Humor Can Save a Relationship, or Sink It

A “good” sense of humor is something most of us look for in a mate—but what does that mean exactly? Psychologists have identified four main types of humor, and one stands out as especially helpful in romantic relationships.

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According to researchers charged with the unfunny business of analyzing jokes and jests, humor can be divided into four broad categories:

  • Affiliative humor is positive and outwardly directed—and it works best for strengthening relationships. This type of humor uses jokes or witty banter to brighten up someone else’s day or lighten up an interpersonal conflict. You’re laughing with—not at—another person about something relatively neutral, from a gag in a movie to the quirks of a job. In a tough situation, this brand of humor sends a powerful message that “we’ll get through this together, smiling.”
  • Self-enhancing humor is positive, but inwardly directed. It involves having an amused outlook on life. In a difficult situation, being able to see the funny side can reduce stress, so it’s great for psychological health. Yet self-enhancing humor isn’t aimed directly at building a relationship the way affiliative humor is.
  • Aggressive humor is outwardly directed, but negative. Rather than boosting others up, it puts them down. Aggressive humor often takes the form of cruel teasing, sarcasm, or ridicule, and the guise of just kidding around doesn’t fool anyone. Hostility comes through loud and clear, driving other people away.
  • Self-defeating humor is negative and inwardly directly. An occasional self-deprecating remark may be charming, but making yourself the butt of every joke or laughing along while being ridiculed by others isn’t appealing. People who over-rely on this type of humor tend to be anxious and lonely.

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If you and your partner can’t agree over how to spend the weekend or whether it’s okay to keep texting an ex, affiliative humor might help, based on a forthcoming study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. A team of researchers led by Heike Winterheld, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Cal State East Bay, videotaped dating couples as they tried to resolve real-life conflicts in their relationships.

Affiliative humor tended to be well received—and the more upset couples were, the more it helped cut the tension. People who used this style of humor not only reduced their partners’ anger, they also boosted their own satisfaction with how things turned out.

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That’s not surprising. People who are able to calm down their partners this way probably feel great about it afterward. Past research has shown that using affiliative humor is associated with higher self-esteem, increased well-being, and lower anxiety and depression.

Ultimately, humor can help make—or break—a relationship. In a study of 146 married and divorced couples, use of affiliative and self-enhancing humor, especially by men, was related to greater relationship satisfaction. On the other hand, women who used self-defeating humor and men who used aggressive humor were particularly likely to be divorced.

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