Although play is usually associated with children, adults also engage in play—especially in social interactions. A good deal of research has shown that playfulness is related to many positive outcomes—such as lower stress, more positive interactions with other people, creativity, physical fitness, and overall well-being. But does playfulness also affect our close relationships?

This is a more difficult question to answer than it might first appear because there are four main types of playfulness, which might relate to romantic relationships in different ways.  Other-directed playfulness involves good-natured teasing of other people, Lighthearted playfulness involves seeing life as more like a game than a battlefield, Intellectual playfulness can be seen in people who like to play with ideas and solve puzzles, and Whimsical playfulness involves liking unusual activities, people, or objects. So, in studying playfulness in romantic relationships, we need to consider all four kinds of playfulness.

In a series of studies conducted at the Martin-Luther-University in Halle-Wittenberg (Germany), we examined whether people who are more playful in any of these four ways are more satisfied with their relationships and whether people tend to end with partners who are similar to them in playfulness.

To examine the notion that being playful leads to positive emotions, facilitates communication, and enhances satisfaction and happiness in relationships, we recruited 211 German-speaking couples, who had been together for an average of 5 years. Both members of each couple completed questionnaires that measured the four types of adult playfulness described above as well as their satisfaction with their relationship.  

Our results revealed three major findings. First, couples were, on average, similar in their degree of playfulness. People who were high in Other-directed playfulness (those who enjoyed playful teasing) also had partners who were high in other-directed playfulness, and those lower in other-directed playfulness tended to end up in relationships with less playful partners. When it comes to playfulness, birds of a feather tend to flock together.

Second, couples in which the partners were more similar in playfulness—whether both were high or both low—did not report greater relationship satisfaction than those who were less similar in playfulness. Thus, simply being similar to your partner in playfulness does not necessarily benefit relationship satisfaction.

Third, not all four types of playfulness related to relationship satisfaction in the same way. For example, people who were higher in Other-directed playfulness were more sexually  satisfied, more engaged in the relationship, and more confident about the long-term stability of the relationship. Similarly, intellectually playful people reported being more satisfied with the relationship, more fascinated by the partner, more sexually satisfied, and more optimistic about the couple’s future. However, contrary to our assumptions, Lighthearted and Whimsical types of playfulness did not relate to relationship satisfaction.

In some cases, playfulness seemed to contribute to the partners’ satisfaction as well. For example, men showed greater sexual satisfaction the higher their female partner was in Other-directed playfulness.

Playfulness is important in romantic life. The underlying mechanisms that explain how and why playfulness contributes to relationship satisfaction are the subject of future research. However, thinking of typical interactions of couples who display behaviors such as giving each other nicknames, humorously recollecting or re-enacting joint experiences, or lightly teasing the partner to cheer him or her up suggest some possible explanations. Perhaps playfulness helps couples solve their conflicts more easily, promotes positive emotions that contribute to relationship satisfaction, or helps people maintain interest in the relationship and the partner. Overall, playfulness may facilitate positive experiences in relationships and help couples embrace the lighter side of life.

For Further Reading

Aune, K. S., & Wong, N. C. H. (2002). Antecedents and consequences of adult play in romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 279-286. doi: 10.1111/1475-6811.00019

Proyer, R. T., Brauer, K., Wolf, A., & Chick, G. (2018). Beyond the ludic lover: Individual differences in playfulness and love styles in heterosexual relationships. American Journal of Play, 10, 265-289.

Proyer, R. T., Brauer, K., Wolf, A., & Chick, G. (2019). Adult playfulness and relationship satisfaction: An APIM analysis of romantic couples. Journal of Research in Personality, 79, 40-48. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2019.02.001

About the Author

René Proyer is full professor for personality psychology and psychological assessment at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany. Kay Brauer is a research assistant at the division of personality psychology and psychological assessment at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany.