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  • Steven Spotts, PsyD

Play, One of 16 Essential Ingredients in Healthy Relationships

Updated: Apr 21, 2018

(This is part 3 of 16 characteristics that help define mental health. Psychologist, Dr. Nancy McWilliams, shared this list at a recent conference and prompted me to think about how our expressions or limitations of these traits describing mental health impact the development our intimate relationships.)


Play, as a characteristic of mental health, would be hard to deny. It has been described as the “work” of childhood. Children who refuse or are unable to play will very likely to be the subject of serious concern for both parent and professional. The child’s capacity for play develops early in infancy as the sensory inputs from the external world are gradually taken in and organized. Providing children with adequate and age appropriate stimulation across all five senses is one of the main tasks of effective parenthood.


I have written elsewhere that our capacity for love reflects our need for attachment; and our capacity for work reflects our need for differentiation. In a similar vein, our capacity for play reflects our need for transcendence. That is, we need ways to imagine or conceptualize an experience that is otherwise beyond our immediate ability to attain. Most simply put, play is often a fantasy we control that allows us to approach an experience that is beyond us; one that transcends or goes beyond where we are currently.

When I was a kid, I would often watch sports on T.V. About half-time in the game, I would head outside and start imitating what I had been watching, picturing myself to be the hero of my own imaginary contest. Organized team athletics later became the means by which I carried my fantasy further, eventually believing I had the skill to play at a professional level. While injuries ultimately prevented that, my imagination, my imitations, and my repetition during periods of play took me to the brink of an actual experience (pitching for a professional team) that only existed in my hopes and dreams.


Play serves a number of different functions in our development including cultivating creativity, imagination, problem solving, and other capabilities essential to us across the lifespan. While we often think of play as central to childhood, what I am focusing on here is how important it is to our interpersonal relationships, particularly our closest most intimate ones.


The capacity for “play” is one characteristic most everyone wants in a life partner. Can you imagine a spouse who doesn’t know how or has forgotten what it means to play. What about one who lacks a sense of humor? Unfortunately, perhaps you can.


We live in a culture that is highly focused on productivity and material gain. Play can sometimes seem like a luxury only children can afford. Maybe you are married to someone who has so invested in their work that they lack a playful or imaginative spirit. Maybe a childhood trauma has so limited the normal playful responses that you or your spouse find it difficult to find joy or laughter in the silly idiosyncrasies of life. Some people allow no margin in their life for creative hobbies, vacations, or just “down time.” Technology may have increased our capacity for work and given us more ways to play, but simultaneously it has absorbed the time we once used for rest, reflection and relationship.


One of the most important things we know play accomplishes for adults is the reduction of stress. Nowhere do we need this function of play more than in our marriage. Unremitting stress is a marriage killer. The capacity for laughter, for silliness, for imaginative problem solving, for finding joy and happiness even in the mundane things of life are critical to bringing couples together in situations that might otherwise drive them apart.


The Scriptures tell us, “But the godly are happy; they rejoice before God and are overcome with joy” (Ps 68:3). While the forms of “play” most often referenced by biblical authors have to do with playing musical instruments, there are many references to the feelings that naturally erupt from play; feelings like delight, gladness, and joy. Delight is a wonderful word to consider in this context that means “to take pleasure in” and is used of God in relation to His people as well as of people in relation to their God. Who or what have you let yourself delight in lately?


Whatever the reasons that may hinder or limit the playfulness in your relationship, it is worth taking stock of how each of you experience or express it in both love and work. Is your love life playful and full of joy? Do you enjoy and find pleasure in your work? Do you have a hobby or a creative outlet that reduces your stress? Would others describe your interpersonal interactions as full of laughter and delight?


Let me know as you "play"with these ideas what you discover as you do your own self assessment and as you ask your spouse what they think about your capacity for play.


Check back soon to read about the 4th characteristic in our list of 16 traits of mental health.

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