Don Paglia | Marriage and Family Counseling. Constellations Workshops


Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”
Psalm 126:2

Virtues of Joy, Playfulness and Sense of Humor

Donald J. Paglia

There is the story about the man who goes to see his doctor for an exam. After getting a very through checkup the doctor calls the man’s wife into his office without the husband and says to her that her husband is a very ill.  The doctor says her husband has a life threatening condition and things do not look very good.  However, if she is willing to be at the husband’s beck and call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is willing to cater to his every want and desire, making him special breakfasts in the morning, giving him wonderful meals in the evening, sending him off to work with wonderfully prepared lunches, making love to him whenever he’s desirous of her, and generally doing everything to make him completely happy, for the next several months, there is an excellent likelihood her husband will pull through it and be okay.

The couple then pair up and as they are driving home the husband turns to his wife and asks,

“So what did the doctor tell you?”

To which his wife replies,

“ he told me you’re going to die.”

Some might say this man is sick and needs compassion and sympathy, some understanding not obnoxiousness. Is it possible however to see the wife as giving her husband exactly what he requires, and as virtuous by her not giving into her own anxiousness and therefore providing an important challenge to her husband?

I contend this wife is being playful, and in doing so she provides her partner with the best chance for life – metaphorically speaking and literally, as well.

Love and good will are essential components of marriage, yet even with love we still become anxious. An anxious response can get then confused as a loving and caring one. When we’re anxious we want to do something. Often what we end up doing is good for us since it relieves our anxiety, but it’s not necessarily good for the one we supposedly took the action for. Humor and playfulness proves to serve married people well by providing the space to lighten up the relationship and thus allow each to not take what the other said or did or the current situation so personally.

I also encourage couples to try not to “work” on the relationship, but instead focus on his or her own issues in order to become the best mature, capable and responsible adult each can be, and to do so out of a sense of joy and delight. Work implies a seriousness, which is problematic and points to a lack of self-differentiation. When overly serious we operate from a highly anxious state. This cuts us off from our higher levels of functioning – our capacity to reason, problem-solve, be creative and imaginative. Seriousness keeps us operating from a reflex mode while preventing us using those great human capacities. We have a Mary Engelbreit poster in our kitchen that says: “Life is mysterious, don’t take it so serious.” Humor helps move us outside a seemingly hopeless situation and see with new eyes.

Akin to humor is the paradoxical intervention. This might be as simple as going along with and even exaggerating the situation. “This is the worst thing that could have ever happened. I think I’ll stay in bed!” Or, “ My car broke down, so what’s the point of living?” Just for fun we sometimes play a game of “Pet Peeves.” Each person has to come up with a complaint and really exaggerate it and then everyone else exhorts “That’s terrible” or “I hate when that happens!” It is usually a hilarious time for all.

When George complained that his wife, Sue, makes an annoying facial grimace whenever she thinks he is worried, and this causes him to be angry, I suggest he learn to misread her. Imagine her facial expression to be her “sexy” look? I tell him this not because he is right or wrong, but because he can decide to see her less intensely and find newer and more interesting ways to respond. Eventually I suggest he may not know what “that face of hers” really means. With some play I attempt to slow him down in order to get him to address his own reactivity.

Cultivate play and enjoyment with each other, as well as self-joyfulness and delight. Sometimes we over emphasize couple communication and togetherness.  Closeness is a by-product of each partner being a good self. Put it this way: We’d be much more able to be intimate if we first knew how to be separate. Playfulness gives the necessary space often needed as surely as repeating someone’s question gives time for an answer to a speaker.

When couples are first dating they pretty much talk about how they love to “have fun” and enjoy being with each other. They do lots of fun and interesting things. They play a lot. Then they start to court each other and as they move toward marriage they will tell you they’re now in a “serious relationship.” Somehow we link commitment to seriousness. What is it that torpedoes us to serious-us-up?  It’s a serious question we may never learn the answer to, but I do know the antidote is play.

Serious couples can get caught up in issues such as power, finances, and even trust.  These are really symptoms. Usually the couple is emotionally struck together; too close. Sandy and Roger came to see me after Roger admitted to having an affair. Once it came out that Roger had a pattern of irresponsive playing around in various different ways over their 30-year marriage, I suggested Sandy start help Roger find women. Later it became clear Sandy had married a playboy who knew how to have fun as he also tended to under function within the relationship, while she was the overly serious “grownup” and over functioner in the marriage. This was a marriage not of two peers – rather hierarchical relationship with one acting parental toward the other while the other was reacting child-like and maybe even as a rebellious child. By coaching Sandy to stop taking responsibility for Roger and for her to be more playful Sandy discovered her husband began to grow up. Couples who each move along with their own lives don’t really focus so much on so-called issues like trust. They trust themselves to know how to play and how to grow. And they tend not to confuse caring with anxiousness.

As children we knew how to play. Sometimes we were so inspired and were having such a good time in our play that we got the attention of the other kids who stopped what they were doing to watch us and some even began to take part in our play. We were attractive. We knew something then that could be extremely useful to us today. Individuals who know how to play make great partners. Couples who master the art of playfulness are magical to observe. There is joy that shows up in the twinkle in their eyes; are lightness without becoming flippant. Each is loose while remaining solid and grounded.  They are truly grace in action.  Well, enough already. This is getting much too serious. Would it help if I told you I’m very serious about the importance of play?  Is this the kind of virtue you need to take seriously?

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