In Praise of Lightening Up


How does one justify to one’s spouse packing a box of condoms for an upcoming solo business trip? I don’t know, and neither did Frank. Frank did, however, discover that if “I’m not sure how those got in there” doesn’t soothe a dubious spouse, a panicked “well, just in case” will help one’s cause even less.

What followed that fateful afternoon was a long, tense withdrawal—Frank into shame and denial; Dorothy, Frank’s wife, into hurt and mistrust. Frank tried to atone for the affair by becoming deeply religious, but this did little to comfort Dorothy, who wanted him to repair the sin against her, not God. So, they stopped having sex. Conversation stalled. Shared activities died. Dorothy’s criticism and Frank’s defensiveness eventually faded to cold, lonely resignation.

Most couples I see can keep up this dance for five or six years before crumbling into therapy. True outliers, Frank and Dorothy had persisted for twenty-three! Twenty-three years of disconnected, parallel lives.

That is, until Frank’s terminal health diagnosis brought them to my office. Nothing inspires reconciliation like one’s imminent passing. Knowing he had only a few months to live made Frank want to “make things right so we can end our time together honorably.” Dorothy, both buoyed by the fact that her pain and loneliness was soon ending with Frank’s passing and saddened by the sudden realization that on some level she really did love Frank and regretted her role in the past few icy decades, started to soften.

For the first time, Frank acknowledged the affair. After so many years, this was mostly a token gesture for Dorothy, but she still, nevertheless, appreciated how hard it was for Frank to admit. She dropped her guard a bit and they started to turn towards each other again. Frequent dates, long conversations—they were trying hard, even if it was all a bit mechanical. Still, with tragedy in front of and behind them, their therapy often felt forced, humorless, and heavy.

Until my mistake.

Does your brain ever pause mid-conversation, lift a sentence out of context and think, “Man, if I ever walked in on this conversation and only heard that last sentence…!”

Mine does. All the time. Usually it is entertaining, but sometimes, especially in the rich milieu of unconventional conversations that is therapy, it catches me off guard and everyone is better off if I regulate my response. But sometimes, whatever part of me is in charge of that filter is taking a nap.

Such was the case one afternoon in a quiet, tender moment when Frank turned towards Dorothy and said, with deep sincerity, “I’m so happy that I don’t have to be on antidepressants anymore to be married to you.” In context, it really was sweet, but my brain unfortunately chose that moment for one of its favorite glitches and I immediately burst out laughing. I couldn’t help myself!

I couldn’t have been more out of tune. I felt horrible! Was I laughing at them? The thought was mortifying. I didn’t think so, but it wasn’t my perception that mattered. My brain was telling me to stop, but my heart was telling me to relax, let it all out. I couldn’t stop!

Laughter truly had healed Frank and Dorothy.

A long pause. They were staring at me, shocked. Confused. I don’t think they had laughed together in twenty-three years. It was like I was speaking a foreign language. Then, slowly, a smile from Dorothy as she realized the humor in Frank’s declaration.

“I don’t think you’ll ever hear that line on a Hallmark card!” I joked. Dorothy cracked and doubled over laughing with me. Then Frank joined in. Then for what seemed like forever, twenty-three years of tension, hurt, and suffering melted onto the floor and evaporated into laughter. By the end, we were all in tears. Tears of laughter, tears of healing, of sorrow…of everything. They were lighter than they could remember. Their time together went from forced and rote to meaningful and sincere. They consummated their marriage again after a twenty-three-year hiatus. There were still hurts, to be sure, but they trusted they could set those aside and enjoy their last moments together. When Frank eventually passed away a few months later, they had both gotten to feel the love they thought was lost forever.

Laughter truly had healed Frank and Dorothy. Perhaps like me, you’ve seen this many times in your practice. But if laughter can be so uniquely therapeutic, why was I so worried about laughing? Sure, some of it was due to social propriety. But there’s more to it than that. Why, when we picture therapy, does laughter not often spring to mind?

I attribute my reservation to my early social constructs of therapy. At the time the archetypal therapist (in my mind at least) was a calm, dispassionate Freudian blank slate onto whom a client could project and work through their issues. In this paradigm, a therapist’s sense of humor was simply countertransference that offered the therapist escape from their discomfort at the client’s expense. The work could never be sufficiently deep if the therapist was forever lightening the mood.

As an aside, I now look at that same archetype with a bit of sadness. I imagine those early men—as most prominent therapists were men at the time—had the same arsenal of bad dad jokes most of us either proudly have or are regrettably subjected to, but presumably they only allowed themselves to trot them out, if at all, during quiet moments of shame. Which is sad to me, because let’s be honest, wouldn’t you love a grainy old video of Freud in tears with his cigar reciting his favorite dad jokes? But I digress.

Some of my reservations come from my training. During that particularly vulnerable time, the message between the lines of learning so many new skills and interventions was that unless I figured all this out, I was going to make people worse. It felt like learning a new language, a new way of being. But it’s hard to be yourself and vigilant at the same time, so like many students before and after me, I set the more spontaneous aspects of myself on the shelf so I could get down to the serious business of learning to be a healer.

I don’t remember humor being talked about specifically in training, other than once when my jokes during a genogram presentation were rightly observed by my professor as a defense against vulnerability. Actually, I take that back—I remember one other time. I was visiting my family and my mom observed, with a little sadness, that I had stopped being funny. That was sad to me, but I viewed humor as a necessary sacrifice on the altar of becoming a healer. She was right though—reigning in my sense of humor had spread beyond the walls of the therapy office. I felt that loss even if I couldn’t fully identify it at the time, and reconciling my archetypal therapist self with my natural self became a theme of my professional development for years to come. I knew I had rough edges to smooth off, but which ones? At that stage of my journey, my sense of humor seemed like low-hanging fruit.

Some of this could be attributed to my early 20’s desire to be a good boy in a place where I felt in over my head, but not all of it. In my many years since as a professor, I’ve seen hundreds of students go through a similar dilemma early on in their training. How do I be myself while learning a new way of interacting with people?

Thankfully the old, limiting zeitgeist around this has been shifting for a while, making that tension less pronounced. Psychoanalysis’ grip on institutional power has long since faded. Countless therapists open their lives on social media, and while the wisdom of this can be debated, the practice is here to stay. Is vulnerability preferable to a blank slate? Are strict therapist/client informational boundaries prerequisites for healing? There are no simple answers to these questions, but the fact that they’re being asked and challenged underscores that we’re living in a new era where vulnerability is the norm. And with that vulnerability comes the implicit permission to let loose a little. In doing so, the therapist’s character, life and personality is becoming the hero rather than their clinical approach.

Research suggests that may be a good thing. As therapists are feeling more comfortable putting themselves out there, effectiveness research is undergoing a similar shift. Therapists are shifting from talking about their approaches (e.g., I offer cognitive behavioral therapy) to sharing more of who they are as a person (Hynes et al., 2023). Similarly, effectiveness research is shifting away from focusing on the unique contributions of models towards focusing on traits of effective therapists. A recent review of the literature (Pereira et al., 2023) suggests that a therapist’s interpersonal skills (including the appropriate use of humor) and the positive effect those skills have on maintaining the therapeutic alliance, are more important than any other variable over which the therapist has control. Perhaps to an outsider it is surprising that it took our field so long to realize that the therapist was more important than the therapy, but here we are.

Yet, how often do we encourage the development of certain therapist traits, especially a sense of humor, in our training or textbooks? Usually, laughter is rightly decried as a defense, but rarely praised as healing. Certainly, laughter can be about a therapist avoiding discomfort, but so can refraining from laughter.

Sure, healing is heavy. Healing is painful. But healing is also unburdening and light, which is why it is all the more important to make the most of the rays of comedic sunshine when they shine through. Or create some yourself. I know of few better ways to help shake off old pain than honest, shared laughter.

These days when I walk down the halls of my group practice and hear laughter, which I often do, my heart smiles. I know healing is happening. And while you’ll never find this family man singing karaoke at a nudist retreat, my dutiful commitment to embodying the somber therapist vibe is long gone. In its place I’ve discovered an axiom to which I will always ascribe: when I am myself, I do better work.

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Sean Davis, PhD, LMFT, is an AAMFT Professional Member holding the Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor designations. He is a distinguished professor of couple and family therapy at Alliant International University and owner of The Davis Group Counseling and Wellness Services. He can be reached at drdavis@thedavisgroup.org

Hynes, K. C., Triplett, N. T., & Kingzette, A. (2023). Incidental influencing: A thematic analysis of couple and family therapists’ experiences of professional social media. Contemporary Family Therapy. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10591-022-09658-1

Pereira, G. L., Trujillo Sanchez, C., Alonso-Vega, J., Echevarría-Escalante, D., & Froxán-Parga, M. X. (2023). What do we know about the variables that underlie the performance of the highly effective therapist? A systematic review. Annals of Psychology, 39(1), 10-19. https://doi.org/10.6018/analesps.499371

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