We’ve all heard that relationships take work. What if I could convince you, thanks to my work as a sociologist and my own life, that intimate relationships need not be work?
When I hear relationships require so much work, I feel weighed down and tired, and it sounds like drudgery. Work implies something we have to do and especially in order to achieve some sort of desired outcome for the short and long term. And, work typically contains aspects of control and hierarchy and often power struggles and resentment. At work, we’re often inundated with, and constrained by, rules, procedures, and guidelines; we’re motivated by outcomes and deliverables.
I have learned first-hand that relationships which constantly feel like work drain our energy.
I spent the better part of my life witnessing relationships that did in fact seem more like work than play. The first intimate relationship we’re exposed to is typically that of our parents, but my parents’ marriage was an abusive one, where intimacy didn’t look all that intimate, and instead appeared tense, disconnected, and alienating.
I observed so much strife, criticism, resentment, and contempt, and while many of their friends brushed it off, jokingly referring to them as “The Bickersons” and minimizing their conflicts, I can see, looking back, that they were locked in a battle for power and control. This made opportunities for playing much harder to come by, both for them and for me.
Just a few weeks ago, I was on the phone with a former student I taught in my role as a college sociology professor, who is now a dear friend. She shared with me the deep unhappiness she felt in her marriage and her need to separate from her husband. “For so long, I tried so hard to make it work,” she said.
The work she put into her marriage was outweighing the joy and positive effects of partnership; she was spending a great deal of time trying to get through to her partner in order to feel understood. I shared with her that I remembered a time when they were dating and broke up, and how she longed to get back together with him, wanting so badly for them to work as a couple. Like my friend, I, too, had earlier intimate relationships that were defined by this desire to try to make it work. I believe that women in particular are often socialized to preserve relationships, sometimes at a cost to ourselves.
In 1983, sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term “emotional labor” to describe the ways that this relational work can be burdensome for women while also not holding men to as high of a standard for nurturance and caregiving in relationships.
In fact, a long-term boyfriend who I dated for nine years, and who eventually became my first husband and is now my ex-husband and friend, is a perfect example of how hard work cannot always save a relationship.
With all that important history and friendship between us, we tried to do whatever possible to make it work—making up and getting back together, therapy, couples counseling, you name it, we tried it.
What is most telling is that all happened when we were dating, not even married; what once felt like dedication and almost a heroic sense of commitment feels to me now like too much unnecessary work. And, it’s no surprise that in the years before our marriage ended, I found myself writing anniversary cards about how much I wanted for us to more regularly revisit two of the seven blessings we chose for our wedding which happened to be passion and joy. We were stuck in a rut, the patina of our marriage worn down by routine, and I yearned to find ease and any available lightness.
In the years that followed my divorce, I discovered that play would become the key to locating that ease and lightness in my relationships.
Play implies freedom, experimentation, adventure, spontaneity and creativity. The play I’m talking about is not to be confused with all easiness and just fun and games, but rather the quality of ease. It’s the ease of trust, comfort, rest, and a sense of knowing and being known. It’s the knowledge that you’re assuming the best in your partner and the confidence that they assume the best in you. When that happens, there’s less to struggle over and less to prove.
In 2012, when I first started dating my now second husband, Mike, I had no idea what a gift it was to me when, every Wednesday or Thursday evening on the phone, he would ask: “Where do you want to play this weekend?”
I’ve spent my career teaching and writing about the tangles of intimacy and relationships, and now that Mike and I are in our 11th year together, I’ve been reflecting on how a playful relationship can help us improve our dynamic with our partner.
Through play, we can learn the art of letting go
Mike knows how much I miss my mom since she died in 2020, and we both know how much she loved his sense of humor. My mom was cremated, and her ashes remain in Massachusetts; he keeps reminding me, “When are we going to pick up your mom? She’s probably wondering why we left her there so long.”
He correctly intuits, even with weighty matters of death and grief, that I’m able to trust that his aim is to wipe away any sadness, make me laugh, and ultimately help me in letting go. This capacity for letting go can assist us in and out of the relationship.
Being right becomes less important when we’ve centered play
Mike and I admit when we have made the wrong call, but we do so in a playful way. Early on in our relationship, Mike and I made a bet about something we disagreed on, and I suggested that the winner be treated to ice cream or coffee, but he one-upped it and said the loser would have to quack like a duck in the middle of a busy street. It was a wacky bet, and one that I ultimately lost (there is a video of me quacking like a duck stored somewhere!), and it made a disagreement fun.
Research tells us that playfulness enhances communication, can help us cope better in difficult times, and in my experience, it reminds each person in a couple that they are part of a team.
Keeping the darkest moments light
When the COVID-19 pandemic started raging, Mike and I went many weeks without seeing each other. We are in a LAT, a “living apart together” relationship, in which we are two hours apart from each other, yet we both feel closer and more connected than we did when living with previous spouses.
In the Spring of 2020, we had to be more imaginative to touch the playfulness in our relationship and especially given the bleak, frightening environment around us. Since we regularly played UNO, Mike devised a way that we could do this on FaceTime, and 10 minutes before one of our Saturday night calls, Mike texted, “Ready for our date? I am.”
I had never seen him in a tuxedo, and it was perfectly absurd in all the best ways that the one and only time would be on that video call. In the midst of a terrible time in history, Mike insisted on levity and laughter and making the ordinary extraordinary. It turns out that research confirms that playfulness can help us reframe stressful situations and improve resilience.
Playful acts can have a deeper purpose
Since our first date, Mike has sent me an email every morning. Over the years, I’ve checked in with him to see if he is finally sick of doing this, at the same time hoping he will never tire of it, and every time, he assures me that he knows I love it and will keep writing. While some people play Sudoku over morning coffee to get their brains going, Mike does this over email.
Sharing playful moments leads to greater connection
In a relationship, we want to share what we’re seeing and doing with the other person. I have come to call this the “hey, look” effect. One person summons the other to see a spectacular sunset or to look at something they made. Rather than feeling irritated by the person calling out to get our attention, we’re curious to see what they’ve discovered, and can end up relishing in their joy.
Mike and I both adore the water, and one of my favorite things is swimming at night. Before every cannonball and handstand he does in a pool, Mike always yells out, “Hey Deborah, watch this!”
I think about all these examples of how Mike has made our life together a veritable playground: During weeknights over the phone, we are very competitive as we do the The New York Times crossword puzzle. On weekends, we open a bottle of red, he plays ’70s songs, and I try to name the song and artist. Our morning coffee ritual is one where we plan our day, consider our next trip, and share some dreams and visions for our future.
Suddenly I wondered, with some embarrassment and worry, might my husband have a different version of all this? Does all this play he lovingly makes for us every single day possibly feel like work to him? And do I bring him enough playfulness?
So, I asked him over email, and this is what he said:
“Your energy and excitement are contagious. I can be totally geeky, awkward, silly, and serious around you, and not only do you accept it, you embrace it. I can truly be the person I want to be. You don’t realize how liberating that is. Yes, I’m still the guy in a suit dealing with issues at work, but somehow you’ve allowed me to morph into this strange, goofy guy who loves to make you laugh.”
Mike’s response helps me understand that it’s not a contest as to who’s the most playful. It’s also the openness and receptivity to it which we each bring in spades and that nurtures a more authentic sense of self in each of us. The play is like a buoy in a rough sea and reminds us there is a safe harbor and refuge we can regularly access.
In my case, the love story goes something like this: A once worried little girl, who longed to see all that fighting stop, met up with a goofy, hilarious boy for a lifetime of playdates, and together they made silliness and mischief.
Deborah J. Cohan is a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort and the author of Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving, and Redemption. Her upcoming book, a college guide for students and parents, will be out in 2024. You can learn more about her at www.deborahjcohan.com.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.