it. We have been together for 23 years, and we love this kind of indoor/outdoor activity. We seem to grow on each other more through out,because of playtime. I agree with Jeff, it sure makes things alot easier daily. Jeff, thank you for sharing this healthy message for all people...
Thanks,
Carlos Soto, Lupe Molina Jr.

Jeff, You are such a good writer. I enjoyed this article and will put it into practice.

Peggy Belcher | August 2, 2010 1:53 PM

Jeff -- this is a great article -- I would imagine many couples will find your suggestions very enlightening and helpful in their relationships. Play, play, play!!!!!!

Jimmy Wade | August 2, 2010 1:54 PM

What you do with your 7-year-old reconfirms why I enjoy creative play in my kindergarten class. With all of the academics forced down on these small kids, having tea with them in the 'House' says how much fun and sharing we can have in school.

We've been using #5 since we were dating! Thank for helping me remember ways to stop taking everything so seriously all the time!

Della Nagle | August 3, 2010 6:56 AM

Ruth and I celebrated 25 years together on July 25th. We are dating late night after the kids are in bed and I get home from my second job. It is helping us to connect and reestablish our relationship. Thanks for the piece.
Della

Congrats on 25 years Ruth and Della. You are role-models for all of us!

Love the article!!! It is certainly a wonderful reminder to parents! Gotta run and play with my kids. :)

Kaitlyn Lundrigan | August 5, 2010 9:05 AM

Jeff's article is dead on! I am thrown to being too serious and emotionally heavy, and I sometimes find it hard to remember to be playful.
When I do, being playful has really helped.

But that tickling your partner just before sleep thing? sounds like a bad idea to me. :)

Keep on writing Jeff!