LESSONS WHILE LAUGHING: REFLECTIONS ON PLAYFULNESS IN COUPLE RELATIONSHIPS
By Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D.
To say I wasn’t irritated would have been a lie. Picking my husband up after the third time in four months that he ran out of gas was a minor inconvenience, but an inconvenience nevertheless. Clearly, metaphorically and otherwise, he was out of gas. He had been working hard the last few months and became forgetful about details. Quietly, he got into the car. I only smiled and we drove off to the gas station. I had a stroke of comic genius that worked for us. A few blocks away, I turned and said, Are you the president of some kind of club? He got it immediately. Why, yes, yes I am. And so began the President of the People who Run Out of Gas Club joke.
When couples talk about what makes a relationship work, they often include honesty, shared values, good sex, and other characteristics. A sense of humor is usually in the top ten of the list, even if it is not always in first place. The above story illustrates elements of the purpose playfulness offers a relationship. First, it can smooth the rough edges of the minor inconveniences of a relationship–things like picking up someone when they run out of gas. Rather than lead with: Do you know what I was doing when you called?, or Don’t you think I have better things to do with time? humor helps defuse the frustrations that are a common part of the couple experience.
Second, the story shows how humor can help solidify us.We know how we relate to one another: he, sheepishly getting into the car without a word, me, silently driving. When I asked him Are you the president of some kind of club? and he came back with his reply, it was as though we were playing an elegant game of badminton. I had gently lobbed the birdie over the net to him and he had returned it as effortlessly. He knew what I meant, demonstrated by replying in kind, and thereby affirmed our sense of knowing each other, of speaking the same language. Being on the same wavelength increases the sense a couple can have about being together, being an us. Our various gestures, nicknames, mock insults, and private language have taken us now 27 years to develop, and we have long stories that provide the background of how these rituals came into being. These stories tell much of our shared history.
For many years now, if my head touches my husband’s, he’ll say uh oh, mind meld, which signals another of our secret rituals. At this point, we know our lines. I say something that is a gross caricature of him and he says something that is an exaggerated characteristic of me. So, I may say, Boy, I feel really cheap today. Let’s not buy anything ever again. He may say something that demonstrates my endlessly describing every thought and feeling I have. While we never developed this game with forethought, it allows us to exaggerate the other’s characteristics that we both have come to accept about the other, and also have been influential in each of us making some changes that never would have occurred with a full frontal confrontation.
Our playfulness has allowed us to signal the other. For example, in the midst of a conflict, if the other bends over, so their head is upside down, peering out from between their legs and says I’m sorry, it means more than an odd apology. It signals to the other that saying I’m sorry is difficult to admit. The other then knows it’s something to appreciate and realize how much the other let go of their ego in order to offer the apology. Another signal we have is to mumble behind the other person’s back during an argument, indicating You’re being pedantic. Stop droning on and on. While the message is understood, the comic style allows the other the face-saving grace to tone down their message.
Playfulness can also help in restoring a relationship after conflict. Sometimes using a playful approach after an argument has allowed one or the other a chance to see if a subject is still touchy, making it now safe to discuss. My husband and I have a phrase (the origin of which is a long story): Oh, no, Nipomo (spoken in a drawn out way, emphasizing the vowels). If I have just said something that I immediately regret saying, an Oh, no, Nipomo wipes it out. It is as if I had never said what I regretted, and the best reply after Oh, no, Nipomo is What?
Whether smoothing the rough edges of interactions, solidifying the relationship, exaggerating each other’s foibles and allowing one to laugh at one’s self, signaling your partner, or restoring good will after conflict, playfulness is a powerful tool for a couple. However, there are potential dangers to this art form. A few guidelines would be helpful, to know when to use a playful approach and when not to.
Don’t do it all the time. There needs to be a balance between playfulness and seriousness. Partners who overuse playfulness may not be using it to insure intimacy, as much as they are to avoid it, or other serious issues. If every conversation has a punchline, a couple isn’t able to develop other skills that come with having straightforward, even occasionally painful talks.
Don’t do it if it hurts. If you have had the misfortune to spend an evening with a couple who are lobbing verbal grenades at each other, all under the guise of “just teasing,” one can see how playfulness can get a bad name. If it hurts your partner, stop. Turning around your partner’s hurt to indicate that they are too sensitive is never helpful. Sometimes the play may be a matter of wrong timing. Sometimes it may be that your partner never wants to hear that insult spoken, no matter how silly you attempt to cover it. Playfulness is great if it’s funny, and it’s funny if you both laugh. If not, it’s called ridicule.
Finally, it feels powerful to make your partner laugh. Whether you receive a knowing smile or you render your partner totally done in, it’s a heady experience. Life is long, and you want as many couple skills as you are able.
Dr. Harper Slate is a psychotherapist in practice in Santa Monica. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.