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The Three-Ps of all happy relationships, Politeness, Playfulness & Passion, are like gateways to each other.

First you need a polite, respectful base, leading to a playful connection that feels fun, which in turn opens the possibility of passion.

But the really strange thing about the Three-Ps is that you needed them on the very first occasion you met, and you still need them after 25 years together!

Let’s think about couple who meet at a party…

Tom sees Sally standing there. He thinks she looks attractive and decides he will try to get to talk to her. He walks over, somewhat shyly, and says – with a little smile – something like, ‘Hi, I’m Tom. Can I get you a drink?’

This is polite, standard stuff – no surprises here, but if you fail to first connect politely the other person won’t even give you a second look. Even if Sally is not interested, she will smile too as she thanks Tom for his interest. Politeness establishes a possible connection and invites a next step. Being polite is the first, necessary step into everything else.

If Sally pauses, of course, Tom has to fairly quickly move to stage two – a gentle playfulness. ‘Don’t you just love that 80s track they were playing – I love cheesy music!’ Sally laughs, and they start to feel connected, and a possible interest in each other is now being explored.

If, instead of being playful, Tom starts talking to her about work, Sally will either find him boring, inappropriate, or think he’s obviously not interested in her in that way.

If the playful stage goes well, they may sense that there’s a possible spark. Even, perhaps, a mutual attraction. This is the stage at which, even early on, you can feel passion.

After 25 years together…

These three gateways are just as important. In a house where the couple ignore Stage 1, Politeness, where they have forgotten the basic civility that’s necessary to good communication – or even worse have a scratchy relationship that sometimes descends into name-calling – there is no possibility of moving to Stage 2, Playfulness.

If Playfulness isn’t there, a relationship becomes really lonely – almost more lonely than being just roommates, because we know it should be delivering more than that. With fun missing, adult-adult exchanges become brittle, distant and cold. Our internal child feels lost, lonely and resentful.

When a marriage becomes merely functional adult-adult exchanges of information, we miss out on the core of a happy relationship – which is to feel comfortable just hanging out with the other person, an easy playfulness that is both relaxed and energising all at once.

One of the best definitions of sex I’ve ever come across is “sex is just a fun way grown-ups play.” So, without a context of more general playfulness, it’s extremely unlikely you are going to want to move on to Stage 3, Passion.

If you are already playful with each other – enjoying a coffee out, taking a random walk together because you have an hour free, playing a board game, having a mock pillow fight, making each other laugh – you may find it much easier to play in the sexual sense.

We all know that even happy long-term relationships can run into problems in this area – this is a subject I’ve discussed before (Are You In a Low-Sex or No-Sex Marriage?). If you’re trying to improve things in this area, to get some passion back, perhaps the best place to start is not with sex at all. If we aren’t civil, respectful and polite, it is very unlikely we will feel playful. And if we don’t feel playful with out partner, we are just not going to feel passion with them.

So – here’s a plan

Audit your relationship:

How are we doing on Stage 1?

– Do you kiss each other respectfully with each parting & greeting?
– Do you turn and smile if your partner has been out of the room for more than a short while?
– Do you show a genuine interest in their day?
– Do you show respect in front of others to your partner?
– Do you avoid, even if you’re rowing (and all couples NEED to row sometimes!) – needless hurtful barbs and in particular name-calling?
– Do you try and avoid YOU-statements (‘you make me feel so cross when…’) which are blaming, and make I-statements (I feel so cross when…) which give information but are about taking responsibility?

Now, how are we doing on Stage 2?

– When was the last time you made your partner laugh?
– When was the last time you said, ’let’s go to the park together!’ – for no particular reason than it would be nice to hang out.
– Do you ever get a board game out, instead of watching TV?
– Do you grab 15 minutes and have a ‘what if..’ conversation? ’What if we sold the house and told the kids we were moving to … ?’ (You don’t need to do it! What-if chats are about the fun of dreaming a bit together!).
– When was the last time you made fun of your partner affectionately while squeezing their hand? Or blew kids’ soap bubbles together? Or had a picnic on the floor?

Oh, I forget Stage 3!

Well, that’s private, I guess.

And, you know, if Stage 1 and Stage 2 are in place – Stage 3 might just happen all by itself!

Please leave thoughts and comments, and I will reply!

James Earl

James Earl is a relationship counsellor in London, and much in demand as an expert in issues of desire in  long-term relationships.

He has a Post-graduate Diploma in Relationship Therapy from Relate, the UK’s biggest counselling organisation, a Masters Degree from the University of Sussex, and is an Assistant Professor at Richmond University in London. Follow his Twitter feed @jsearl and visit his website

James is married with kids, and a jazz pianist.

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