--By Nancy Eberle
--Taken from "Redbook"

         Lately this sort of playing around--as opposed to the other, destructive kind--has been getting serious attention from clinical psychologist Dr. R. William Betcher, former director of the Group Therapy Program.
Play, he says, just may be the glue that holds a good marriage together. (And Jesus & Love!)
         Dr. Betcher, who is writing a book on the subject, became interested because
the best marriages he'd observed seemed to contain a strong element of playfulness. After studying 30 couples in the 22-to-34 age group & interviewing many more, he firmly believes that play helps to stabilise a relationship by providing a balance between too much intimacy, which can be threatening, & too much distance, which can be alienating. Play allows you to dance in & out, to change a mood swiftly & effortlessly.
         But what is play in the context of an adult relationship? It's easier to illustrate than to define. Let's say that after a vacation trip to New Orleans, a very businesslike, no-nonsense sort of woman answers her husband one night with a Southern drawl, playing with being a more seductive, more classically feminine creature than she is in their day-to-day life. She does it for fun; & without forethought. He responds, also just for fun & without forethought, with a tough-guy pose: "Don't mess with me, babe!" He dubs her "Mint Julep." She calls him "Hurricane". That's play. It's also play when he calls you "Annie" & you call him "Daddy Warbucks," when he threatens to make love to you in the elevator & you whisper sexy things in his ear while he's talking to his mother on the telephone, when you cut him off at the pass on the slopes & he ducks you in the swimming pool.
It is this element of pretend--of being able to express in perfect safety parts of oneself or feelings that one doesn't ordinarily reveal--that gives play the capacity for deepening intimacy between two people. After all, isn't that what marriage is all about--finding someone who will love you no matter what? Play allows you to reveal a hidden self, to express an ambivalent self, to try on a new self & to regress to an earlier self--all without losing face.
         Couples often find that by playfully exaggerating behaviour that's annoying, they can accomplish change faster than through direct confrontation--& with far less pain. "Humour is a way of softening things," says Betcher. "It works in reverse too. Things that are revealed as sensitive, vulnerable points in the other person during a fight--things that are difficult to talk about--can later be played with by teasing & exaggeration. It is the recurring play around an issue that makes it easier to tolerate." In other words, in this case, playing is a kind of desensitising process--a lowering of the threshold of anger or defensiveness or hurt. Playing says, "The issue is not that important--relax!"
         Play can also:
         --get rid of tension by providing a way of dealing with touchy areas;
         --communicate potentially painful things in a painless way;
         --& when all else fails, get a couple back together after an argument.
If you question the value of play, just consider the alternative: Arguments, negotiations, recriminations, pregnant silences, hurt feelings, & still, in the end, an ineradicable difference of opinion.
         One of the nice things about playing, besides all the good it does for you, is the fact that it isn't something you have to learn. You're undoubtedly doing it already (although if you're not, you shouldn't worry about it--some people just aren't playful).
One of the commonest kinds of couple play is the use of private nicknames or a private language. Often these names are made up during moments of special closeness, & using them taps into or re-creates that feeling. One of Betcher's couples used the name "bug," which suggested to them the warmth & closeness of "snug as a bug in a rug." Sometimes couples use names that express the feelings that are to be found when any two people live together--names like "Grumpy", "Smart Aleck" or "Mr. Clean." When couples call each other by special names, they are saying "I know you in a way no one else does." Even a name like "Mr. Clean" sends a message: "See? I can call you that without being afraid I'll lose you. That's how much faith I have in our love."
         Although much of our adult play revolves around language, there is another kind of playing that is even freer & more fanciful, & in a curious way, childlike:
Erotic play. The censor who lives inside us & who never sleeps is apt to say, "Silly! Naughty! Childish! Grow Up!" but fortunately, most of us are smart enough not to listen. What is erotic play? It can be a discreet hand on your husband's buns while you're saying good night to the hostess. It can be weaving a clover chain through his chest hair while on a picnic or tickling him while he tries to do the bank statement. It can be washing each other, feeding each other, telling stories to each other or pretending to be people other than you are. It can leave you helpless with laughter or feeling very sexy, & though it can't do both at once, the shifts from one to the other are breathtakingly rapid, suggesting a close relationship.
Good humour & the ability to laugh has probably been more responsible for success in the face of sexual difficulties than marriage manuals ever will be.
         And what can you do if you wake up one morning & discover
you've forgotten how to play? The first thing is to doubt your conclusion. Most couples are unaware that they play, & it's true that habit is the enemy of play, so that over time, play does tend to drop out of a relationship. If this is the case, one thing you can do is to remember how you used to play. It's a lot easier to resume what is familiar than to graft on what is alien.
If you believe in the importance of play, you'll find time for it. Several of Betcher's couples told him that playing together was what they would miss most were their marriages to come to an end, & that playfulness had set the tone in the family of being able to be free with each other & to have fun.
The family that plays together stays together? It could be.