“I wish my partner were as playful with me as he is with our dog,” I thought to myself one evening as we both were lying in bed watching television. During a commercial, my husband, Chad, spontaneously lept up and maneuvered himself so that he could nuzzle his nose up against our dog’s snout, whispering, “You’re the best little doggie in the world,” and calling him nicknames like “Bubbly-boo” and “Cutey-cute.” I stared at them, thinking how great it was that my husband loved our dog so much that he could show him such affection. Then, when it happened again later that week, I started to wonder why my partner, the overly efficient and regimented vice president of a pharmaceutical company, could slip so easily into the role of child with our dog but not with me.
Thinking back, I remembered when we first started dating. We seemed more spontaneous then. Going to the movies meant holding hands in the dark, dinner was a chance to flirt at the table of some trendy restaurant, and strolling through a gallery was an opportunity to sidle up against each other while staring at a piece of art.
Five years later, now happily married with a four-legged child we call Hoffman, our lives have settled comfortably into a common phase of marriage. We opt to order in rather than trying to score a reservation at the newest restaurant. We get excited by the arrival of new things to watch on Netflix in lieu of fighting crowds at the movie theater, and now we walk past gallery windows on our way to the dog park. I try to make excuses for our behavior: We work hard, we don’t like leaving Hoffman alone, we’re tired, and, admittedly, we’re getting older.
I kept thinking of the quotation by George Bernard Shaw: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
The truth is that Chad and I are suffering from midlife marriage malaise. Apparently it’s quite common. Friends who are in long-term relationships tell me that their priorities changed after being together for years. I’m told that it’s less about going out and being seen than it is about building a life with your partner and savoring the quiet times at home. I suppose there is some truth in that. But what about the adage “the couple that plays together stays together”?
My therapist assured me that many couples experience a loss of playfulness, but not due to complacency as much as fear of rejection. I thought back to that night when Chad snuggled with our dog. I wondered what would have happened if Chad had spontaneously rubbed his nose up against mine and called me “Bubbly-boo.” Depending on my mood (and yes, believe it or not, I’m moody), I probably would have stared back at him with an odd expression on my face and said something like, “Are you having a stroke?”
It occurred to me that if my relationship was lacking playfulness, then it was just as much my fault as it was his. All at once I saw myself in bed playing Words With Friends on my iPhone with people who weren’t really my friends, as Chad read a magazine. Now it made sense that he would choose to play with Hoffman, with his unconditional love and nary a snarky comment to be heard, over me, someone whose personality is as temperamental as that of a 2-year-old.
It was then that I realized that if I wanted more playfulness in my relationship, then I was going to have to do something about it. But how do you initiate fun without coming across as desperate? And what if my lame attempt at playfulness yielded rejection from Chad? With all these questions swirling in my mind, it didn’t take long before I talked myself out of making any playful attempts with my partner.
A week later I was working at my computer one night. Chad was in the bedroom reading a magazine, with Hoffman by his side. Suddenly I was startled by the sound of Hoffman leaping off the bed to retrieve a ball that Chad had thrown. Soon they were in the throes of a game of fetch, but as usual, Hoffman’s interest waned after the sixth throw, and they began wrestling. I listened in envy as my husband began calling my dog those same cute affectations that I longed to hear him say to me. Sitting there, I felt as abandoned as that ball lying on the floor.
Regardless of gender, marriage is about communication and compromise. Of course, priorities change after being together for years. In that regard I agreed with my friends in long-term relationships. And yes, perhaps we do become slightly insecure with our loved ones out of fear of rejection, like my therapist so insightfully pointed out. But these observations shouldn’t prevent us from taking risks.
In that moment I knew I had to show Chad that I was up for fun. I wouldn’t allow myself to be discarded like that ball, because I was better than that, and so was my relationship. So I surprised everyone, including myself, by jumping up on the bed and proclaiming my rightful position next to Chad and Hoffman, smothering them in kisses and calling them every cute name I could think of. I didn’t care if they thought I was crazy, silly or experiencing an attack of apoplexy, because I had been fearless and, more importantly, fun.