Parallel Play Can Help Strengthen Adult Relationships Too

How Mastering ‘Parallel Play’ Can Strengthen Your Relationship

October 3, 2021 Updated October 7, 2021

Vector of a sad depressed couple man and woman sitting back to back during COVID-19 pandemic
Feodora Chiosea/Getty

Of all the byproducts of Covid lockdown, one was the chance to get to know ourselves better, whether we wanted to or not. Introverts were forced to explore if there was a difference between being an introvert by choice vs. a pandemic-assigned one. Extroverts were forced to hunker down and figure out life without the aid of party hats and soirees. And ambiverts? We just muddled through, already aware of our gregarious-loner contradictories, but trying hard to figure out what exactly that meant during a global pandemic.

No better time for many of us to see how we functioned within the context of a relationship — at a distance of an inch apart and for an indeterminate length of time. We adjusted to new pandemic routines: a life of loungewear and frozen meal rations (nobody spent too much time at the grocery store, unless shopping for unavailable hand sanitizer and toilet paper), smelling each other’s body odor and breath. Many had a constant, unavoidable romantic sidekick, obsequious or overbearing or somewhere in between, at less than arm’s length. It was like baptism by fire: if you didn’t have (or didn’t know you had) challenges in your relationship pre-Covid, you were certainly going to get pie-in-the-faced with them now.

And that’s exactly what happened. A survey by the UK charity Relate in April found that “nearly a quarter of people felt lockdown had placed additional pressure on their relationship. A similar proportion had found their partner more irritating….” Even the inconsequential things that were manageable, in small doses, became insurmountable. Picking at scabs, flossing teeth in the living room, whistling the Wayfair jingle over and over again, boomeranging toenail clippings in every direction — these were now, in 24/7 close-knit quarters, absolutely legitimate reasons to part ways. 

Experts suggest that relationship troubles generally revolve around “financial stress, boredom, disagreements about parenting and arguing about household responsibilities” — and, boy, were those amplified during lockdown. Home became a microcosm of an entire world trapped in a snow globe of insecurities, fear, and unanswerable questions. How is the mortgage going to get paid? How much is in savings? What if one of us gets sick? Why aren’t you getting vaccinated? When will it be safe to go back to work? When can we see our friends again? Do we still have friends?

Many, many relationships soured. Atlanta-based family lawyer Elizabeth Lindsey, current president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML), points to this new reality: “As the pandemic continued and vaccines have started to come, every family law lawyer I know is really busy.” 

Some other couples pushed through with more tenacity — and some surmise that much of the stick-to-it-ness had to do with the foundation they walked into lockdown with. “The pandemic has caused stress for everybody. There’s a collective trauma,” says Dr. Marni Feuerman, a psychotherapist in Florida. “But couples that were strong beforehand are even stronger. They already knew how to use their relationship as a resource at a time of stress.” 

Still, I’m sure many couples couldn’t depend solely on a solid history to conquer some of the obstacles thrown in their direction. According to Bustle contributor Lara Rutherford-Morrison, there are specific things independent people do to nurture and strengthen already-established relationships — and there are a few “pages we could all take from [their] dating playbook.” These people spend time alone; they spend time with other people; they let their partners do their own thing.

How is this formula supposed to work in the topsy-turvy bedlam of the Covid era? Without even being aware, we were insinuating ourselves into each other’s space every time we coughed, and are you really alone if your partner is hovering a millimeter behind you waiting to grab the olives? You get to spend time with other people — but only the one(s) you’ve already been tethered to for months, and those relentless interactions can take their toll. And how is someone supposed to immerse themselves in their own thing without locking themselves in a closet and putting in noise-canceling headphones? None of that sounds particularly soul-bolstering — and it certainly does not sound like the ingredients to fortify a romantic relationship.

To get through Covid hand-in-hand, couples had to learn to adapt to their new realities, including how to navigate the unknown as a duo. One of the ways I imagine some persisted has to do with their ability to embrace “parallel play.” Simply put, parallel play is a “type of play where children play next to or near each other, but not with each other. It’s the default mode of play for babies and toddlers, who haven’t yet developed the awareness or skills to play socially with others.” 

So, what does a transient developmental phase have to do with two adults living in a destabilized and cacophonous world? Very obviously, we’re not talking about two grown people gnawing on blocks a couple of feet away from each other.  Rather, we’re talking about two people cuddled on the opposite ends of the couch, one bingeing “Squid Game” while the other is scratching out wrong answers on a Sudoku grid. Or one of the pair is cooking, and the other is sitting at the high top reading and grumbling to themselves about the Dow. We’re talking about two people, “playing near each other, but not with each other” — mastering the art of being close, but not on top of each other. Parallel play is about training ourselves how to circumvent the crushing suffocation of lockdown without alienating our partner completely. 

Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, explains why this works: “During Covid, we couldn’t get away from the people we live with as often as usual. While I don’t think we always need ‘alone time,’ sometimes we need ‘being together, but not actually interacting time’. It’s a way to know that someone is there…like a safety blanket while still being able to do what you want to be doing. It allows you not to get sick of that person you care so much about because you are doing something with them 24/7.” 

If we are lucky, we will never again face difficulties like the ones Coronavirus has unceremoniously thrown in our faces. But we have to admit that these unpleasant and unprecedented times offered some of us a brand new — and maybe improved — way of being. It’s not just during clanging and confusing times that we need to embrace what we’ve learned about existing alone and simultaneously together. Couples can always use a little gentle, unforced human connection — and parallel play is one way to get there.