Published: February 6, 2002

Comic relief
Humor smoothes the rough spots in relationships

by Sue Dremann

Humor in marriage? Odd topic," a psychologist friend recently wrote when apprised of my latest assignment. "I probably spend too much time with women in domestic . . . relationships where the humor is cruel."

That humor is used as a weapon hadn't crossed my mind. It has been my great fortune that my husband and I have a lot of humor in our marriage. Each morning when I wake up, there is a joke or two, freshly brewed, waiting for me.

And sometimes when tragedy has struck, humor has helped us find a way to turn situations around and laugh at life's irony: One time we experienced a loss in our lives, only to find ourselves on vacation in Death Valley a few days later. (It was the best wildflower year in 100 years.) It was bizarre and funny and beautiful all at the same time; the wildflowers became a kind of memorial.

"Humor is the result of getting another perspective. It is the twist on the ending of the story -- a surprise twist that is the unexpected," said Peter Pearson, a clinical psychologist, who, along with his wife Ellen Bader, is the co-founder of The Couples Institute in Menlo Park.

When Palo Alto couple Scott and Luda (who prefer that their last name not be used) are dealing with crises such as illness, they deal with it through exaggeration. They like to mimic people they've known who are given to over-dramatization. Using inside jokes helps the couple lighten up amid tragedy, and to see their experience as less painful or difficult, said Scott.

When they get home from work, Scott and Luda often use anecdotes as a way of sharing their separate experiences. Telling funny stories helps transform the day's events into a mutual experience.

It isn't necessary for both parties to initiate humor to enjoy it in marriage, according to Pearson. One person can simply enjoy laughing along with the other person. Some people can't learn comic timing, but as with music, they can appreciate it.

In their own marriage, Pearson and Bader have learned to laugh at their differences. They say that they have developed a "live-and-let-live" relationship. Humor has been part of their learning process.

"It's better than nagging by a long shot," said Pearson, whose affinity for clutter has been a point of discussion in their marriage. "I tell Ellen that I have a higher tolerance for visual disarray than she does."

Sylvia Randall, a clinical psychologist and director of The Couples Resource Center in Palo Alto, said that the function of humor is to reduce the feelings of hopelessness in a conflict and to heal. "Laughter can take the wind out of a conflict," she said. "It's hard to be really upset and angry when you're laughing."

According to several studies, laughter's effects are not just psychological but physiological. When angry, physiological measures go up. In men, the levels are slower to go down, Randall said. Laughter helps get people back in balance.

Humor also takes the pressure off of having to resolve something immediately, which can lead to a problem either never being resolved or being resolved poorly. Quoting John Foster Dulles, former United States Secretary of State, Pearson said, "The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether you had the same problem last year."

Humor's best used when people aren't taking themselves too seriously. If they are able to get away from personalizing a situation too much, humor can be great for diffusing tension, Pearson said.
The intent behind the humor can also make the difference between its success in bringing a couple together or driving a wedge between them. If it is used to disavow accountability, it can create a wider gulf of anger, Bader said.

Some of the ways that people should not use humor include turning a sensitive subject or embarrassing experience into a joke and airing it publicly, said Melissa Miller, a licensed marriage and family therapist and a researcher at MRI, The Mental Research Institute, in Palo Alto.

Such tactics not only deeply wound the recipient, but also leave them without the ability to respond in a public arena, she said.

Humor can also be poorly used to disown a conversation. If someone is constantly laughing, punning and joking; if they are constantly interrupting with humor, it can be a way to tune the partner out, she said.

Sarcasm in marriage is sometimes the subject of debate. Randall observed that sarcasm, when used without respect, can be contemptuous and hurtful.

But Pearson and Bader have also seen it used in a positive way. "It depends totally on voice tone and facial expression. With the right expression and tone, you can say dang near anything and get away with it, which is why humor is so hard to describe. At the foundation of humor is love."

As with stand-up comedy, timing is everything. "Laughing at the wrong time or making light of the issue can create the impression that the partner doesn't take the issue seriously," Randall said.

Scott and Luda take characters or acquaintances from their past and inject the humorous or nonsensical things that the person would say into their argument. This helps diffuse conflict. For example, a friend would say "It could be true or it could be false." Properly inserted, Scott said, it takes on a comical aspect that gets them laughing.

The couple also uses punning, an especially rich area of humor since they speak two languages and come from different cultures. Luda is a native of Russia; Scott is American.

Her Old World humor has brought a certain leavening to their American lives, Scott said. Here in Silicon Valley, people think that things are bad sometimes, but they really aren't when compared to other situations, he added.

"Russian humor is particularly adapted for tragedy. When something bad happens, better the 'terrible end' than the 'endless terror,' " he said. A stock phrase from Luda's repertoire: "No more bullets."
Scott explains the Russian joke: "In Old Russia, the people are always standing in lines waiting for food. As you queue up, you are always standing next to someone you don't know, and you don't have any idea of what's for sale:

One man in the line says: 'They are out of chickens.'
The other says: 'This communism is bad.'
The first man says: 'You have to watch it, you can't be saying bad things about the government, you know.'
The line moves up.
Somebody says: 'They're out of bread now.'
The second man says, 'Oh, this is terrible! There is never anything! They have to get rid of this government.'
The first man says: 'We'll have to shoot you if you keep talking like that.'
The line moves up.
Someone says, 'They're out of bullets.' "

E-mail Sue Dremann at

The Couples Institute
Ellen Bader, Ph.D.
Peter Pearson, Ph.D.
Menlo Park, (650) 327-5915
The Couples Resource Center
Sylvia Randall, Ph.D.
Marti Elvebak, MFT
Palo Alto, (650) 494-6402
"The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work"
Dr. John Gottman


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