Not just child's play: could board games be the answer to winning at love?

Michelle Hespe and Jeff Atkinson are keen board game players and they think it has a positive impact on their relationship.
Michelle Hespe and Jeff Atkinson are keen board game players and they think it has a positive impact on their relationship.  Photo: Steven Siewert

Sure, date nights, fancy dinners and walks on the beach are nice – but couples trying to keep the romance alive in their relationship should actually make time to play board games together, according to a new study.

The research from Baylor University in Texas found playing board games together releases oxytocin – the "love hormone" – in the brain, helping couples maintain their romantic connection and build on their intimacy.

Study author Dr Karen Melton said her team was surprised to see the effect was even higher in men than it was in women, and it didn't matter what game was played across a range of card games, word games, chess, checkers, dominoes, puzzles, Monopoly and others.

"Our big finding was that all couples release oxytocin when playing together – and that's good news for couples' relationships," Dr Melton said.

Michelle Hespe, 44, and Jeff Atkinson, 46, from Neutral Bay, are not surprised by the study findings. The couple, who have been together five years and have three children between them, love playing board games such as Cluedo, Monopoly and Scrabble together once or twice a week.

They believe it keeps the sense of fun alive and let's you be who you are without the consequences of real life.

"It's a chance to be competitive in a fun way," Michelle, a publisher, said. "We are both very different and Jeff loves doing things his own way. He says it's a chance for me to be the winner! It's also a chance to be a child again – or at least young – not worrying about things like money and kids and work. It's escapism really – a break from reality.

"We both work really hard, so board games are fun and lighthearted – except when someone is grumpy about losing. I think board games also bring out a person's true colours. They show you what the person is like in life and how they operate – whether they're honest and don't cheat, or caring for others by helping them out."

Michelle said a bit of healthy competition is good for the relationship.

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"Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose – it doesn't matter," she said. "You just get back up if you lose and try again. There's always something to laugh about and sometimes you realise that you're being really serious about a game, and that's funny in itself."

Couples and sex therapist Isiah McKimmie says having young children can be a tough period for couples.

"Having children puts a lot of stress on a relationship, and especially a couple's sex life," she says.

"I often see challenges like couples drifting apart and feeling disconnected from each other, one partner losing desire and sex becoming infrequent (or non-existent)." 

McKimmie says if couples can carve out time for each other to play games, it can have an immensely positive effect on their intimacy.

"Making time for each other and maintaining connection are important to maintaining both intimacy and sexual desire," she says.

"Board games may also help because they provide fun, novelty and excitement which have also been shown to help keep sexual desire alive. Board games (as long as there aren't too many arguments!) may also be relaxing which is an important factor in many people's sexual desire."

And if playing games does lead to arguments?

"A little bit of competitiveness can be good to keep the games interesting," says McKimmie. "Just remember that it's having fun together that's important. Settle any arguments with something fun, like the winner gets the first massage (but not the second)."

And if board games aren't your thing, don't worry, your relationship isn't doomed. McKimmie says the principle behind the board games is maintaining connection and making time for one another.

"Even taking just 15 minutes a day to talk to each other, without distractions and about things other than logistics has been shown to make a difference," she says.  

"Regular date nights can also help the fun, novelty and connection between you. Take it in turns of organising something and don't be afraid to try new things. 

"It's important too though to look at reducing the things that aren't fun for one of you in the relationship. For example, couples that share household chores equally have been found to have higher relationship and sexual satisfaction than other couples. So look at how to juggle chores and kids and look at how you can reduce stress in your life."