Why You & Your Partner Should Make Play A Priority, From Intimacy Experts
For the past year, many couples have been experiencing what intimacy experts Marla Mattenson and Julian Colker are calling "Groundhog Day Squared": an endless cycle of both stress and boredom.
"Everyone is eating the same foods because they're more limited on where they can go out to eat. They're doing the same sex positions. They're just trying to maintain and get through it," Mattenson says. While this all sounds pretty bleak, Colker says there is an antidote to all that stress, and it's something you learned to do as a small child: play.
The benefits of bringing play into romantic relationships.
"As a child you instinctively knew how to play," Colker says. For some people, that playful behavior is eventually discouraged or shut down by the people around them. In those cases it can seem difficult—and embarrassing, even—to tap back into it.
But by introducing both nonsexual and sexual play back into a relationship, couples can "get out of roommate status and finally become lovers," Mattenson says. While laughing and spending time with your partner is reason enough to engage in play, there are also plenty of other unexpected benefits of the practice:
It promotes overall health.
"Play keeps us young on a physical level," Colker says. Engaging in play regularly can support the mind and the body, he explains.
One study shows that "other-directed playfulness1" (aka playfulness in social settings) leads to an increase in physical activity, lower-body strength, and endurance. And, of course, play has an impact on mental health, too. When you're smiling more and laughing together, the brain is going to emit feel-good chemicals, like serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine, Mattenson explains.
Not only does laughter mitigate the effects of stress2, but having a playful personality has also been shown to support overall well-being.
It can help you be more present.
While practicing breathwork, listening to a meditation app, or sitting silently in lotus position are a few common ways to practice presence, they're not the only ways.
"Another way to do it is to be in play, to be in the moment, to be in joy in your relationship," Colker tells mbg. If you're in the middle of play and your mind begins to wander back to your to-do list, acknowledge that, then come back to your playful presence.
If you need to set a 5-, 10-, or 15-minute timer to ensure you're getting play without ignoring your other responsibilities, that's completely OK. Think of it like a timed meditation or workout class—there's nothing wrong with setting structured boundaries.
It can promote physical and emotional intimacy.
When one partner is feeling overwhelmed or too stressed to be turned on, platonic play can offer nonsexual moments of togetherness that still nourish emotional intimacy, Mattenson explains, which can later enhance physical and sexual intimacy.
In fact, OB/GYN Anna Cabeca, D.O., previously told mbg "women need to be in a safe place emotionally and physically to experience pleasure and orgasm. We need to trust our partner, have privacy, and feel secure," she wrote. Meaning, in most cases sexual and emotional intimacy can go hand-in-hand.
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The bottom line.
It's all too common for long-term couples to fall into a monotonous routine—especially amid the pandemic, where options for date nights and vacations are limited. On top of that, the stress of the past year can lead to emotional and physical distance between couples.
Play can be a welcome antidote to both the monotony and the stress, and it can help couples reconnect and breathe fresh energy into their relationship.
Not sure where to start? Here are some sex games for couples, fun foreplay ideas, and other fun ways to deepen your connection as a couple. Mattenson and Colker also have a free couples' play challenge you can try.
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.