Almost every animal species engages in some form of play. Animals splash or tumble or roll over one another; they scamper or squeal or squawk with delight. Puppies chase their tails. In Brazil, two juvenile black caimans were seen chasing each other in circles, and in Cuba, two crocs played in a courtship ritual, with the male inviting the female to take rides on his back in their pool.
Researchers say that play is not just about fun—it's an element of the courting rituals of animals throughout the creature kingdom, teaches cooperation, and relieves stress.
Play is often suggested to couples as a way to restore their relationships. This, however, is not as easy as it may sound. As we grow older, we lose the ability to play spontaneously. Organized games and sports aside, play is an intuitive, natural pursuit for kids. As adults, we need to relearn the art. To be told to "go and play," however, is as useful as being told to "go and create." Play isn't as straightforward as that for adults. Then there is the question of time—the basic priorities of modern life may leave little room for fun. Acting on the suggestion to play more can cause stress because it is so difficult to do.
So rather than trying unsuccessfully to "go and play," we can provide ourselves with opportunities for play to occur and then see what happens. Here are some ways to do this:
1. Schedule unstructured time, and be open to something new happening.
I once knew two scientists, Brad and Meg, who felt that their relationship had lost its spark. They decided to take a vacation in Costa Rica, and in an unplanned moment, signed up to watch giant leatherback turtles emerge from the sea and lay their eggs on the beach in the moonlight. The experience was so touching that it bonded them, and they came away eager to work together to save the turtles from predators. The unexpected renewal of their bond wouldn't have occurred if they had not cleared space on their calendars for something unscheduled to happen.
2. Make quality time a priority, like you did when you first met.
In the first stage of love, time is plentiful. Somehow, we manage to carve out huge blocks of time from our overbooked appointment calendars and allocate them just to being together. Recently, I talked with Doug, a hardworking engineer and single parent of three, and he told me that he had recently fallen in love with Lexi, a full-time mom with a part-time job.
"I don't really know how we do it," Doug told me with a laugh. "The kids keep us hopping, and we do have to produce for our companies, but we still find time for each other all the same. One of us will drop by the other's house, and then, suddenly, we've spent an hour making love, laughing, or telling stories from our lives. Then it's back to work. Still, it's amazing how much time we can find, just because we want to."
Ask yourself when you and your partner last cleared your schedules for each other. Imagine that yours is a new relationship, like Doug and Lexi's and that you're madly in love, at the height of the first stage. What would you do to get the unstructured time you want and need to be together that might allow something unexpected to emerge?
3. Try something new.
Flirtation and sex often come naturally in the beginning of a relationship and are major ways couples play. These sweet pleasures can continue if we remain open to possibility and opportunity. However, it's natural for many long-term couples to find the sizzle disappearing from their sex lives, and as a result, they may blame, criticize, or turn away from each other. To avoid this, talk about what's happening openly, and try some new "games" to heat things up. For example:
1. Go to a bar, pretend you don't know each other, and pick each other up.
2. Practice foreplay without intercourse; touch, kiss, nuzzle, and lick but without penetration.
3. Have sneaky sex. The sense of exploring the forbidden is very exciting. Make love in the kitchen, do a quickie on a couch at work with the doors locked, or have sex behind closed doors while the kids are watching TV.
The adage "variety is the spice of life" is a truism. Studies show that novelty adds satisfaction to relationships and can reignite passion. You may find it unexpectedly invigorating—and just plain fun.