03/25/2015 07:43 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Silliness Saved Our Long Marriage

Marriage is hard work, right? But when Tim and I learned to play through our disagreements, so much of the hard work just disappeared.

Don't get me wrong. We're responsible, serious grown-ups who have worked for large corporate entities. For us, learning to play was work. Hard work.

Being Silly is Serious Business
We experimented with many ways to bring levity to a relationship that had been weighed down by too many years of inattention to intimacy and focus on careers and raising a family. It seemed as if the walls of our lives were slowly closing in on us, leaving less room for spontaneous fun or anything else that wasn't tied up with the grind of work or supporting our children's activities.

We started by taking silliness very, very seriously.

One of the first things we learned is that play is more a state of mind than an activity. Play creates options; it is the opposite of the highly planned, organized and goal-oriented existence we had built for ourselves. For us, play has become a way to learn to hold even our most entrenched opinions lightly and create awareness of new options.

A Shift Deck by the Bed
Those walls we felt were closing in on us were held together by all the unresolved complaints we had saved up over our years together - all those things we wanted to improve about the other, like annoying habits and inconsiderate behaviors.

So, we resolved to not ignore our complaints, but to play through them.

For a while, that meant a Shift Deck card game in every room in the house. The rule: If you wanted to complain, pull a card and follow the directions, like:
  • Sing "I'm right, you're wrong" to the tune of your favorite nursery rhyme
  • Speak about the issue while holding your tongue with your fingers
  • Make a puppet with your hands and have your puppet talk about your issue
  • Sing everything you want to say for the next minute in your favorite genre: opera, rock, country, or rap.

After a while, I didn't even wait to pick the card, but just launched into song with my complaint; opera or country seemed the most appropriate musical expression of tiny injustices. Tim holding his tongue and jumping on one foot while complaining about my bossiness was so entertaining it almost made me want to be bossier.

Approaching our troubles playfully gave us space to see the ridiculousness of complaints in the larger scheme of our relationship, to hold the issues lightly and open the space for resolving them. A playful state of mind helped us create options instead of pressing harder on tactics we'd already tried.

Know Your Play Style
Play expert Stuart Brown defines play as "an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and suspends self-consciousness and a sense of time. It is also self-motivating and makes you want to do it again."

So some of the complaints we have about each other - like me bossy or Tim competitive - are just play that we do over and over again. Our tension melted when we acknowledged those annoying habits through play, by exaggerating the annoying qualities or switching roles so we could see how the other person worked.

"Nothing lights up the brain like play," Brown says in his Ted Talk, adding that play "fires up the cerebellum, puts a lot of impulses into the frontal lobes, the executive portion, and helps contextual memory be developed."

Without play, Brown says on his website, long-term adult relationships become "a survival endurance contest. Without play skills, the repertoire to deal with inevitable stresses is narrowed. Even if loyalty, responsibility, duty, and steadfastness remain, without playfulness there will be insufficient vitality left over to keep the relationship buoyant and satisfying."

That's a pretty good summary of our marriage before we got playful, and fits the relationship a lot of our clients are struggling through, too.

Play Pays Off at Work, Too
Our colleague Diana Chapman, who introduced us to the Shift Deck, includes a chapter on play in the "The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Success."

The play mindset, Diana says, stimulates creativity and connection, which are essential qualities for high-performing businesses. Emerging science shows that people who are in good mood are far more likely to develop innovative or creative thoughts and solve problems.

Our experience? More play makes for better problem-solving at home and at work.

Tim Peek is a certified executive coach who advises leaders and their teams on using disruption, consciousness, and strategy to create their desired future. and

Meg Dennison is a certified conscious leadership coach who has reinvented herself many times. She coaches busy women midpoint in their life or career to consciously create their next step based on genius and life goals.

Together, Meg and Tim write about how they turned around what had become a stale and uninspiring 28-year marriage to return to the passion and purpose to their lives. Motivated executives come to Meg and Tim for help reinvigorating their careers, companies and intimate relationships.

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