6. Humor - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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6. Humor

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Out Monkey Trap- Breaking Cycles Rel

In many relationships, humor can be very effective in breaking a nasty pattern.  Many interventions gain heightened effectiveness when humor accentuates the message.  The "seriousness" of the client, couple, or family's problems keeps members in a harsh and even hopeless stance.  The ability to breaking the stuck cycle by using humor may be the only thing that keeps some couples together.  There is probably contention among therapists and theorists regarding the propriety of using humor in therapy.  Humor however is often very personal coming from the personality of the therapist.  If not genuine, humor can be contrived and worse, insensitive and ineffective.  It can be healing.  The therapist came out to the waiting to find his client red faced, eyes filled with tears, and scrunched in a semi-fetal position.  "Come in," he said.  She came in, sat down, and turned her tear streaked faced up toward the therapist.  He threw his arms up in mock exasperation and snapped at her, "Hey, you started without me!!"  She burst into hysterics- now crying tears of laughter.  She could not talk for a couple of minutes as she began hiccupping.  When she finally was coherent again, she was ready to talk about her still screwed up life… but now out of the pit of self-pity she had been stuck in.

Weaver & Wilson (1997) discussed the social qualities of humor and how it facilitates social interactions.  They noted, "Thompson (1990) conducted a study of inappropriate and appropriate humor in psychotherapy.  In his survey of 56 reality therapists, one of the major themes that emerged was the potential use of humor in supporting client change."  The therapeutic relationship determines the effectiveness of humor to facilitate change and can be determined at the same time by the use of humor.  Humor that is natural and within the flow of therapy can be effective, if the therapist is not insensitive to client's feelings.  The therapy benefits from humor and laughter if negative feelings can be avoided.  "Using humor in psychotherapy does not take away the seriousness of therapy.  The goal of using humor should be to help a client become more integrated and more spontaneous in relationships (Mann, 1991).  Humor can be used creatively to facilitate development of the psychotherapeutic interaction.  Pittman (1995) focused on turning tragedy into comedy in therapy.  He stated, "the difference between therapists who make patients better and those who make patients worse is the comic versus the tragic perspective" (p. 37).  He suggested that until patients can laugh at their own tragedies, they have not completely processed their human experience.  Pittman saw therapy as often having a focus on serenity.  He quoted Neibuhr's serenity prayer, one often used in addiction treatment, but added that humor may be even more actively beneficial than serenity in understanding life instead of just accepting it.  Wallerstein and Blakeslee (1995) provide nine tasks for healthy relationships and marriage.  Their seventh task is to share laughter and humor and to maintain active interest in the relationship" (Weaver & Wilson, 1997, page 108-109)

In group therapy, the therapist may need to take extra care because of possibility of narcissistic sensitivity or other insecurities and potential affront taken.  The presence of others, as there would be in couple or family therapy may make what would otherwise be well taken in individual therapy less palatable.  Yet, humor can help promote healthy emotional development in the couple, family, or group.  It helps manage anxiety is an alternative if well managed, to aggression.  The distracter in the alcoholic family system can be a clown.  With a joke, a silly face, or a purposeful pratfall, the clown distracter breaks the intensifying tension in the family that threatens to explode and hurt everyone.  The dysfunctionality of the distracter role in the alcoholic family does not come from breaking tension with humor, but from an inability to discriminate between it is productive and when it is not.  In particular, there are times when distracting humor increases tension rather than lower it.  The therapist in and as a member of the "dysfunctional family system" of individual processing or couple or family therapy can be the distracter-clown to reduce anxiety when it has become overwhelming.  Aggressive interactions, verbalizations, facial expressions, and body language can be very intense in therapy.  For example, "Because anxiety in chemically dependent persons is frequently at a high level, and aggression is often a symptom as the addiction progresses, it can be helpful for group members to use humor in the course of their conflicts and struggles with themselves as well as with others. Kennedy (1991) also supported the use of humor in group therapy as a regulator of the emotional atmosphere and as a means to reduce explosive tendencies and enliven interactions" (Weaver & Wilson, 1997, page 109).  Dysfunctional couples and families also carry high anxiety and a propensity to aggression as a symptom, not necessarily of addiction but of relational distress.  Self-deprecating humor, or humor within the couple or family, or introduced by the therapist may be the key disruption to defusing anxiety and aggression.

Jeremy and Winona were going at it in front of the therapist.  They escalated quickly- louder, angrier, and more animated.  Zero to sixty in seconds!  They were redlining.  More and more yelling and moving into rage, they continually escalated.  The therapist tried to interrupt but they talked… they yelled right over any feedback or direction.  Jeremy gave Winona the stink eye, and Winona returned that with a death stare.  It was scary.  The therapist was getting scared!  They were getting out of control, and the therapist feared Jeremy and Winona would come to blows.  Winona spat out, "So, what you gonna do, asshole!?"  Jeremy retorted, "What you think I'm gonna do, bitch!?"  Winona snapped, "Don't call me 'bitch!'"  Jeremy replied with the beginning of a smile on his lips, "Whatcha want me to call you?  Sweetie pie?"  Winona responded with mock seriousness, "Yeah, 'sweetie pie' is ok…but only if you smile!"  They stared for a split second at each other with twinkles in their eyes.  Then they both burst into laughter.  And, smiled at each other.  All the tension and anger dissipated immediately.  The therapist jaw dropped.  What just happened?!  They had pulled the emergency brake on their intimacy pain train.

The therapist had just experienced a major indicator of relationship functionality.  Rather than effective communication, shared goals, similar demographics, and other common characteristics considered fundamental to functional relationships, this otherwise highly dysfunctional couple had demonstrated a single major skill, strategy, or attribute that kept them together.  When the tension intensified and crossed over into dangerous emotional and relational territory, Jeremy and Winona had almost none of the classic healthy relationship skills and could not activate any of the communication strategies often recommended.  However, they had that one skill… one very critical skill.  When it got too scary and too ugly to the point of abject relationship destruction, Jeremy and Winona knew how to break the tension with humor.  Whenever the stress was overwhelming and it felt like a breaking point, they found a way to laugh.  In their laughter, they reconnected.  The therapist had been intimidated by their rage and feeling more and more out of control, not realizing that the couple had a mechanism to deal with the high stress.  How did they have this ability?  Did they develop it over time?  Was there a model?  Essentially, the ability to break rising cycles of tension may be more beneficial to healthy relationships than good communication skills!  This is in line with the basic principles of strategic therapy.

"Strategic therapy is often utilized as brief therapy intended to create quick change in relatively few sessions.  A brief model of therapy and/or great rigidity in the couple may require strong therapeutic intervention to get them to change.  Thus, in line with client expectations, and for the purpose of alleviating client-identified symptoms, strategic therapists may employ directives or interventions designed to 'shake-up' or perturb a complex dynamic family system.  It is reasonable to expect that—as long as they can be supported by the therapeutic relationship, and are appropriate to the identified problem and the clients' values—such interventions (or 'blows,' if you will) are best delivered and most effective when the family knows not what to expect (Gardner et al., 2006, page 348).  Reba and Pierce were aware that they ignited insecurity, hurt, and anger in each other.  Once started both tended to intensify the negativity rather than calm down or disconnect.  They ignited and re-ignited each other into ever more toxic and hurtful moods.  Although they had this insight and wanted badly for the hurt to diminish, neither one was able to break the cycle of negativity.  They were even aware of how they had each come to the dynamics from their families of origin, but still couldn't stop.  After significant work in therapy and frustration, Reba and Pierce responded to a very silly and mischievous, and significantly profane therapeutic "homework" intervention.  

The therapist characterized to them their pattern and cycle of interactions as a "f—k you" contest.  It is important to note the fact of profanity being used becomes the key element to the intervention.  Therapist use of profanity is in itself controversial, and contingent upon the therapist's comfort and familiarity with such emotional "seasoning" of communication.  However, this intervention probably would not have worked with less sensational language.  The therapist characterized their dynamics as a series of actions and reactions.

The therapist told them that first, one partner, for example Pierce would do or say something that the other- Reba would interpret as an attack—a "f—k you!"
Based on that interpretation, Reba would respond with some spiteful and hurtful comment or behavior—a "f—k you, back!"  

Pierce, not realizing that his initial comment or behavior was interpreted so negatively, would be surprised by the unexpected attack, basically thinking, "What Reba!? 'F—k YOU back!?  Where'd that come from?  …F—k you back to me!?  …to me!?  There was no 'f—k you, the first from me!"

And then Pierre would snap (his first conscious or overt attack!), "F—k YOU Reba!"

And, then Reba would respond with, an attack back, a "f—k you, BACK Pierce!"  

Pierce would be further outraged at Reba's SECOND blatant attack, "What 'f—k you, BACK!?  No, no, no, no… that's not a 'f—k you, back'… it's a… it's a 'f—k you, to the SECOND degree!!'"  

And, then they'd go around and around; over and over in a very destructive and stupid pattern they recognized but could not stop- season tickets for the intimacy pain train.

The rawness of the language could in of itself shift the energy of the session and of the participants.  The therapeutic intervention or feedback to Reba and Pierce was that they easily got into a "f—k you" contest without even checking that the other was really saying, "f—k you".  The therapist instructed them that upon experiencing the first "f—k you" from the other, instead of responding immediately with a "f—k you" back, that he or she, for example it could be Pierce then first ask the other partner- Reba, "That felt like a 'f—k you' to me, Reba.  Was that really a 'f—k you?'  That what you wanted to say?  I wanted to check before I say, 'f—k you, back!'"  Then Reba may respond, "Huh?  No… that wasn't a 'f—k you.'  I was just trying to find out…" or, "Uh…  No, it wasn't a 'f—k you', it was a 'f—k you back!'  Because this morning, you did the 'f—k you' first, when you…!"  Then Pierce may respond, "But I wasn't saying 'f—k you' then.  I was just in a hurry."

When Reba and Pierce tried to do this at home, they could not do it without bursting into laughter!  The intervention being so profane made the intervention especially effective since they had three young children from 1-½ years to 7 years old.  They did not want the kids to hear them swear, so when something happened that was upsetting, one of them would lean over close and whisper softly to each other, "Was that a 'f—k you?'"  This so silly, that they would make them laugh even more hilariously!  The outrageousness of the asking each other in whispered profanity would break the tension AND the intervention of checking the intent of the words or action would interrupt the negative cycle.  Their intimacy pain train slowed or stopped, if not got completely derailed.  Reba and Pierce's relationship improved significantly from this beginning.

The therapist needs to recognize that the ability to break tension that is about to get out of control was a key to relationship functioning.  When individuals devolve into high overt animosity in session that duplicates the home dynamic, a therapist can try to teach ways to break tension.  Taylor and Scout were livid with each other.  Taylor said she didn't know if she could stand being with him anymore.   Scout retorted that he was just about ready to leave anyway.  Taylor said, "Why don't you just go?  I'll take the kids and we'll be just fine."  Scout accused, "No you won't you can't deal the kids by yourself.  I have to take them."  Taylor replied, "Yes, I can.  But you… that's a whole other story!"  As this was getting progressively worse and without any redeeming possibilities, the therapist took a chance.  The therapist had experienced both of their humorous sides previously in therapy and humorous interjections had been received well before.   The therapist interrupted in a very grave tone, "But… but what about the dog?  Who'll take the dog?"  Taylor and Scout stared at the therapist and then looked at each other.  Taylor laughed, "You take the stinky dog!"  Scout offered, "I'll trade you two kids, but you have to take the dog!"  "Oh no," said Taylor, "If I get the dog, I get to have the house and the 401(k) too!"  Each partner had defaulted to dysfunctional arguing styles from respective family-of-origin experiences.  The therapist knew from prior sessions that neither partner wanted to or was ready to separate.  However, both instinctively responded to distress by being threatening and critical to the other as their parents had modeled.  Bringing up who got the dog as an issue comparable to child custody was obviously ridiculous, but it served to show the couple that their argument was ridiculous.  After the apparent frivolity, the therapist could educate the couple about their process.  The therapist can also teach or encourage them to find ways to interrupt themselves when they find themselves getting out of hand.

continue to Chapter 7
3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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