Yes, I mean in academic and practical capacity: over the long-term, can humor help relationships? Are there certain types of humor that benefit one spouse over the other?
Philosophy, caricature, exaggeration, comedy-mirrors-reality – does humor help and how do we measure it?
This was brought to mind when I came across this study from Europe’s Journal of Psychology: Bad Humor, Bad Marriage: Humor Styles in Divorced and Married Couples
Is humor, as often believed, an important ingredient for quality in romantic relationships, especially among married couples? Previous research has investigated this question but often done so treating humor as a global trait without distinguishing between different humor styles. More intriguing: do specific humor styles contribute to marital stability and, consequently – by their absence or because of their quality – to relationship dissolution and divorce?
By its very nature, humor introduces something unique to human interactions that may contribute to, or even change, more stable emotional states. Positive humor styles may stabilize marriage (e.g., by reducing tension or by communicating warm feelings) in the presence of disagreement, conflict, or relational insecurity, while negative humor styles may destabilize marriage (e.g., by introducing tension or by communicating criticism) even in the presence of secure attachment, agreement, and harmony.
Some fascinating findings from the study:
- In stable long-term relationships, self-enhancement humor can thus be an efficient tool for increasing relationship satisfaction.
- Women’s self-defeating humor seemed to contribute to men’s, but not women’s, marital satisfaction. This unexpected result, if not due to chance, could be interpreted as an indication of a traditional gender asymmetry in marriage. Women’s self-ridiculization through humor may please husbands and increase their marital satisfaction. This can be facilitated by the fact that self-defeating humor does not explicitly attest asymmetry: “it was only a joke”.
- Men and women, especially in married couples, seemed to agree, consistently across judgments of self and the spouse, that men use humor – all styles except self-defeating – more than women.
- In other words, spouses may differ on the use of general/social humor, but they are similar on the high or low use of humor styles that reflect respect or transgression of interpersonal and social values and norms such as aggressive and earthy humor.
- Another issue that arises from the present findings is that both partners’ humor styles seem to have an impact on marital insatisfaction and dissolution, but, in several cases, this was in a way that paralleled gender differences on personality. Men are typically found to be less agreeable and more aggressive, whereas women more neurotic (Lippa, in press). It may then be that, to some point, the problem for marital satisfaction and stability comes from men’s excessive use of “masculine” humor (aggressive and earthy) and women’s excessive use of “feminine” humor (self-defeating).
Regardless of humor’s effects on marital stability or dissolution, though, this study closes with a reminder that the choice between maintaining a relationship or letting it collapse does come down to individual choice and/or ethical judgment. So, from the Kramdens to the Lockharts to the Simpsons and the couples in these two sketches – one British, from the TV skit comedy Bruiser, the other French, from the sketch play “Ils S’Aiment!” – what priority should humor have in a relationship? LMK your thoughts!