By Lee Kraemer, R.P. CTP dipl. B.A.
PACT Level 3 Therapist
Let’s address the good, the bad, and the ugly use of humor by both therapists and couples.
Most people have experienced the discomfort of being with a sniping couple at a dinner party or in a therapeutic setting.
“I’m only joking,” they say as they entertain the audience with their witty repartee after skewering their partner. Zingers, so good at weaponizing words, are amusing remarks that shoot into a conversation and wound like a sharpened arrow.
We have all encountered the couples who provide stand-up comics with inspiration, the people who publicly out their partner or back-handedly dis their partner with a comment that is insulting, disrespectful, or critical. A backhanded zinger often follows “I was only joking. Can’t you take a joke?”
Zingers and Comedians
The intention of a stand-up comedian delivering the following lines has a very different impact on the same audience that might witness this repartee between partners.
Humor plays multiple functions in society. It can be a useful coping strategy to ease social and political stress. It can diffuse conflict by reframing the situation to highlight absurdity. It is also useful in creating and maintaining social bonds. Humor often plays a role in the selection of mates.
In my office I frequently hear “They made me laugh” as a reason for partnering. Playfulness and humor have the power to transform situations by making them more tolerable and enjoyable. Amplifying the humorous aspect of a situation may provide perspective so that partners can deal with the issue differently.
Humor in Context
A look at how partners use humor.
As a therapist, you can use humor to facilitate warmer relationships. You can guide partners in the use of clean humor to diffuse stressful interactions in ways that do not contain disdain or sarcasm, but help the partners relax and assist in the development of a therapeutic alliance. Gentle humor can elicit a release of anxiety. Humor helps the couple distance and gain a different perspective on their interaction or about an event.
Humor is context dependent. The detection of absurdity, which results in surprise and arousal, is required for humor. When humor directs people to think about a particular concept in a particular way, the rapid association of these concepts in memory leads them to the enjoy the incongruity or surprise that was intended.
The question of what differentiates an unpleasantly surprising incongruity from a humorous one is important within the couple relationship and agreement. An example that illustrates the importance of context is the old surprise pie in the face joke. Pies thrown in movies can be hilarious. Pies thrown in your face at a social gathering would be surprising but not necessarily funny.
Cultural differences can also determine what we think is humorous or offensive. The therapist must attend to the culture and context in which partners use humor. Some couples enjoy practical jokes and slapstick behaviors. Some individuals and therapists might find those same behaviors offensive.
Take into consideration an understanding of the social context — and of the couple’s agreement with each other — when employing humor in therapy with couples. Partners and therapists require a clear and careful articulation of what may be violated and when the violations are neither funny nor emotionally safe. Throwing pies in faces is generally not a good strategy in a therapeutic session.
An Israeli study (Besser et al., 2012) showed that adaptive humor — humor that amplifies the relationship bond that is self-enhancing or affiliative — could mediate the relationship with both attachment anxieties and avoidance strategies to lower levels of distress. The results of this study suggest that by modeling and encouraging an appreciation of more adaptive styles of humor, therapists can lead couples to improvements in mood and reductions in distress. Therapists who use and encourage humor can also reduce attachment anxiety and avoidance reactions, thereby encouraging secure attachment.
While adaptive humor is associated with low levels of distress, maladaptive humor increases anxiety and attachment avoidance. Maladaptive humor styles have been associated with disruptions in early attachment experiences. Parenting that is mocking or teasing rather than gentle and affectionate interferes with secure attachment.
An example of this is a mother who persistently and gleefully throws a cloth over the baby’s face after the infant no longer enjoys the joke. This misattuned behavior could induce an avoidant, angry, or disorganized reaction in the infant. This child is likely to use maladaptive humor in the future in an attempt to alleviate stress. The mother’s behavior might even have a sadistic element, which would leave the child with an attachment injury.
Developmental Neuroscience and Humor
In terms of developmental neuroscience, the health benefits of humor include activation of the sympathetic nervous system (Shammi & Stuss, 1999). This impacts breathing, heart rate, the release of hormones (e.g., epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol), and the production of endorphins in the brain. The regions of the human brain shown to be involved in humor processing are in the most recently evolved regions of the brain, the limbic system and the neocortex.
Recent fMRI’s technology (Chan & Lavallee, 2015) has shown that during joke comprehension, increased blood flow in both the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and an area in the posterior medial temporal gyrus. The results from the EEG and fMRI studies indicate that humor is processed in multiple stages, which involve activity occurring in different brain regions during these different stages.
Only by fully understanding the nature of the cognitive and neural processes involved in humor can we determine the extent to which humor might play an important role in health and longevity.
The lack of humor in certain individuals may indicate a variety of deficits or health issues. This lack could indicate brain damage, illness, or cognitive impairment. Huntington’s and Parkinson’s Diseases, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Agenesis of Corpus Callosum (ACC), schizophrenia, and chronic alcohol abuse exhibit deficits in theory of mind (Eddy, 2019).
How Children Develop Humor
A child’s ability to comprehend verbal humor is linked to their theory of mind processing, which emerges between their second and fifth years of life and continues to develop throughout childhood. fMRI studies show that different brain areas respond differently in children and adults. This suggests that humor processing changes as the brain matures (Mireault & Reddy, 2016).
In cases of atypical development (ASD, ACC, schizophrenia, deficits in theory of mind), these studies have been able to observe and use perception of emotion and issues with prosody and humor processing as indicators of a deficit (Kern et al., 2009).
It’s thought that infants’ sensitivity to humor appears much earlier than other major physical or linguistic achievements. On the surface, humor does not seem like a crucial survival strategy, yet the developing brain prioritizes humor as it occurs simultaneously with other profound physical and developmental changes. This suggests that humor should be taken seriously as a developmental achievement and milestone (Martin & Ford, 2018).
Regardless of language or culture, smiles and laughter emerge at about the same time in infants around the world. Smiles begin with a reflexive smile at birth and progress to the social smile at about six weeks of age. Smiles change to belly laughs around 3-4 months of age.
Laughter is only a part of humor. Child psychologists, in their observation of infants, reveal that babies initiate and maintain humorous interacting beginning around 12 months of age. By 24 months, infants have developed a theory of mind, which is necessary for detecting and creating absurd or incongruous events (Mireault, 2017).
Evolutionary biologists believe that laughter derived from play is a bonding strategy. Mother and baby laughter is a right-brain-to-right-brain attachment behavior, within the caregiver–infant partnership. Mother and baby mutually arouse and regulate laughter within the caregiver–infant partnership (Mireault & Reddy, 2016).
Laughter continues to be an attachment regulating or dysregulating behavior throughout life with potential for enhancing attachment bonds. Laughter in larger groups is thought to develop social bonds that can lead to grooming and mating behaviors. Research has established that in children, as in adults, laughter occurs more often in the presence of others than when alone (Addyman et al., 2018).
Individuals with high levels of attachment anxiety and avoidance behavior primarily use maladaptive humor styles in their attempt to regulate stress. PACT therapists understand and acknowledge self-defeating and aggressive humor, often persistent in high arousal couples, as techniques that do not work in favor of secure functioning and may in fact serve to increase rupture within the couple bubble.
The couple bubble is a very useful PACT term that encapsulates the principles of secure functioning in a relationship. The principles of the couple bubble essentially encourage partners to be a cooperative team, aware of each other’s emotional state, and protective of the other’s well-being. This means protecting each other from external elements that might cause distress by dividing the loyalty of one partner to the other. Humor that is ridiculing, shaming, or aggressive does not promote safety and has no place in a secure-functioning relationship.
Emotional Arousal Regulation
Emotional arousal is a state of either heightened or lowered physiological activity. Reactions to a threat can elicit strong reactions of anger, fear, or shame. Any one of these reactions can then elicit a fight, flight, or freeze or comply response to the threat. For example, some people become loud and angry, others might withdraw and dissociate, still others become silent.
One of the principles of secure functioning is the ability of the partners to sustain a zone, a safe level of emotional arousal in which intense emotions can be processed in a healthy way, allowing each partner to function effectively and react with mindfulness to stress or anxiety.
I like to imagine that a relationship is like being in a canoe. If one person stands up and gets excited, both partners are likely to get wet. The zone is where both of them stay dry and are able to help each other not tip the canoe.
Humor can have an immediate downregulating and relieving effect on everyone. When met with adaptive humor, partners may stop, laugh together, or one may ask what the other is doing. Next time they get into a fight, notice when one partner starts to laugh, if the other joins in. When this happens, they may — while they were previously in a similar state — have created a procedural memory of laughing. You can often see the effect of this kind of intervention in their next session.
Individuals with high levels of attachment anxiety might avoid using aggressive humor for fear of antagonizing or alienating their partner. Or they might use aggressive humor defensively to deny feelings of rejection and avoid being seen to be self-assertive, autonomous, or independent.
Different Uses of Humor
People use humor in a variety of ways: to connect with others, for self-enhancement, to cope with aggressive or negative emotions, to target others, to put themselves or others down.
Humor can regulate arousal, create a sudden release of anxiety, by inappropriate giggling, enhance sense of superiority by laughing about the misfortunes or shortcomings of others, or establish dominance if thirds are present.
Consistent with the needs and goals of partners, syntonic humor complements the couple’s system, behaviors, values, and positive affect. Humor is a tool that when well used can be cathartic. Therapists can gently and carefully introduce humor to deal with some serious situations. For example, they can offer a different perspective or amplify a particular behavior.
Dystonic humor is inconsistent with secure attachment values. Jokes or jibes may directly target or focus on personal differences. Some subjects are not humorous. They can be offensive and be perceived as bigoted. Dystonic humor can amplify pre-established sensitivities along with ethnic, gender, and religious differences. Be aware of the partner who weaponizes irony, satire, or wit.
Self-defeating humor involves the use of humor to amuse others by being funny at one’s own expense or at the expense of another, such as teasing or ridiculing to enhance the self. This type of humor tends to increase stress and self-esteem dysregulation. It creates feelings of social rejection. Self-defeating humor was found to be typical of individuals with insecure and anxious attachment. Humor can cause disgust or elicit a sense of shame. It can offend, insult, and might touch on a something unacknowledged.
Aggressive humor is also a part of insecure attachment, particularly attachment avoidance. Maladaptive humor styles have been associated with disruptions in early attachment experiences, such as parenting that is mocking, shaming, or teasing rather than gentle and affectionate. The German word schadenfreude, the pleasure one person derives from another person's misfortune, is an example of maladaptive humor in the context of relationship.
Zingers, quick-witted responses or jokes at the partner’s expense, are often scornful and hurtful. Once an offended partner names these responses as zingers, the offending partner usually denies their remarks as having any hurtful intention: “I was only kidding. I’m joking. You’ve lost your sense of humor.” No matter how convincing the arguments against negative intention may be, if they hurt when they land, the couple needs to examine them.
When you linger in sessions with these seemingly random comments, deconstruct them step by step. The hidden meaning in these off-the-cuff, incongruous, unexpected zingers often reveal underlying issues and defenses. They can quickly direct you to the dissatisfaction the couple is experiencing within the relationship.
If you, as therapist, are able to catch a joke as it flies by, deconstruct it. Humor usually reveals a great deal of meaning. When I first meet with a couple, I often ask them to introduce me to their partner.
Jill: This is Jack. He’s great. When we were dating, I believed he was superman, that he could do anything he set his mind to, like persuading me to marry him. (big smile) We’ve now been married for seven years, I still think highly of him. I’ve told him that I still believe he could jump higher than the Empire State Building!
Jill: Yeah! That’s because the Empire State Building can’t jump. Just being funny.
When Jack found Jill’s joke offensive, Jill proceeded to blame him for having no sense of humor.
Unraveling or deconstructing this zinger revealed Jill’s attitude to Jack’s lack of initiative and her frustration and disappointment in him. Once Jill revealed this undercurrent in the session, we were able to address the issue more directly.
Another couple came to see me on the brink of separation. They presented as the ideal couple, both artistic and original. Both were successful professional and community leaders. She was unusual looking — tall, slim, elegant. He was an amiable foil to his wife’s extravagant beauty, though he openly admired the gifted, talented, quirky, successful professional he had married. During a session, he quipped with a broad smile, “Why can’t you be an ordinary wife!?”
We deconstructed this comment. He experienced her, as he had his mother, as absent and preoccupied. During the sessions he frequently zinged her with comments that were laden with feelings from his childhood. Each time we deconstructed the joke, he became more aware of his family-of-origin issues as well as his longings and hopes. He later told me that he had gained self-understanding through the deconstruction of his hurtful jokes.
A year after we stopped meeting, I checked in to ask how they were. Their couple therapy had affected a shift from ego-dystonic humor to ego-syntonic humor.
Him: I have an amazing new wife. The love of my life and a true partner in every sense.
Her: Are you talking about me? Wow!! Well, I feel the same way about you.
Humor can be a powerful therapeutic tool. It creates a layer of connection that can strengthen the therapeutic bond. It can help restore a sense of playfulness, lightness, and fun — innate qualities often lost as a result of adverse early experiences, including insecure attachment and trauma. Therapists can use humor with couples to relieve tension highlight an incongruity, absurdity, or the violation of an agreement within the relationship.
Although humorous interchanges may seem funny to a third party, they might contain an underlying tone of hostility. Friendly humor and sarcasm can be dangerous in the therapeutic setting, and a therapist needs to take great care and observation of each client’s reactions. Some couples have little or no sense of humor, and any attempt will be met with stony silence or worse. Therefore, the therapist must attend to the intention of humor within the particular couple relationship.
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Besser, A., Luyten, P., & Mayes, L. C. (2012). Adult attachment and distress: The mediating role of humor styles. Individual Differences Research, 10(3), 153–164.
Chan, Y. C., & Lavallee, J. P. (2015). Temporo-parietal and fronto-parietal lobe contributions to theory of mind and executive control: An fMRI study of verbal jokes. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1285. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01285
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