One of the Most Important and Overlooked Relationship Builders

What the Research Shows Us

The research is pretty clear, there are innate needs that we are hardwired for – literally. Affective neuroscience informs us that we have neural circuits related to certain emotional states important for personal and relationship well-being. When those needs don’t get met we feel a void in those parts of our lives . We may not even understand what is missing, or even if we do, we underestimate the importance and significance of that need.

Jaak Panksepp has made a career in brain research on human and animal emotions. His classification of the “emotional command system” identifies seven core areas of conscious and unconscious internal states. He found these circuits in the subcortical areas the parts of the brain, instinctual, ancestral brain systems that drive motivation and behavior.

A Key Aspect of Healthy Relationships

One of these core systems is Play – which works as a brain source of joy. Panksepp’s concept of “rough-and-tumble play” could be described as carefree playfulness with fun, laughter, and smiles. This relates directly to relationship happiness because how couples spend time together defines much of the relationship. Partners on a path together need time on that journey for fun and play. When the challenges happen the fun deposits create insulation and buffers the impact.

In the counseling room over the years I have often heard one or both partners stating that there isn’t enough fun in their relationship. This is a real and a serious issue. Couples get caught up in responsibilities and activities, claiming there simply isn’t enough time to do fun things. When we explore why, fun often is not considered a priority.

When couples re-prioritize how time is spent with the understanding that play is actually an essential part of their relationship a number of things happen. There is more joy, increased feelings of connection, less stress, more laughter in the relationship, great role modeling for the kids, and increased attraction and intimacy.

Next Steps

Can fun actually increase closeness and intimacy? The neuroanatomy and play circuits involves hormones of connection and neurotransmitters related to joy and well-being. Dr. John Gottman, in his book “The Relationship Cure”, highlights Panksepp’s research. He describes a positive response to playful bids and laughter as building a supply of good will. Dr. Gottman relates to the play command system as the “Jester system”. In the Jester system couples experience shared humor, joking, and kidding around. An increased sense of peace and stability in the relationship is the byproduct. Without play there is increased risk for relationship difficulties, even when other parts of the relationship are going well.

Take some time to discuss with your partner how you both are feeling about the amount of fun in your lives. Create time and commitment as a couple and as a family for fun. Make it priority and consider taking on the motto: We will have fun!

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