When I think about my best friend, I’m taken back to afternoons in high school spent studying on her floor while she watched episodes of Gilmore Girls in bed. These days, when she visits me in Los Angeles, we’ll sit side-by-side on my couch doing nothing that pertains to each other while simultaneously basking in the comfort of our proximity.
While I think our friendship is pretty special (I’m biased), as a therapist, I know that “being alone together” with a friend isn’t rare or new. In clinical circles, it’s considered the adult version of “parallel play,” a term coined by sociologist Mildred Parten in her 1929 dissertation on the types of social interaction among preschoolers. Parallel play, as she described it, is a shared social experience in which children play near each other, but not with each other.
Typically beginning around the age of two, parallel play reflects a child’s maturation from solitary onlooker to observant, cooperative social being. According to Parten, it also helps them develop social skills, increase their confidence, and find new ways to express themselves—all of which are things we, too, can experience in adult relationships when we engage in a version of parallel play.
You might know this to be true in your platonic friendships; after all, a commonly cited mark of a good friendship is the ability to share each other’s time and space without really doing anything at all. But the same can be said for parallel play in our romantic relationships, too—which I find is often a missing piece for couples who feel either too intertwined or too independent from each other.
When I ask couples who are struggling with their relationship about how they spend their time together, this is the kind of feedback I hear: “He cares more about video games than he does about me,” or, “I feel like being in this relationship means I don’t get any time to myself.” Comments like these fall at opposite ends of the connection spectrum, but to me, they point to the same potential solution: making like two-year-olds and adding some parallel play to the relationship.
Why practicing parallel play is crucial in romantic relationships
In any healthy relationship, there’s room for both quality time spent together and separately. After all, each serves a distinct purpose, the former allowing you to bond with your partner and the latter ensuring you maintain your sense of self. But there’s also a kind of interaction that falls somewhere in between these two extremes—one that reflects a looser sort of connection than engaging in a shared activity, but that still underscores a foundation of closeness.
Parallel play encompasses that middle ground. By creating space for each of you to pursue your own interests while also appreciating each other’s company, parallel play “can facilitate both increased independence and closeness between partners,” says psychotherapist Sarah E. Breen, LCSW.
“Parallel play can facilitate both increased independence and closeness between partners.” —Sarah E. Breen, LCSW, psychotherapist
There’s a certain kind of comfort in knowing that you’re free to do your own thing, but also, your partner is right there next to you, if you need or want anything; it’s not about ignoring each other so much as it is allowing room for solo pursuits with the option for you to engage intermittently. In this way, parallel play is a strategy couples can use to promote a predictable, nurturing environment and build secure attachment, or a way of relating to a partner that involves both healthy autonomy and the ability to count on others.
The fact that interacting is optional when you’re embracing parallel play in a relationship can also lessen some of the social pressure you might otherwise feel spending time in someone else’s company. “Parallel play is a way for you and your partner to connect while decompressing from the stresses of daily life, not [risk] ramping up distress by requesting each other’s undivided attention,” says psychotherapist Carrie Covell, LCSW.
Not to mention, the need to agree on a single activity to do whenever you’re spending time together can be its own stressor. Parallel play permits couples to take a break from the (often necessary) act of compromising by ensuring space for both partners’ needs in a given moment, says Breen.
That’s important because even the most compatible partners will have needs that differ—either in general, or depending on factors like mood and energy level. For example, I like to say (albeit dramatically) that after a long day of therapy sessions, I need three hours of staring at a white wall to decompress. My partner? After work, he’s immediately ready for a rewatch marathon of The Office.
It’s not that I don’t like The Office. I’ll no doubt be begging him to turn it on after I have a moment with my favorite bit of drywall. It’s about knowing myself and my need for a sensory break after listening and engaging all day. Instead of having to choose between white-wall heaven and quality time with my partner, I can suggest parallel play to strike a balance: This way, I can sit quietly and zone out in the same space as my partner, while he enjoys his TV time.
It may seem paradoxical at first blush, but having the flexibility to explore your own interests and meet your own sensory needs can also help build your willingness to subsequently respect and focus on your partner’s needs when that time comes, says Breen. In that way, parallel play isn’t just a low-pressure way to spend time with a partner; it can also help you fill your own cup so you’re better equipped to fill your partner’s, too.
3 parallel play tips to help you get started
1. Define parallel play activities with your partner
To get the most out of parallel play in your relationship, it’s helpful for you and your partner to agree on what types of activities can work for this side-by-side hangout (and what types can’t). As Covell explains, “any individually focused activity that doesn’t require total solitude or risk completely distracting your partner from their own activity is fair game.”
Decide beforehand how much time you can both dedicate—so you aren’t distracted by other demands—and what you’ll both do with it, suggests Breen. Remember: The goal is to use this time to nurture a hobby or interest that is uniquely yours (rather than something you and your partner both like and would prefer to engage in together).
Can’t think of anything? Brainstorming activities that might interest or fulfill you for future parallel-play sessions might be the activity in and of itself.
2. Consider how you’ll be mindful of each other
Keep in mind that even though parallel play implies some level of independence, availability is still the name of the game. It’s important that both you and your partner know that if one of you wants to share something funny or interesting, the other will be present enough to pay attention and respond, even if just for a brief moment.
That means focusing on the solo activity you’re doing as it exists in the presence of your partner (and encouraging your partner to do the same with their activity), rather than just going about it as you would if you were alone. “This will help ensure your partner doesn’t feel ignored or disconnected from you while you do what you’d like nearby,” says Breen.
You can even carry the mindfulness into “together” time later by debriefing how parallel play felt for each of you, what you noticed, and when you might want to do it again.
3. Strike a balance
Just like spending all your time alone wouldn’t bode well for your relationship, neither will solely practicing parallel play. Remember to balance the time you spend embracing parallel play in your relationship with time spent apart, together, with friends, and in any other way that brings you joy as a couple.
In any case, it’s important to remember that parallel play shouldn’t feel like a chore for which you’re both responsible. By contrast, “it’s meant to be a low-stakes activity,” says Covell. Whatever you and your partner do when it comes to your “play” time, do it with compassion, humor, and appreciation for yourselves and each other for putting in the effort to connect.