My partner and I recently returned from Burning Man feeling enlivened, enriched and exhausted. Every year now, we’ve agreed to embrace the challenge that comes with high heat, dust storms, and late nights, as part of a week-long, fully immersive experience in the middle of the Nevada Desert.
What brings 10s of thousands to this uninhabitable place every year? – the desire to play again, with the same spirit and wonder we did as children.
Most of Burning Man’s long-held principles lend themselves to play by promoting cooperation, inclusion, radical self-expression, generosity and open-hearted presence, all the elements of life every one of us is born with and intuitively understand as children.
Play is a reset button for our over-stressed, news-saturated, time-pressured adult minds
Most couples I work with will readily admit that play is not something they experience on a regular basis. Life has gotten too busy. There’s barely enough time to be alone to talk, much less play. Our time has become more about stresses of schedules, finances, work, family and errands. We wake up planning our busy days, and fall into bed drained from the demands of life.
One of the casualties of growing up is our ability to embrace play for its own sake, to seek out joyful moments for no other reason than to be present in the moment and have fun together as a couple.
Playing on the Playa
One of our neighbors on the playa was a couple in their early 50s and parents of 3 kids in college. When I asked if they ever bring their kids to Burning Man, they said no, Burning Man was their time to be together and enjoy the adventure as a couple.
They looked and acted more like the age they met, 20 years ago. They dressed in colorful outfits that expressed their playful sides and laid back attitudes. Burning Man was their annual escape to reconnect as a couple, having nothing to do than be together in a mood of exploration and adventure.
Each day we’d watch them hop on their bikes and head off, returning late into the night with smiles and stories to share.
When couples give each other permission to play together, they acknowledge that their relationship is a place where they can both engage their imaginations and embrace parts of themselves they may have left behind along the way.
Play for its own sake, is not a trivial, unnecessary activity. Play is foundational to maintaining a happy, growing relationship.
When we invite joyful, carefree moments into our time with our partner, we experience the childlike essence behind the busy adult, the inherent joy of life every one of us is born with.
If the idea of play seems like a distant memory in your relationship, maybe it’s time to sit down and talk about it.
What activities would bring playfulness out in you as a couple? Is it learning how to partner dance, or sharing a new sport? Is it hitting the road to commune with nature? Is it camping around a fire with friends, or laughing together at a local comedy club? Is it starting a 2000-piece puzzle, or pulling out a Janga tower?
Of course we can bring play into the bedroom as well. We can use our imagination to explore our erotic personas and engage with our partner through a different lens. Couples who enjoy roleplay appreciate the experience of stepping out of the norm and embracing alternative ways of relating to each other erotically.
A few years ago a client of mine discovered a side of herself that loved to pretend she was still in college, before the kids, the job and the mortgage payments. She gave that part of her the name Sassy. Her partner loved spending time with Sassy. When she brought Sassy out to play, her partner felt invited into a more carefree space as well. Sassy was the signal that conversations about adult worries were put on hold, and play was the focus.
Bringing play into your relationship is a team effort
In order to let ourselves feel playful, we need to feel supported by our partner.
We can give each other permission to make the great escape from adult demands.
To let ourselves get playful with our partner, we want to feel supported in the following ways:
Trust that our partner has our back in new adventures by being patient and caring in our learning curves.
Safety to step out of our adult responsibilities, and let go into a more child-like enjoyment.
Attunement and Attentiveness to our partner, to create a shared experience
Collaboration in designing the play that we’re creating together
Cooperation to bring that vision into being, whether that’s riding our bikes through the sights and sounds of Burning Man, planning a vacation full of new experiences, or sneaking off for a night in a hotel room with tickets to your favorite live concert.
Part of introducing new experiences of play may require a couple to work through challenges as a team.
One of the challenges of creating play in the midst of Burning Man was trying to set up camp during two days of challenging winds and dust storms. I have memories of holding onto the end of a 15ft square tarp, trying not to be swept off my feet with gusts of 30mph winds. By the end of that day, we lay exhausted, laughing about what we had to overcome to get settled, and feeling unified in our shared victory.
Be Happy, Nothing is in Control
Playfulness requires full participation and presence. Play requires us to relinquish the control we cling to in our day-to day lives. Play can push us out of our comfort zone of familiarity. It asks us to put our phones down, and forget about timelines.
Play challenges our rigid, adult expectations of right and wrong, or yes and nos.
One of the most important transitions I make at Burning Man usually comes within the first 3 days, when I’m confronted with my need to control my circumstances and surroundings. It’s in that confrontation where the true reset can begin. Letting go of control and going with the flow, is the gift that play gives us.
The Science Behind Play
Being able to play as adults is critical in our stressful lives. Its been shown to release endorphins and improve brain functionality. It stimulates creativity and of course, increases our feelings of well-being.
When we introduce new forms of play into our relationships it creates the much-needed experiences of novelty and mystery, two of the necessary ingredients to a vibrant, growing relationship.
When a couple engages in the novelty of new experiences, their brains are producing all the love hormones that support bonding and closeness.
Oxytocin comes from the attraction of seeing our partner with fresh eyes, as we engage in new experiences that bring out their joyfulness.
Vasopressin helps us rise to physical and emotional mobilization to take on new adventures
Phenyl ethylamine (PEA) is another love hormone responsible for releasing adrenaline that comes from new experiences.
Dopamine comes from the bonding and closeness of sharing those new experiences.
All of these love hormones combined make for a cocktail of powerful feelings.
In other words, when we introduce novel ways of playing together, Mother Nature is supplying us with everything we need to feel happy and in-love with our partner.
New experiences can be as simple as trying out indoor rock climbing, or maybe visiting an Escape Room, or jumping on a local Zip line in the woods.
When a couple introduces new, unfamiliar experiences into their relationship, they refresh their perception of themselves and their partner.
If a couple comes to see me complaining of low desire or boredom, we talk about the importance of keeping novelty and mystery alive in their relationship. These two ingredients help produce the chemical soup that reawakens desire between partners.
The enjoyment of play doesn’t go away, but adults have an uncanny ability to repress and silence the inner child.
Having just spent a week surrounded by so many others who paid the price of heat and dust to let their inner children out to play, I am inspired once again to see the world through the eyes of my inner child, and accept her invitations to come out and play more often.
Sit down with your partner and talk about what play means in your relationship.
Take a break from this crazy world. You can be sure it’ll be here when you get back from your personal playground, feeling renewed, engaged, and happily exhausted.
If you’re wondering whether sex and intimacy coaching can make a difference in your relationship, it’s time to schedule an appointment with me to get your questions answered.
My female cousin was a primary contributor to my early sex education, when I needed it most. For instance she clarified that I couldn’t get pregnant by dancing with a boy, no matter how close we got. She also confirmed that I wasn’t the only person who touched themselves (down there), and most importantly, she showed me that ‘wellness massagers from Sears were used for things other than sore necks and shoulders. A few years later my boyfriend introduced me to the real deal. A vibrator made specifically for genital arousal. It was a cream colored, hard plastic, shapeless cylinder with a twisting on/off switch at the end.
This week a client told me she was doing a Marie Kondo on her closet. She was getting rid of what no longer gave her joy.
We went on to talk about her sex life with her partner and the nagging resistance she has to being touched.
Somewhere along the line she formed a belief system about touch. She couldn’t identify a particular incident that informed that belief system. There was no trauma or abuse. She just knew that when she was touched (even by her loving partner) her body would recoil and she’d shut down.