The power of humor and laughter
Humor plays an important role in relationships from initial attraction to long-term commitment. In new relationships, humor can be an effective tool not just for attracting the other person but also for overcoming any awkwardness or embarrassment that arises during dating and the process of getting to know one another. In longer-term relationships, humor can keep things exciting, fresh, and vibrant. It can also help you overcome conflicts, disagreements, and the tiny aggravations than can build up over time and wreck even the strongest of relationships.
Sharing the pleasure of humor creates a sense of intimacy and connection between two people—qualities that define solid, successful relationships. When you laugh with one another, you create a positive bond between you. This bond acts as a strong buffer against stress, disagreements, disappointments, and bad patches in a relationship. And laughter really is contagious—just hearing someone laugh primes you to smile and join in on the fun. But don’t worry if you’re not naturally a lighthearted, humorous person—you can learn to access your playful side and develop your sense of fun.
Humor and relationship problems
Humor isn’t a miracle cure for relationship problems but it can be an important tool to help you overcome the rough spots that afflict every relationship from time to time. Whether your relationship problems stem from issues connected to money, sex, commitment, health, employment, parenting styles, or growing apart, you can use humor to help resolve problems and strengthen relationships.
Humor can help you and your loved one:
- Form a stronger bond to each other. Your health and happiness depend, to a large degree, on the quality of your relationships—and laughter binds people together.
- Smooth over differences. Using gentle humor often helps you address even the most sensitive relationship issues, such as sex or in-laws.
- Diffuse tension. A well-timed joke can ease a tense situation and help you resolve disagreements.
- Overcome problems and setbacks. A sense of humor is the key to resilience. It helps you take hardships in stride, weather disappointment, and bounce back from adversity and loss.
- Put things into perspective. Most situations are not as bleak as they appear to be when looked at from a playful and humorous point of view. Humor can help you reframe problems that might otherwise seem overwhelming and damage a relationship.
- Be more creative. Humor and playfulness can loosen you up, energize your thinking, and inspire creative problem solving for any relationship issue.
Fixing relationship problems tip #1: Use humor to defuse conflict
Conflict is an inevitable part of all relationships. It may take the form of major discord between the two of you or simply petty aggravations that have built up over time. Either way, how you manage conflict can often determine how successful your relationship will be.
When conflict and disagreement throw a wrench in your relationship, humor and playfulness can help lighten things up and restore a sense of connection. Used skillfully and respectfully, a little lighthearted humor can quickly turn conflict and tension into an opportunity for shared fun and intimacy. It allows you to get your point across without getting the other person’s defenses up or hurting his or her feelings. For example:
Lori’s husband, a contractor, often comes home sweaty and dirty from his job. This is a major turn off for Lori, and when her husband tries to give her a romantic hello, she turns away and asks him to take a bath. This makes her husband angry, and he accuses her of not appreciating what he does for a living. To resolve this conflict, Lori has started turning on the tub water before he gets home, and then she playfully peels off his clothes when he walks through the door, and sometimes joins him in the tub.
Alex is retired, but he still goes up on the roof to clean the gutters. His wife, Angie, has told him numerous times that it scares her when he uses the ladder. Today, instead of her usual complaints, she yells up to him, "You know, it's husbands like you who turn wives into nags." Alex laughs and carefully comes down from the roof.
Humor—free of hurtful sarcasm or ridicule—neutralizes conflict by helping you:
- Interrupt the power struggle, instantly easing tension and allowing you to reconnect and regain perspective.
- Be more spontaneous. Shared laughter and play helps you break free from rigid ways of thinking and behaving, allowing you to see the problem in a new way and find a creative solution.
- Be less defensive. In playful settings, we hear things differently and can tolerate learning things about ourselves that we otherwise might find unpleasant or even painful.
- Let go of inhibitions. Laughter opens us up, freeing us to express what we truly feel and allowing our deep, genuine emotions to rise to the surface.
Fixing relationship problems tip #2: Make sure you’re both in on the joke
Like any tool, humor can be used in negative as well as positive ways. Making snide, hurtful remarks, for example, then criticizing the other person for not being able to take a joke will create even more problems and ultimately damage a relationship.
Humor can only help you overcome relationship problems when both partners are in on the joke. It’s important to be sensitive to the other person. If your partner or friend isn’t likely to appreciate the joke, don’t say or do it, even if it’s "all in good fun.”When the joking is one-sided rather than mutual, it undermines trust and goodwill and can damage the relationship.
Consider the following example:
Michelle’s feet are always cold when she gets into bed, but she has what she thinks is a playful solution. She heats up her icy feet by placing them on her husband Kevin’s warm body. Kevin hates this game, and has repeatedly told Michelle that he doesn’t appreciate being used as a foot warmer, but she just laughs at his complaints. Lately, Kevin has taken to sleeping at the far edge of the bed, a solution that distances them as a couple.
Humor in relationships should be equally fun and enjoyable for both people. If your partner doesn’t think your joking or teasing is funny—stop immediately. Before you start playing around, take a moment to consider your motives, as well as your partner’s state of mind and sense of humor.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you feel calm, clear-headed, and connected to the other person?
- Is your true intent to communicate positive feelings—or are you taking a dig, expressing anger, or laughing at the other person’s expense?
- Are you sure that the joke will be understood and appreciated?
- Are you aware of the emotional tone of the nonverbal messages you are sending? Are you giving off positive, warm signals or a negative or hostile tone?
- Are you sensitive to the nonverbal signals the other person is sending? Do they seem open and receptive to your humor, or closed-off and offended?
- Are you willing and able to back off if the other person responds negatively to the joke?
- If you say or do something that offends, is it easy for you to immediately apologize?
Fixing relationship problems tip #3: Don’t use humor to cover up other emotions
Humor helps you stay resilient in the face of life’s challenges. Bu,t there are times when humor is not healthy—and that's when it is used as a cover for avoiding, rather than coping with, painful emotions. Laughter can be a disguise for feelings of hurt, fear, anger, and disappointment that you don’t want to feel or don’t know how to express.
You can be funny about the truth, but covering up the truth isn’t funny. When you use humor and playfulness as a cover for other emotions, you create confusion and mistrust in your relationships. The following are examples of misplaced humor:
Mike is a constant jokester. Nothing ever seems to get him down and he never takes anything seriously. No matter what happens to him or to anyone else, he makes a joke out of the situation. In reality, Mike is terrified of intimacy and commitment in his relationships, and uses humor to avoid uncomfortable feelings and to keep others at arm’s length.
Sharon is often jealous and possessive with her boyfriend John, but she has never learned to openly discuss her insecurities and fears. Instead, she uses what she thinks is humor to express her feelings. Her jokes, however, usually having a biting, almost hostile edge to them, and John doesn't find them funny at all. Instead of laughing, he often responds with a quiet coldness or withdrawal.
For cues as to whether or not humor is being used to conceal other emotions, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do nonverbal communication signals— such as tone of voice, intensity, timing—feel genuinely humorous to you, or do you experience them as forced or "not right” somehow?
- Is humor the only emotion you routinely express, or is there a mixture of other emotions that at least occasionally includes sadness, fear, and anger?
Fixing relationship problems tip #4: Develop your playful side
It’s never too late to develop and embrace your playful, humorous side. If you find yourself limiting your playfulness, it's possible that you're self-conscious and concerned about how you'll look and sound to others when you attempt to be funny or witty.
Fearing rejection or ridicule when attempting to be funny is an understandable fear, but it's important to point out that as a baby, you were naturally playful; you didn't worry about the reactions of other people. You can reclaim your inborn playfulness by setting aside regular, quality playtime. The more you joke, play, and laugh—the easier it becomes.
- Monitor your partner’s nonverbal cues. If your partner is not appreciating or enjoying your attempts at humor, you’ll be able to tell from his or her body language. Does her smile seem fake or forced? Is he leaning away from you or leaning towards you, encouraging you to continue?
- Avoid mean-spirited humor. It may work for some comedians on stage, but used one-on-one at home, it will not only fall flat but may also damage your relationship. Saying something hurtful or insulting, even when framed as a joke, will alienate the other person and weaken the bond between you.
- Create inside jokes. An inside joke is something that only the two of you understand. It can often be reduced to a word or short phrase that reminds you both of a funny incident or amusing story, and is usually guaranteed to generate a smile or laugh from the other person. When you and your partner are the only ones “in” on the joke, it can create intimacy and draw you together.
- Don’t be afraid to “play the fool.” Remember, you’re not trying to impress or entertain your partner, but simply to lighten up and make the two of you more relaxed. Goof around, wear wacky clothing, be silly like a kid. It can lower your partner’s defenses, relieve tension, and help you to smooth over differences.
It’s safe to start with self-deprecating humor
If you’re uncomfortable with making lighthearted banter or cracking jokes, or you struggle to know what’s appropriate in any given situation, start by using self-deprecating humor. We all love people who don’t take themselves too seriously and are able to gently poke fun at their own failings. After all, we’re all flawed and we all make mistakes. So if you’re having a bad hair day or you’ve just spilled coffee over yourself, make a joke about it. Even if the joke falls flat or comes out wrong, the only person you risk offending is yourself.
Once you’re comfortable making jokes about yourself, you can broaden your range to include other types of humor.
Cultivating your sense of humor and playfulness
The process of learning to play depends on your preferences. Begin by observing what you already do that borders on fun or playful. For example, you may like to:
- Tell or listen to jokes
- Watch funny movies or TV shows
- Dance around to cheesy music when you’re alone
- Sing playfully in the shower
- Read the funny pages/comic strips
After you recognize playful things you already enjoy, you can try to incorporate more humorous activities into your relationships. The important thing is to find enjoyable activities that loosen you up and help you embrace your playful nature with other people.
Another excellent way to get in touch with your playful side is to practice with "experts”:
- Play with animals. Puppies, kittens, and other animals—both young and old—are eager playmates and always ready to frolic. Make play dates with friends’ pets, stop to play with a friendly animal in your neighborhood, or consider getting a pet of your own.
- Play with babies and young children. The real authorities in human play are children, especially young children. Playing with children who know and trust you is a wonderful way to learn from the experts.
- Interact playfully with customer service people. Most people in the service industry are social and you’ll find that many will welcome playful banter. Try your wit out on a friendly cashier, receptionist, waiter, hostess, or salesperson.
As humor and play become an integrated part of your life, you'll begin to find daily opportunities for using your newfound skills to help build and maintain your relationships.
Help for Relationships
Emotional Self-Help Toolkit
Resources & References
Fixing relationship problems with humor
The Benefits of Laughter – Article on the social benefits of laughter and the important role it plays in the relationships between people. (Psychology Today)
Belly Laughter in Relationships – Describes the positive role of laughter in relationships, including how it adds enjoyment to life, eases conflict, and attracts others to us. (Laughter Therapy)