“Effective relationships, both inside and outside of
families, are dependent on nurturing a culture of shared meanings.”

Love, intimacy, and companionship are considered the cement of contemporary couple relationships. The way that couples arrange their social lives and leisure time has an influence and effect on the stability of a couple’s union. And while many factors, including communication and interaction patterns (Gottman,
Coan, Carrere, & Swanson, 1998), contribute to marital stability and early marital satisfaction, time spent in leisure as a couple also strongly relates to long term marital satisfaction. In other words, there is a positive connection between couples playing together and feeling satisfied with their marriages.

Yet it is also true that the amount of time that couples spend in joint leisure time often drops considerably after the first year of marriage, which also leads to a decline in marital satisfaction. In fact researchers have discovered that even one year into marriage, couples spend less time talking with one another, are less approving of each other, are less disclosing to one another, spend less time making efforts to change their own behaviour in order to resolve conflicts, and increase their negativity and conflict relative to the newlywed period. Discussions about their wants, concerns, and the quality of their relationship also decrease (Huston et al., 1986). Growing apart over the marital life course assumes greater significance with lengthening life expectancies (Bair, 2007) and has the potential to lead to gray divorce. So learning to play together takes on even greater significance.

Gender differences in expectations for friendship or about the content and quality of their shared time together persist (Fischer & Oliker, 1983). This resulting mismatch in expectations for communication and
shared time can leave both husbands and wives frustrated. Studies of same-sex relationships illuminate why husbands and wives have different expectations for friendship with their spouse. Research on same-sex friendship reveals that women converse more frequently about intimate topics and daily activities than do men (Aries & Johnson, 1983; Gager, 1998). Given these gender differences in same-sex relationships, the conclusion drawn is that time spent together with a spouse may be more salient for wives than for husbands. Thus, on one hand, greater perceived interaction and equal perceived interaction should decrease the likelihood of divorce for wives but may have less effect on husbands’ likelihood of divorce. On the other hand, wives may be satisfied with less shared time given the gender expectation that men have less capacity for intimacy than do women.

Joint leisure activities are high in interaction and parallel activities are low in interaction. Parallel activities are those that couples participate in side-by-side with little or no interaction.   Engaging in parallel play is an important part of how small children learn to socially interact. Envisage kids quietly building their own houses with blocks or running around the playground without interacting with others. Though they’re not engaging with others they are also not entirely alone. If you know the other partner is available to you should you need them then you feel secure. So parallel play is a strategy couples can use to promote a nurturing environment and build secure attachment. It is a way of relating to a partner that involves both healthy autonomy and the ability to count on the other. But simply spending any kind of time together does not increase relationship satisfaction there has to be something more than just physical proximity. This can include any individually focused activity that does not require total solitude or completely distracts your partner from their own activity. It is a shared space in which you can both do what you want to do in the presence of the other. So nurture a hobby or interest that is uniquely yours while being present enough to pay attention and respond to your partner, even if only for a brief moment.

‘Companionship’ is also of great importance – that is, a joint lifestyle. Couples with joint lifestyles are less likely to dissolve their union than are those with separate lifestyles. Couples with joint lifestyles tend to engage in leisure activities together and have shared friendships and other social contacts. Leisure is defined as what the participants personally believe to be leisure for themselves. Extravagant outings are less important to couples than the little, everyday things they do together. In fact, being satisfied with everyday activities plays the biggest role in couples feeling satisfied with their marriages. Having a joint lifestyle provides the opportunity for conversation, getting to know each other better, and building shared experiences, which ultimately have the ability to bind couples together (Kalmijn and Bernasco 2001).

Couples with leisure interests that happen to be similar are less likely to pursue activities only one spouse enjoys. It has also been found that couples with similar political and religious values at the start of their marriage tend to spend more leisure time together and later into the marriage (Kalmijn & Bernasco, 2001).

A joint lifestyle is likely to decrease the risk of union dissolution for several reasons:

  • A joint lifestyle enhances emotional attachment. This means that partners will spend more time together and consequently get to know each other better by communicating and by being exposed to each other. Together they build shared experiences, binding them together resulting in a relationship that is more intimate and more strongly based on shared experiences;
  • Knowing each other well and having more shared experiences together helps partners to reach mutual understanding which positively affects the perceived quality of their relationship (Hill 1988; Kalmijn and Bernasco 2001);
  • A joint lifestyle increases not only the benefits of the relationship but also the costs of relationship dissolution. When the relationship ends partners have to reinvent how to spend their leisure time. In addition they may lose a large part of their social network (Kalmijn and Van Groenou 2005). Couples who have more separate lifestyles are able to continue their leisure activities in the way they used to as most of their friends were not connected to the ex-partner. Given these smaller losses, couples with more separate lifestyles are potentially more likely to end their relationship;
  • A joint lifestyle reduces the opportunities to engage in new partnerships. The availability of alternative partners has been found to increase the risk of relationship dissolution (South and Lloyd 1995; South, Trent, and Shen 2001). Joint lifestyles increase the ability to monitor the other partner and the partnership. A partner is less inclined to reach out to a potential new partner under the watchful eye of their partner. Being with your partner signals to others that you are both engaged in the relationship. This too is likely to reduce the likelihood of getting romantically involved with others (South, Trent, and Shen 2001). The more a married couple engages in leisure time jointly, the lower the risk of union dissolution (Booth et al. 1984; Hill 1988; Portman 2005);
  • Spouses report that more couple leisure time made it easier to handle their other responsibilities and provides a form of stress relief;
  • Leisure provides spouses with the chance to increase and improve communication and interaction by focusing on each other and making each other the priority. This in turn helps them learn more about each other;
  • Teaches couples to overcome challenges, work together, and to compromise; helps them feel support from each other; helps them experience an emotional connection with one another, and helps them increase in love and affection towards each other;
  • Leisure also helps couples create memories that make leisure something to look forward to;
  • Many couples seem to think that leisure time helps them get along better with each other. When they are not spending enough leisure time together they tend to be shorter with each other and fight more;
  • Leisure time increases positive communication: playing together as a couple is related to positive communication. 

The upshot is that taking the time for recreation together will “renew” your marriage. You will relate to your spouse in new ways by playing together in a variety of settings. You will learn to depend on each other for fun…

Here are some ideas to try:

  • Create your own rituals;
  • Develop your own set of treat cards;
  • Try something new with your spouse:
    • Try a dance class together
    • If one of you is a golfer, give your spouse a lesson or two
    • Read novels to each other
    • Help someone in need together
    • Take early morning walks together
    • Go camping together.

The possibilities are endless. 

Be flexible. Make sure that both of you are happy with how you’re spending your leisure time together. Couples that are flexible and able to adjust to each other’s needs feel more satisfied in their marriages. Find a balance between activities you’re both used to and new activities. Talk with your spouse to make sure their needs are being met. Being flexible means listening to what your spouse says, being willing to try new things, repeating old, fun, activities, and changing how much time you spend on activities, when necessary.

Go out there and spice it up!


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