I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The key to happy, healthy, long-lasting relationships isn’t what you probably think it is. You might be guessing it’s communication skills, listening, good sex, or the ever-vague concept of compatibility. You’d have good reason to believe that because for years couples therapists have been teaching that it’s all about communication. Nope.
John Gottman, a famous psychologist, has been studying marriage and relationships for 40 years and he found that good communication isn't what determines success or failure.
Here’s the truth. The single most important skill in committed relationships is what I call The Zone of Play.
I first heard the term "Zone of Play" from my mentor, David Sawyer.
So what is it? The Zone of Play is most clearly observed by watching children play together.
Say two kids are building a fort with chairs and blankets. They’re having a good time laughing and playing and being enchanted together. They’re in the flow, agreeing that the family dog is the guard for their fort and no one else knows they’re there.
Perhaps one child wants one thing, and another wants something else. If they’re in the zone, they can often find their way through that disagreement.
The more they play well together, the more their connection grows. They get closer.
Periodically, and naturally, one of them will fall out of The Zone of Play. They’ve lost their rhythm together, perhaps because they disagree about how many doors the fort should have or who gets to use the flashlight.
Sometimes, this off-rhythm moment is just a blip and the kids find their way again. But sometimes, when they can’t regain the flow, their play ends in tears and running to mom to intervene.
The same thing happens as adults. Hopefully we don't run to mom, but we might walk away, stonewall, or otherwise sever the connection.
Successful couples know how to stay in and return to The Zone of Play.
This co-created flow state helps build trust and connection over time. Small moments of play and flow provide opportunities for profound connection. Being in the rhythm together feels good and builds trust.
(comic from xkcd.com)
So how do you support The Zone of Play? Here are some practices to help you keep your rhythm together:
- Say “Yes.” Agree. Note that agreement and compliance are different, because agreeing doesn’t require you to give up part of yourself. Saying yes is “I’d love to do that with you!” “Sure, that sounds great.” “Yes, I like that idea.”
- Embrace conflict as a chance to get through it and find your flow again.
- Seek repair. Be willing to reconnect after a fight when you're ready. Choose intimacy.
- Prioritize connection by recognizing which fights need to be had and which don’t. (Hint: conflict that’s about a fundamental difference in your personalities is useful for your relationship vs a fight resulting from your bad day at work).
- Prioritize connection by opting for affection, touch, lust, play, silliness, adventure, spontaneity, or exploration. When your partner goes there, take the invitation.
- Be a good leader and a good follower (More on that in a future post. Don’t miss it.)
- Don't make your partner wrong. If you notice yourself doing it, either get curious and ask a question, or practice acceptance of how they're being.
- Lighten up and don’t take everything so seriously. Choosing play is good for you.
Try it! Which of these suggestions do you need the most practice at? Leave me a comment below and let me know. Then, start playing with it today.
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Here's to more Yee-haw,