First Person

Games Parents Play: Moms and dads enjoy a little friendly competition

PHOTO © Metro Newspaper Service

My husband likes to burst my balloon. This frustrates me to no end. If I don’t deflect him, he usually shoots me down. This happens so often I’d be totally demoralized if I hadn’t already come to terms with one simple fact: It’s good for our relationship.

Anyone who’s familiar with Dogfight will have recognized that I’m talking about actual, not metaphorical, balloons that figure in the game. And we do love to play games.

My daughter Em witnessed this when she came home from college for a long holiday weekend. She chalked it up to the shifts that occur in an empty nest marriage. When couples find themselves with an abundance of free time, their behavior often changes. That first night she kept her mouth shut. But on Saturday and Sunday, when she saw him shoot me down a half-dozen times—and me clobber him twice—she approached us in the family room.

“Is this going on every night? Has it become a habit? Do I have to live with it from now on?”

I wouldn’t look her in the eye. Instead, I concentrated on the TV screen. “It’s just something that happened once you left home. I don’t think it’s a problem.”

“You’re acting like kids.”

“Hey, it’s our lives. We do what we want now.” I waved her off, but it was too late. Once he saw I’d become distracted, my husband swooped in, took out my last balloon, and sent my plane into a death spiral.

“Thanks a lot.” I tossed Em the remote. “Your turn to lose to Dad. If you don’t like Dogfight, we could all play Frisbee golf. That’s our favorite.”

This is married couple romance in the Wii and Xbox age. My husband and I are old enough to remember dropping quarters into arcade machines to play video games, so a home gaming console that provides unlimited bowling, tennis, golf and Frisbee is a thrill that never wears off.

On weekends we watch recent films on streaming video via Amazon, or binge on three episodes of a favorite Netflix series. When we’re short on time, we spend a half-hour on the Wii, flying biplanes and shooting at the balloons that keep us aloft until one of us crashes and the other wins. Now that the kids are gone, every night is date night.

What at first disgusted Em became her favorite “aren’t my parents goofy” story. When a college friend came to stay for Thanksgiving, Em ushered her into the family room. The sight of two old relics waving their circa 2006 Wii remotes was a ROFLMAO moment.

“They do this every night. Aren’t they cute?” Em’s sarcastic tone didn’t hide her obvious happiness that her parents still know how to have fun together.

Almost every child witnesses the tensions in the relationship between parents, hard as we try to hide them. The responsibilities of real-life love—diapers and bills, long days and longer nights, the non-stop cycle of putting food on the table and cleaning up after each other—bear no resemblance to Disney romance.

Couples know you can’t build a life together without mutual trust, respect and dependability. But that day-to-day stuff never reads as romantic. When the fun appears to be gone—when Mom and Dad don’t goof off or laugh with each other—it can seem as if the love has gone out of the marriage.

How to add it back in? Our kids might suggest jewelry, chocolates, flowers and other trappings of affection. After all, moms on TV tear up over these presents and then dispense kisses. But it’s not stuff that matters. It’s time and attention.

No one tells children the essential truth about romantic relationships: that the same root emotions they feel for their best friends are what make a marriage successful. Having fun and expressing playfulness are essential to a long-term partnership.

Ask a single friend what she or he values in a partner. Chances are you won’t hear “plays well with others.” We don’t prize playfulness, and we should.

Adult responsibility typically crowds out most forms of play other than play between parent and child. If play does occur, it happens offsite, away from home: bunco or girls’ night out, golf, basketball or poker night with the guys. But when the kids are away and parents are finally free to play, what we learn in the process can be the glue that cements the relationship.

I’m a happier person now that my husband and I make time to play. Thanks to Wii bowling and board games like Scrabble and Boggle, we spend much more time together. In between turns we talk, poke fun at each other, share inside jokes. Like the benefits of exercise, which last throughout the day, the benefits of play extend beyond time spent in competition and gaming. I find myself laughing hard—gasping to catch my breath—at least once a day at something my husband has said. I know this makes him feel good.

Often couples split when the children leave home. I know why. When there’s only the two of you, with no distractions, you have to like each other to really love each other. My husband is competitive, but when we play I see the good sport in him. He’s a cheerful loser and a victor who doesn’t gloat. Even if we weren’t married, I’d want him on my team. The fact that we are married makes me appreciate that I picked a winner.

So laugh all you want, Em. Take photos of your parents and post them on Instagram with snarky captions. I know you’re smart enough to realize what our silly grins are saying. The family that plays together, stays together. And your dad and me—we’re playing for keeps.

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