When Humor Hurts

What Lies Beneath a Couple’s Jokes

Magazine Issue
May/June 2022
When Humor Hurts

On a brutally hot August day in Florida, my husband and I were returning from a very stressful visit to my dying father. Worn out and beaten down, we boarded the plane and discovered that our seats were in the last row—the ones that don’t recline. Then, the pilot came on the intercom to tell us that the flight would be grounded for a few hours. When the air conditioning broke, I teetered on the brink of the biggest meltdown of my life. My husband turned to me, raised an eyebrow, grinned, and said: “It doesn’t get much better than this.”

I exploded in laughter; we both did. Suddenly, the heat didn’t matter, the delay didn’t matter, the emotional exhaustion didn’t matter. In that moment, all that existed was the laughter and each other. In a few seconds, humor had taken us to a new place of transcendence and joyful bonding.

Throughout my years as a couples therapist, I’ve wondered why so little attention is paid to the role of humor in intimate relationships and couples work. Beyond a small body of literature, most notably the work of researcher John Gottman, humor isn’t considered a major factor in therapy, and it’s rarely, if ever, taught. Those of us who use humor in the therapy room don’t talk much about it—maybe because we’ve been led to believe that it has no place in clinical work, or that we should view it as a defense mechanism, even though it’s often an integral part of a couple’s relationship.

After all, humor is inherently co-created: it requires both a producer and a responder. But you don’t need to be a producer to have a good sense of humor; responding to humor is just as important. As Shakespeare wrote: “A jest’s prosperity lies in the ear of him that hears it, never in the tongue of him that makes it.”

While the phenomenon of humor is primal and universal, its form is not. What makes you convulse in laughter might make me yawn—or offend me. Multiple cultural factors are at play in shaping a sense of humor, and it doesn’t necessarily translate well across identities. Like touch and language, it’s a primarily beneficial human tool, but one that can be misused and cause harm. Its effect depends on its use in a particular relationship context.

Most research suggests that the constructive use of humor has profoundly beneficial effects on couples. Gottman, in particular, found that humor can help couples calm themselves during conflict, and that gentle and affectionate humor can help partners make effective repair attempts. Plus, the private jokes many couples share reinforce their identity, defining the couple as an “us” and cultivating what Gottman calls a culture of positivity. The words “It doesn’t get much better than this” hang in a frame on my kitchen wall.

The great magic of humor is its ability to transform our relationship to our problems: it’s difficult to be emotionally reactive when we’re laughing. Humor doesn’t change our reality, but it can alter our perceptions of and reactions to it. When partners get stuck in repetitive negative patterns, humor can disrupt the sequence, becoming a metacommunication that can give distance and perspective. If the meaning of the interaction is altered, then the reaction to it is altered, too. The added benefit is that the new meaning, the reframe, is a shared experience that remains in a couple’s collective memory, to be called up whenever necessary.

For example, one couple I worked with was stuck in an unhappy hierarchical arrangement, in which he was the disapproving father and she the recalcitrant teenager. I’d tried several approaches to alter the seeming power imbalance, but nothing had worked. In one session, slumped in her chair, she’d been whining about his not listening to her. I’d already used humor successfully with them, so I decided to take advantage of it. She’d recently begun a career in government service, so I leaned over with an amused smile and playfully asked, “Can you imagine what would happen if you took this stance with the secretary of state?”

They both laughed. She sat up in her chair and declared, “I would never do that!” She’d deal with him directly and present herself as strong. In that moment of laughter, she got what I’d been trying to communicate for weeks about her contribution to the dynamic. From then on, they kept a picture of the secretary of state on their refrigerator as a reminder.

When Humor Hurts

But there’s a dark side to humor in couples. It can deflect conflict, create distance, express anger, or assert power and dominance. Using sarcasm and mockery, in particular, is a one-up power move. Within a relationship with a power differential, humor has the potential to be hurtful, insulting, and patronizing.

In addition, depending on one’s attachment style, different brands of humor are used differently to different effects. Those with secure attachments are likelier to use affiliative humor. Those with anxious attachments are likely to respond poorly to joking that distances; they’re also likelier to use self-deprecating humor. Those with avoidant attachments are likelier to use humor to create distance and to use aggressive humor.

When partners share attachment styles, the use of humor—even the aggressive variety—can work for them. But according to Gottman’s research, couples with different attachment styles, particularly a combination of avoidant and anxious, will face challenges if one partner uses aggressive humor while the other is comfortable only with affiliative humor. When styles collide, humor can turn destructive.

A couple’s use of humor can be diagnostic, too. If a person comes from a family of origin that didn’t tolerate anger or conflict, demeaning wisecracks might’ve been a way to express anger and disagreement indirectly. This use of humor may say more about an inability to face conflict than about intentional abuse or contempt. Awareness of this possibility may help therapists be less judgmental and reactive to those who use humor destructively.

Take Tyler, who is avoidantly attached, and Elle, who is insecurely attached. Elle is upset that Tyler has repeatedly ignored her requests that he help clean the house. In his discomfort with her anger—after all, anger was off-limits in his home growing up—he deflects with a humorous comment: “You know I’d love to help you, but Twitter really needs me more.” She becomes reactive, perceiving the humor as rejection or avoidance. As she gets angrier and more distraught, he distances further. Now we have two very upset people blaming each other.

It’s also important to be sensitive to gender as a factor in the use and appreciation of humor. As Gottman found, men get more distressed during conflict with partners and have a harder time calming down, so they often use humor as an attempt to shift the conversation and regulate themselves. Gottman theorized that women, in turn, often find men’s use of humor during conflict to be distressing, experiencing it as a rejection. Interestingly, his studies found that gay and lesbian couples used humor more effectively during conflict.

While the destructive use of humor needs to be addressed in therapy, it must be handled carefully. If we blame one partner or try to rescue the other, we lose any leverage to make change. Sometimes the person using destructive humor has no awareness of it, or no overt intention of doing so, and is baffled when confronted. Becoming emotionally reactive or pathologizing the behavior often limits our influence. It’s more useful to focus on the humor from a place of curiosity about its role and the way it functions in the relationship.

Facilitating Humor

You might be relieved to learn that as therapists, we are not required to be comedians: it’s enough to simply appreciate, support, and highlight a couple’s use of constructive humor. I learned this from a couple many years ago, who bantered easily and constructively—and had a history of firing therapists. When I asked them why they’d chosen to stay with me, they answered, “You laughed when we were funny.”

If we do use humor in the therapy room, we can introduce it spontaneously or in a constructed way, as with jokes and playful tasks. I once worked with a couple mired in a continual battle that played out in a predictable way: he attacked her for wasting money by leaving the lights on, and she attacked him for drinking beer every night. Everything came back to this fight. Despite my attempts to address the underlying dynamics, nothing I did could get them to focus on anything else.

Finally, in one session, I gave them an unusual homework task: they were to buy a six-pack of light bulbs and put it in the refrigerator. Whenever they started to fight, they were to go to the refrigerator, take out the six-pack, and place it on the kitchen table. Only then were they allowed to continue their fight. Although their initial response was disbelief, when they came back the following week, they reported that they’d tried to carry out the task, but had laughed so hard each time that they’d never gotten around to arguing. After that, we could do therapy.

If we are joined well with our couple clients—meaning that both partners feel respected and cared for by us—our attempts at humor may fall flat, but they won’t cause damage. If we are not joined well—meaning we’re taking sides or showing frustration or annoyance—we risk seeming mean-spirited. It’s not the kind of humor that matters as much as the context of the relationship in which it’s used.

We also need to be sensitive to the power differential in therapy. If we position ourselves as distant or one-up, we run the risk that our humor will be experienced as patronizing. Using self-deprecating humor can help put us on equal footing with our clients. For example, I once found myself getting irritated with a couple and said something inadvertently critical. One look at their faces and I realized what I’d done. I looked at them sheepishly and asked, “Did I say that out loud? That was really unfortunate.” They laughed, I apologized, and the session went on.

Finally, it’s crucial for us to be sensitive to our own misuse of humor in different situations. We are at risk of using humor to deflect conflict or tension when we are uncomfortable with it. While humor can be used effectively to lower the intensity of a conflict, it shouldn’t be used to avoid resolving it in a productive way.

– – – –

Many years ago, a friend took me to an oral surgeon for emergency surgery. I was in excruciating pain and terrified. When the surgeon approached me with a syringe, I started crying and said, “I can’t look.” My friend turned away and said she couldn’t look either, to which the surgeon responded, “Well, I’m not going to be the only one with my eyes open.” I started to laugh, and the terror went away. The surgeon didn’t go away—I married him.




In On the Joke

I find humor, when appropriate, helps couples with joining. It’s one of our most helpful relaxation techniques. In one particular session with a husband and wife who had a habit of not talking to each other for prolonged periods after arguments, I decided to share a joke I’d heard:

A man and his wife were having problems at home and decided to give each other the silent treatment. Midway through the standoff, the man remembered he had an important meeting the next day. He had an early-morning flight and needed his wife to wake him up at 5 a.m., sharp. But not wanting to be the first one to break the silence, he came up with what he thought was a brilliant plan. He wrote, “Please wake me up at 5 a.m.” on a piece of piece of paper and left it by the sink, where he knew his wife would see it. Then he went to bed, confident that he’d found a way around the whole thing.

The next morning, he woke up, only to discover that it was 9 a.m. and he’d missed his flight. Furious, he jumped out of bed, ready to find out why his wife hadn’t woken him up. Then, his eye caught a piece of paper on the bedside table. The color drained from his face when he saw it. “It’s 5 a.m.,” the note read. “Wake up.”

My clients couldn’t stop laughing, and the experience helped them change their thought process about giving each other the silent treatment.

D. Lani McElgun, MA, LMFT
Garden City, NY

Jill Harkaway

Jill Harkaway, EdD, is a licensed psychologist and marriage and family therapist. She’s on the faculty of The Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry. She’s codirector of The Couples Therapy Project as well as codirector of the Harvard Medical School Conference on Treating Couples.