How to Increase Play and Recreation in Marriage


Couple having fun riding bicycle together

A big strategy that gets at the heart of building positive feelings and friendship in your relationship with your partner is play and recreation. By this I mean doing activities that are fun and which you can do together.

Number One Factor in Marital Happiness

Marriage researchers at the University of Denver did a search for happy couples to include in a study of marriage. After identifying these couples, the researchers called them “super marriages” and asked them to share their secrets of success. The couples did this by filling out a survey with over 50 questions on all aspects of marriage.

The researchers were surprised to learn that the number one factor in their happiness was play and recreation. Other things mattered, but nothing was more important to these couples than having fun together. It seems that playing together in a relaxed way not only brings enjoyment but strengthens the bonds of marriage, maybe more than any other factor. There is nothing like fun to help couples build positive sentiments and the bonds of friendship, the theme of this post.

I’m sure you’d agree that having fun together is a characteristic of the enchantment phase. But then couples let it fizzle out over time. They get busy with life. They may have an implicit expectation (maybe from watching their parents) that marriage isn’t supposed to be fun. They think play is for kids. The enchantment wears off and they let disillusionment and resentment reign. Or they allow unresolved conflict to taint their marriages.

Before continuing this topic, let me mention three patterns of activity in relationships: individual activities; parallel activities; and joint activities.

Individual Activities

Individual activities are those things you do separately from each other. It isn’t realistic to assume that you and your partner are going to have perfectly overlapping interests and you have to give each other the physical and psychological space to pursue interests and hobbies independently of one another as long as you are supportive of one another’s individual endeavors.

For example, I like to run. Judy does not and so I run by myself or sometimes with a buddy or as part of a running club. I enjoy singing and have joined various singing groups through the years. Or, I have a group of friends with whom I ski. Judy supports me in these activities and sometimes attends my events but it would be unrealistic and unfair for me to think that she has to like or participate in everything that I enjoy. Or to think that I have to give up these hobbies because she isn’t involved with me.

Likewise, she has her hobbies and interests and our relationship is stronger when I support her in these pursuits. We don’t have to do everything together although it helps that we actively support one another in what we individually love.

Parallel Activities

Parallel activities are those things that you may enjoy together but don’t require direct interaction, such as watching a movie or tv. You are together but not necessarily engaged. Although these activities are fine to make part of your schedule, it’s important to be aware that they do little to strengthen your closeness.

Joint Activities

Joint activities are those things you do together and which require you to be engaged and communicating. Couples who do joint activities have the strongest relationships.

I think about two kinds of joint activities.  Some are core activities which are all those things you do to take care of life and/or family. These may include preparing meals together, working on a project around the house, managing finances, caring for children, and so on. Happy couples share in these activities and may find ways to do some, not all, but some of them together.

The second kind of joint activity is play and recreation.  These activities meet certain criteria: They are fun for both of you, bring out your aliveness, and revitalize your relationship. They often result in joy and even laughter.

Generally, when engaged in fun you’re active not passive. You may feel a closeness during passive activities but not the flood of pleasure you get when active. Likewise, competitive activities can be fun but not helpful to developing closeness if they stir up too much rivalry, tension, or feelings of inadequacy.

Furthermore, these are not times to get into heavy topics or bring up conflicts or problems. Put off your serious conversations for another time.

Examples of Play and Recreation in Marriage

What qualifies as fun is anything that you both enjoy and which helps you engage with each other in a positive way. It can be playing board games if you both love them and are not too competitive. It could be recreational activities like boating or hiking, skiing or exercise that you enjoy together. It could sometimes be something really adventuresome like rock climbing or hang gliding. Or it might include doing a hobby together or learning together by visiting historical landmarks and museums.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned sex. Although sex meets these criteria for many couples, I want to keep our focus on nonsexual play and recreation. Sex is a topic for another day.

Most importantly, this needs to be something both of you enjoy. Although Judy doesn’t like running, we both enjoy hiking. We also like travel and so recently bought a trailer to get away to some of the beautiful parks around our country. Whatever its nature, engaging in some kind of play, recreation or shared interests is important to building and maintaining friendship.

Often, you’ll have fun and recreation during a weekly date, something you do with each other and without kids. Although you can go to a movie together, don’t let all your dates be passive or parallel activities. Be creative and find things that really help you engage with one another.

Take a Look at Your Marriage

So, take a look at your marriage. Are there things you already enjoy doing together? Are you making them part of your schedule and doing them frequently? Could you improve in this area? Can you brainstorm some new or existing activities that you enjoy and could do together?

One path is to see if you can join your spouse in things he or she already enjoys. I have a brother-in-law who’s turned his yard into a botanical garden which has been featured in lifestyle magazines. Although not natural to her, my sister decided to join him in this hobby. Today they both enjoy gardening and working side by side to keep their yard beautiful. It has not only been a boon to their yard but relationship. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you have to join your spouse in something he or she loves if it is not something you could learn to enjoy. That’s just one path.

An Exercise to Increase Play and Recreation in Your Marriage

Here is an exercise to get out of a rut and come up with new ideas to bring greater fun to your relationship. It’s called the “Fun Deck.”

Make sure the ideas on your list fit with as many of these guidelines as possible. They are:

  • Emotionally engaging
  • Physically energizing
  • Cause you to laugh
  • Are non-sexual
  • Include bodily contact
  • Can’t be done wrong.

Here are the steps:

  1. Divide up a stack of index cards between you.
  2. Individually, write up to 15 or 20 ideas of fun activities that you could do together, following the guidelines above.
  3. Share your cards or read them to each other.
  4. It is okay to veto one of your partner’s ideas if it’s something you are not up for doing. But also be willing to get outside your comfort zone and accommodate one another’s requests.
  5. Each of you choose three cards from your own deck and share them with your partner.
  6. Your partner will choose, from your three cards, the activity he or she would most like to do with you.
  7. Schedule a time to do this activity and either jointly plan it or let your partner plan it.
  8. Take turns, doing some activity at least weekly.
  9. Shuffle and repeat.

Remember the research from the University of Denver. Play and recreation in marriage are the key to a happy relationship. Let me encourage you to come up with your own ideas or use the Fun Deck to improve the excitement, vitality, and closeness in your relationship. Just going through the process will be a fun experience.

And if you like these blog posts, click here to learn more about my online marriage course.


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