Understanding the Role of Humor in Family Therapy


From the inception of the field, family therapists have developed creative ways of integrating humor into their work. This is largely because humor invites clients to engage with seemingly incongruous ideas in constructive ways. However, the pros and cons of using humor in psychotherapy are not always obvious, and clinicians would benefit from a deeper understanding of humor and how it promotes change in client populations. This article seeks to enrich that understanding by reviewing the thoughts of some of humor’s most vocal proponents and examining the empirical and theoretical data indicating its efficacy in psychotherapy.

Understanding the role of humor in family therapy

Marriage and family therapists are no strangers to humor. This is because their work requires mental and interpersonal flexibility, an appreciation for irony, and an aptitude for reframing perceptions. To put it bluntly, it is the therapist’s sense of humor that often prevents the dance of family therapy from slowing to a crawl. But the use of humor in therapy is about more than mere entertainment, and many of the field’s icons wrote about how they used humor to instigate meaningful change.

Perhaps most notable among them was Carl Whitaker, who explicitly advocated the use of humor-based interventions (Whitaker & Bumberry, 1988). For example, he once asked a client with an amputated leg, “When are you going to go dancing again?” The client responded with laughter and was then able to discuss his doubts, given his disability, of ever finding love and intimacy (Martin, 2011, p. 150). For Whitaker, absurd and humorous interactions provided a way for families to transcend communication barriers and find new and more meaningful ways of interacting. Virginia Satir, widely regarded as the mother of Family Therapy (Hagen & Sabey, 2018) also thought that humor had the potential to minimize defensive reactions and help clients clarify problematic conceptualizations. Satir once wrote, “Laughter is a powerful therapeutic tool which can transform the way in which a family looks at itself” (Satir & Baldwin, 1983, p. 247). Provocateurs like Jay Haley routinely utilized irony and sarcasm to invite both clients and therapists to reevaluate their basic assumptions (Simon, 1982).

However, when surveyed on the subject (Hussong & Micucci, 2021), it turns out that not all practitioners view humor in similar ways. For example, some therapists worry that humor might undermine the serious nature of the therapeutic enterprise (Reynes & Allen, 1987). Others feel it might lead to a power imbalance between client and therapist (Thomas, Roehrig, & Yang, 2015). Some are concerned that therapists might use humor as a defense against their own anxieties, or as a display of narcissistic showmanship (Kubie, 1970). Some clinicians are concerned that a client’s use of humor might deflect attention away from difficult topics (Barwick, 2012), or—if the humor is self-deprecating—might reflect an unconscious need to re-experience feelings of shame or humiliation (Gibson & Tantam, 2017).

All these considerations are valid, illustrating the complexity of human motivation and behavior. Psychotherapists are indeed a heterogeneous group of people who practice in vastly different treatment settings, utilize a variety of different psychotherapy techniques, and engage with diverse client populations. Upon reflection, it would be rather bizarre if all these practitioners shared a unified opinion about the role of humor in therapy. However, they do seem to agree that humor has the potential to improve outcomes when used collaboratively and judiciously, and many research studies and case history reports support this assumption (Hussong & Micucci, 2021).

Potential benefits of humor use

Humor has been viewed as having the potential to enhance the quality of therapeutic relationships (Dziegielewski, Jacinto, Laudadio, & Legg-Rodriguez, 2003; Sultanoff, 2013). It can foster insight into clients’ personality dynamics (Gordon, 2007; McWilliams, 2011), encourage behavioral and cognitive flexibility (Morreall, 1998), and model effective coping skills while reducing defensiveness (Barwick, 2012). Moreover, humor can help bypass resistances and communicate ideas that may clash with clients’ preferred narratives, thus allowing family therapists to remain joined to clients while simultaneously working to reframe their world views (Buttny, 2001; Panichelli, 2013). Research has also indicated that humor has the potential to cultivate a positive atmosphere in inpatient communities (Gelkopf, Sigal, & Kramer, 1994), enhance couple’s relationship quality by promoting affiliation and intimacy (Horn, Samson, Debrot, & Perrez, 2019), facilitate bereavement work with children (Cox, 2014), and help members of the LGBTQ community manage stress (Craig, Austin, & Huang, 2018).

 Potential risks of humor use

While humor use clearly has the potential to enhance the quality of therapy, there are also instances where clinicians would do well to exercise restraint. For instance, a mistimed intervention with humor might lead to the impression that a therapist is making light of a client’s struggles. If humor is being used in a contrived manner, the quality of the therapeutic alliance might be hindered by perceptions of disingenuousness. Furthermore, a therapist’s use of humor should not equate to complicity with a client’s avoidance, self-deprecation or defensiveness, nor should it blur therapeutic boundaries or be utilized aggressively. Contraindications to humor use in therapy might include factors such as cognitive deficits, psychosis, and trauma, as well as personality rigidity or stigma related to gender or cultural identity (Hussong & Micucci, 2021). These concerns notwithstanding, there are clearly instances where humor helps to facilitate constructive movement in therapy. But therapists who want to use humor to help people navigate life’s conundrums, should first understand what humor actually is.

 Popular theories of humor

Over the past century, numerous theories have been advanced to define humor and explain how it functions in the social milieu (Martin, 2007). For example, relief theory—built upon Freud’s cathartic-driven model of humor—asserts that its function is to reduce psychological tension. Superiority theory, which dates back still further, to the musings of Plato and Aristotle, proposes that humor is a vehicle that allows individuals to assert dominance over others. On the other hand, incongruity theory contends that humor occurs when something violates our expectations, and we are forced to place the incongruous event into a new context. Similarly, evolutionary psychology suggests that our capacity for humor may have evolved as a reward system for those able to unmask life’s discordances (Hurley, Dennett, & Adams, 2011). Neuropsychological research lends some credibility to this evolutionary model, given that our capacity for humor seems to be contingent upon lower frontal lobe functioning; a location associated with social and emotional judgment, as well as planning and problem solving (Shammi & Stuss, 1999).

Peter McGraw’s (2014) benign-violation theory integrates several of these models, proposing that three conditions must prevail for something to be perceived as funny. First, the situation or stimulus must be perceived as a violation of some sort. In other words, the situation threatens the way we believe things “ought” to be and thereby creates an incongruity. Second, the incongruous situation or stimulus must be contextualized as benign, rather than dangerous or harmful. Third, these two perceptions—incongruity and benevolence—must occur simultaneously. Not only does this theory provide a framework for understanding why things are perceived as funny, but it also acknowledges and explains the subjective nature of humor. In other words, two people might agree that a risqué joke constitutes a violation of some sort, but person A may perceive the joke as benign, while person B might consider it offensive (i.e., not benign).

One of the advantages of the benign violation model is that it invites us to consider how peoples’ responses to perceived violations might reveal something important about their perceptions of harm. In other words, it provides a diagnostic framework for understanding why people have different reactions to particular incongruities.

Humor has been viewed as having the potential to enhance the quality of therapeutic relationships.

How understanding informs practice

As self-regulating systems, families are predisposed to resist change. When a request for new behavior is made, it often registers as a potential threat to the system’s stability. This is one of the reasons why families utilize avoidance, blame-shifting, or other forms of problem denial, because these are responses to the perception of non-benign violation. In some instances, this perception is correct and an examination of how humor manifests may reveal something important about whether or not members of the family are sufficiently attuned to each other’s needs. Conversely, it is often the case that the behaviors of family members are seen as problematic (i.e., non-benign), when in fact they represent more elastic and constructive ways of thinking. Helping family members re-evaluate the threats they associate with change is part and parcel of quality treatment, and it is worth considering that humor can play a helpful role in guiding that process.

It is largely taken for granted that a primary goal of therapy is to help people alter problematic perceptions, but rarely do we consider that an ancillary goal might involve helping clients cultivate a more nuanced capacity for humor. To be clear, the purpose of such a goal is not to make clients laugh, or to suggest that somber emotions are somehow less valid than cheerful ones. Rather, the goal is to help clients re-contextualize their orientation to perceived violations, such that they can derive meaning or pleasure from obstacles that once seemed threatening. Of course, family therapists are well acquainted with the kinds of techniques that would assist in this effort, such as reframing, prescribing the problem, and various paradoxical interventions.

Using humor in an efficacious way requires therapists to understand their clients at both an individual and systemic level. For example, a humorous intervention may work well in an individual context, but not a familial one, and vice versa. Factors like age, personality, gender, culture, ethnicity, and various other contextual categories all contribute to perceptions of what makes something funny, and any intervention that incorporates humor needs to be mindful of those considerations.

Moreover, because humor use is itself a subtle form of communication, therapists would do well to consider what it is that their clients are communicating, even if the clients themselves are unclear about it. For instance, families that utilize a lot of sarcasm may not recognize disowned anger, just as family members who tease one another may be unaware of the anxiety that is being displaced. Similarly, family members who self-deprecate often do so as a substitute for feelings of guilt, much as family members who laugh readily at their misfortunes may be avoiding their need for compassion and support. Therapists who are able to decipher messages that are being communicated through a family’s use of humor may be a step ahead of the game.

Perhaps more than any other school of psychotherapy, systemic therapists have developed creative ways of thinking about and integrating humor into their work. This is partly because humor invites clients to engage with seemingly incongruous notions and rewards them with pleasurable sensations if they are able to re-contextualize assumptions that once seemed alien and immutable. Families may resist change, but they often do so in an effort to avoid displeasure, and that is what makes humor-based interventions so intriguing; they have the capacity to help clients and their families derive pleasure from shifts in context. Therefore, it stands to reason that family therapists should consider ways to nurture this capacity in thoughtful and measured ways.

Devin Hussong, PsyD, is an assistant professor of Psychology at Chestnut Hill College, Philadelphia, PA. His research interests include the role of humor in psychotherapy, personality conceptualization and assessment, media ecology, and the psychology of religion. A member of Otto Psychological Associates, he provides assessment and psychotherapy services to teenage and adult populations. Dr. Hussong lives in Easton Pennsylvania with his wife Christina.

Acknowledgment: The author thanks Jay Efran for his helpful edits and comments on this article.


Barwick, N. (2012). Looking on the bright side of life: Some thoughts on developmental and defensive uses of humour. Psychodynamic Practice, 18(2), 163-179. https://doi.org/10.1080/14753634.2012.664871

Buttny, R. (2001). Therapeutic humor in retelling the clients’ tellings. Text – Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse, 21(3), 303-326. https://doi.org/10.1515/text.2001.002

Cox, G. (2014). Using humor with dying and bereaved children. Great Plains Sociologist, 24, 16-31. https://doi.org/doi:10.2190/IL6.4.d

Craig, S. L., Austin, A., & Huang, Y. (2018). Being humorous and seeking diversion: Promoting healthy coping skills among LGBTQ+ youth. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, 22(1), 20-35. https://doi.org/10.1080/19359705.2017.1385559

Dziegielewski, S. F., Jacinto, G. A., Laudadio, A., & Legg-Rodriguez, L. (2003). Humor: An essential communication tool in therapy. International Journal of Mental Health, 32(3), 74–90. https://doi.org/10.1080/00207411.2003.11449592

Gelkopf, M., Sigal, M., & Kramer, R. (1994). Therapeutic use of humor to improve social support in an institutionalized schizophrenic inpatient community. The Journal of Social Psychology, 134(2), 175-182. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.1994.9711380

Gibson, N., & Tantam, D. (2017). The best medicine? The nature of humour and its significance for the process of psychotherapy. Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis, 28(2), 272-287. https://existentialanalysis.org.uk/publications/journal

Gordon, R. M. (2007). To wit or not to wit: The use of humor in psychotherapy. Pennsylvania Psychologist, 67(3), 22-24. https://www.papsy.org/page/PAPsyPub

Hagen, L. & Sabey, A. (2018). Satir Model of Transformational Systemic Therapy. In: Lebow, J., Chambers, A., Breunlin, D. (eds) Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-15877-8_1076-1

Horn, A. B., Samson, A. C., Debrot, A., & Perrez, M. (2019). Positive humor in couples as interpersonal emotion regulation: A dyadic study in everyday life on the mediating role of psychological intimacy. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(8), 2376-2396. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407518788197

Hurley, M. M., Dennett, D. C., & Adams, R. B. (2011). Inside jokes: Using humor to reverse-engineer the mind. MIT Press.

Hussong, D. & Micucci, J. (2021). The use of humor in psychotherapy: Views of practicing psychotherapists. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 16(1), 77-94. DOI: 10.1080/15401383.2020.1760989

Kubie, L. S. (1970). The destructive potential of humor in psychotherapy. American Journal of Psychiatry, 127(7), 861-866. https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.127.7.861

Martin, A. (2011). Symbolic-experiential family therapy. In L. Metcalf (Ed.), Marriage and family therapy: A practice-oriented approach (pp. 147-173). Springer Publishing Company.

Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: An integrative approach. Elsevier Academic Press.

McGraw, P. (2014). The humor code: A global search for what makes things funny. (1st ed.). Simon & Schuster.

McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytic diagnosis: Understanding personality structure in the clinical process (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.

Morreall, J. (1998). The comic and tragic visions of life. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 11(4), 333–355. https://doi.org/10.1515/humr.1998.11.4.333

Panichelli, C. (2013). Humor, joining, and reframing in psychotherapy: Resolving the auto-doublebind. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 41(5), 437-451. https://doi.org/10.1080/01926187.2012.755393

Reynes, R. L., & Allen, A. (1987). Humor in psychotherapy: A view. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 41(2), 260-270. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.1987.41.2.260

Satir, V., & Baldwin, M. (1983). Satir step by step: A guide to creating change in families. Science and Behavior Books.

Shammi, P. & Stuss, D. (1999). Humour appreciation: A role of the right frontal lobe. Brain: A Journal of Neurology, 122(4), 657-666. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/122.4.657

Simon, R. (1982). Behind the one-way mirror: An interview with Jay Haley. Psychotherapy Networker. https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/article/behind-one-way-mirror

Sultanoff, S. M. (2013). Integrating humor into psychotherapy: Research, theory, and the necessary conditions for the presence of therapeutic humor in helping relationships. The Humanistic Psychologist, 41(4), 388-399. DOI: 10.1080/08873267.2013.796953

Thomas, B. J., Roehrig, J. P., & Yang, P. H. (2015). Humor and healing in college counseling. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 29(3), 167-178. https://doi.org/10.1080/87568225.2015.1045779

Whitaker, C. A., & Bumberry, W. M. (1988). Dancing with the family: A symbolic-experiential approach. Brunner/Mazel.

Other articles

Gray Divorce: Splitting Up Later in Life

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.
Sean Davis, PhD

Meaning of Aging in a Time of Crisis

Integrating EMDR and EFT in Couple Therapy

As much as I’ve loved Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy and revolved my clinical practice around it, it has always felt like it has had one major short-coming; it has primarily been practiced as an individual therapy.

Jason N. Linder, PsyD

Gray Divorce: Splitting Up Later in Life

Myths About Marriage

There are many common misconceptions about what happens in marriage—myths that never come true—and behaviors flow from those myths that harm the couple and their relationship, leaving them unhappy and dissatisfied. Statistics suggest that “happily ever after” occurs no more than 50% of the time, considering how many couples’ divorce.
Alan J. Hovestadt, EdD and Kenneth W. Schmidt, JCD