More marriages might survive if the partners realized that sometimes the better comes after the worse.
At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.
I have counseled all kinds of people in my life. From very young children barely able to talk, to 100 year-old people on their deathbeds, I have been in situations where I tried to provide comfort and understanding to people regardless of the circumstances of their lives. Because I have so many weaknesses, it’s hard to single out one, but as far as a counseling specialty, I’ve always found it a little difficult to work with couples. The anger and hostility that seeps into a marriage can be hard to sit with, and resolving intense conflict can at times run contrary to my “lighten up” approach to life. Therefore it came as a particular shock to me when one couple pulled me aside a while back and told me I was a pretty humorless person.
To back up a second, I had been working with this particular couple for a while, and had been trying to summon a character trait called “gravitas” which describes a kind of personal seriousness that I was told in graduate school that I was sorely lacking. The implication was, that although a sense of humor is ostensibly a good quality in a therapist, people need to know that you are taking their problems very seriously.
I’m not convinced this is correct, as I have often found that people are taking their problems entirely too seriously. The challenge as a therapist is knowing when it’s time to simply listen, and when it’s time to challenge people’s views of the world that appear to be contributing to their problems.
In this particular case, I did a lot of listening at first, but over time as I perceived their comments towards each other as more hostile, I would interrupt more and suggest an intervention that I thought would improve their communication patterns. Often times in these situations they would stop and look at each other kind of inquisitively without offering much feedback as to what they thought of my suggestions. I would often leave the sessions feeling both confused as well as frustrated, and after several weeks of this I decided it was important to ask them what they thought was going on.
I wasn’t ready for what happened next. They came in to the next session, exchanged embarrassed glances at each other, and began with the ominous, “we need to talk,” before I was able to get started. I have heard this expression a number of times in my life, mostly from women in the exact context you would expect. I therefore braced myself for the inevitable bad news, when I was greeted with a rather surprising confession. The husband Daryl began;
“Well Joe, this is awkward, but Denise and I have been talking, and, well, you told us to tell you if you were doing something we don’t like, so here goes. You’re a little too serious for us, and we both are getting a little irritated by how you turn every exchange into some kind of life lesson. Sometimes we like to bicker back and forth in a funny way. That’s what we do. That’s what kind of works about our marriage, and frankly you are getting to be kind of a buzz kill.”
I had been slammed into the dunk tank. ME??? A buzz kill?? I was the guy with the lampshade on his head at every party. I was the lighten up guy. This couldn’t be true!!
“Well guys, I have to tell you this is a first, and I promise you I will think a lot about what you said,” I explained. “Our challenge here is to find what does and doesn’t work about your marriage, and trust me when I say there is no bigger advocate for humor in a marriage than me.”
Even as these words came out of my mouth I felt like a fraud. I thought I was sending that message, but perhaps I wasn’t at all. How many other couples had I seen that I had made the same mistake with? I realized that their bringing it up provided an opportunity though, and I vowed to go home and think of some ways I could help them with their marriage without coming across as a prep school dean.
While thinking about this, I went back to what I considered to be one of the best books ever written on the subject, The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman. In particular I focused on a chapter that dared to contradict a longstanding belief in couples counseling that almost every problem could be solved with the proper amount of active listening and communication skills.
But his research showed that this simply wasn’t the case. He instead found that many problems in marriages were not solvable, and that some beliefs, values, and habits were too deeply entrenched to be receptive to change. The key he suggested, was to develop an understanding of which of your problems were solvable and which ones were not.
I have come to believe that what lies in the middle of this valley is how receptive a couple is to using humor. What drives us crazy about other people is often at least a partial reflection of some part of our own psychological baggage, and we begin to develop wisdom when we come to understand and acknowledge there are things about ourselves that also trigger these responses in others. By admitting these things we can take away some of their power, and by laughing at them we can potentially diffuse resentment and defensiveness before they begin to stir.
In the case of the Robinsons we reached a whole new cruising altitude when the three of us began to incorporate humor into our sessions, and in doing so we began to identify which of their problems could be solved and which ones couldn’t. We found for instance that no matter how much Daryl wanted her to be interested in his gadgets and hobbies, she simply was not inclined in this direction. We also agreed that in the realm of spirituality, the two of them were on a fundamentally different page, and that no amount of insisting on Denise’s part was going to change Daryl’s mind about going to church on Sundays.
Although these things may seem insignificant to a neutral observer, they often gave rise to very intense arguments that descended into some very hurt feelings. What was at the root of this stuff were feelings that the other person didn’t care about things that were very important to them. As is the case with many arguments, what looked like anger was actually hurt, although this hurt manifested itself in harsh words and personal attacks. Because this couple was already so good at using humor in their interactions, we began to clarify rules of engagement around issues we put in the “unsolvable” problem category. Although this couple already had a solid foundation, coming to understand this idea, and using the appropriate humor to discuss these things really helped them turn a corner.
6 months after they had terminated their therapy, I received a package from them. Fearing the worst, I opened it slowly, and then laughed out loud when I saw it was a Mexican whoopee cushion they had purchased on a trip they had taken for their second honeymoon. The attached card read, “Doc, hope you haven’t forgotten about us and that you are doing well. We saw this and thought of you. Keep your sense of humor. Always keep your sense of humor.”
And that whoopee cushion still sits on my desk today. It serves as a little reminder that when things do get too serious I can slide it under someone’s chair and lighten the mood a little bit. More importantly I made a point to consistently monitor my own temperament. It was a lesson I won’t soon forget.