By Polly Schulman, published on July 1, 2006 - last reviewed on March 25, 2013
"The first time I ever slept with Jen, I said afterwards, 'So, do I get the job?' " says Steve Bartoo, 37, an information technology specialist. Rather than throw him out, she laughed. "I never thought I'd be comfortable enough with anybody to be funny about that—where it's part of the magic," he says.
"For years my friend Justin kept telling me, 'You've got to meet Steve, he's hilarious,' " says Jennifer Pinkowski, 33, a writer. "Turns out he was right. Steve is the funniest person I know. That's a big reason why I married him."
Steve and Jen fell in love by cracking each other up—an experience we all seem to be searching for. When people list the qualities they desire in a partner, sense of humor consistently shows up near the top. Whether dating or married, the more a person likes his or her partner's sense of humor, the more satisfied he or she will be with the relationship. As the sultry cartoon character Jessica Rabbit said when asked what she saw in her husband, funny-bunny Roger: "He makes me laugh."
But a sense of humor hardly solves all problems of the heart, cautions Rod Martin, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario. On the contrary, humor in relationships can cut both ways. Funny people, like babes and hunks, seem more attractive at first. Over time, though, the thrill wears off. Besides, relying on jokes to work through deep relationship dynamics can be dangerous: Humor can pack a nasty punch.
"Humor is a tool like any other," says Robert L. Weiss, a psychologist at the University of Oregon who studies humor in relationships. "People use humor in lots of different ways, including some negative ones. It's not just one monolithic thing." Almost every sweet, supportive way of using it has an evil twin; an aggressive, selfish or manipulative version. And like those teasing comments in the workplace that can just as easily feel like flattery or an attack, the two sides of humor are so intimately intertwined, it almost isn't funny.
We've probably all had the experience of a partner who makes hostile quips about our least favorite qualities—our klutziness, shyness, love handles. Joking and goofing undermine intimacy in subtler ways as well. If your partner makes a joke to change the subject whenever you bring up finances, you might not even notice that he's trying to be funny. You'll just wonder why the two of you never seem to talk about the important things you disagree about.
A joke's basic structure—in which you say one thing and mean another—is exactly what makes it such a useful tool in human relationships. "Humor is inherently ambiguous. That's how it works. You're saying more than one thing, and it's never clear exactly what the message is," says Martin. It allows us to put out ideas in a tentative way, and change them if they're not well received. It's a flexible communication strategy, a way of exploring the conversational terrain.
Elizabeth Gifford, a physician, used that strategy to float the idea of marriage mere weeks after she and her boyfriend began dating. She knew as soon as they started going out that he was "the one," she says, and she wanted to find out whether he was thinking along the same lines—without freaking him out. "Honey, should we have the wedding in Birmingham or Brooklyn?" she asked. He played along with the joke, signaling that he was open to discussing marriage. If he'd reacted badly, she could have taken it back easily: "Scared you there, didn't I?"
Humor can bring lovers together, which is probably one of its clearest benefits. Howard Markman, a psychologist who works with couples in Colorado, likes to start his "Love Your Relationship" retreats with a joke or funny video. "When people are laughing together, they feel more positive toward each other. They're more likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt," he says. This may be the most unambiguously positive use of humor. It's hard to see a downside, except maybe annoying your friends with lovey-dovey in-jokes.
Sometimes a well-timed joke can defuse a tense situation before it escalates. Dianne Spoto, a teacher and horse trainer in the New York Catskills, recalls a particularly heated argument with her husband, Franco. Dianne, who is much smaller than he is, ran up to him and licked his nose, stopping the fight dead in its tracks.
Humor also can change the mood or introduce another point of view. "When I was in a state of yearlong depression and feeling like the world was wiping its feet on me daily, my boyfriend used to look at me very seriously and say, 'Nobody likes you.' I found it hysterical," says Lizzie Skurnick, a blogger in Baltimore. By exaggerating her dismal view of the world, her boyfriend gently let her know that he thought it unrealistic, and helped her get a bit of perspective on her depression.
But there's a fine line between calming a partner down and blowing him or her off. When a couple falls into a pattern of demand and withdrawal, says Weiss, one partner—often the man—will deploy a joke to avoid addressing problems or to let his partner know he's not going to deal with her demands. A woman reminds her partner to do the laundry, and he hums the NFL theme, as if to say, "I have a football game to watch. No way I'm doing laundry now." The joke is funny the first time, but it gets old fast, points out Amy Bippus, a professor of communications studies at California State University in Long Beach.
Unfunny jokes became a recurring problem for Sally Eckhoff, a painter in Saratoga Springs, New York. "I finally convinced my husband that I needed some help, goddamn it—I can't do everything alone," she says. "So once in a while, he'd hold the point of my elbow and steer me with it. And he'd say, 'I'm helping you!'" The couple are now divorcing.
The ambiguity of humor also allows people to express hostility without taking responsibility. "Just kidding," they'll say, after delivering a punch line that feels more like a sucker punch. Often the very same comments can seem either supportive or undermining, affiliative or hostile, depending on the context and the dynamic. "Where you draw the line between healthy and unhealthy uses is very unclear," says Martin.
The difference is not just in what the speaker means to say, but in how the listener takes it, argues Bippus. Good intentions aren't necessarily enough to take the sting out of a mistimed joke—the listener has to give the joker credit for good intentions.
Suppose you're getting dressed to go out and your boyfriend says, "You're wearing that? I'd better bring my sunglasses!" You might take the comment as a light-hearted warning or as an expression of hostility, says Bippus. If the comment is hostile, it may be a signal that he wants to control your wardrobe—or even worse, control you. In that case, you won't think he's very funny. But, says Bippus, "if you think that the person has a helpful motive for using humor, that he's using it for your sake and not for his"—to save you from public embarrassment, say—"you're liable to give him the benefit of the doubt."
When Bippus videotaped 50 couples discussing a conflict and asked them to identify when they and their partner used humor during the discussion, she found that humor seemed to be helpful: The more the partners noticed it—and the funnier they found it—the more progress they felt they had made with the conflict. This seems to support the Roger Rabbit Effect. However, Bippus cautions, it's hard to tease apart cause and effect. Perhaps wagwits really are happier lovers. But it's also possible that happy relationships put people in a laughing mood. If you get along with your partner, you'll be less likely to take offense when she teases you about losing your keys for the third time this week.
It may start to sound like the same old he-said, she-said story, but gender differences in humor aren't as predictable as they might seem. In Bippus' study, for example, the men on average perceived more humor in the couples' conversations, but the women produced more humor, contradicting the stereotype that men are the funnier sex.
Nonetheless, a few themes emerge. Many women tend to use humor as a way of enhancing the relationship, says Martin, while men may use it to enhance their own persona. At a family dinner, for example, a woman may retell a story of a comic moment they all shared last Thanksgiving. A man might be more likely to treat the guests as his audience and play for laughs. Along these lines, Mary Crawford, a professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Connecticut, found that men liked jokes and slapstick better than women, while women tended to find more humor in collaborative storytelling.
"Sometimes the way guys express closeness to other guys is through humor that puts people down. When they try to use the same kind of humor with the women in their lives, it doesn't come across the same way," says Markman.
So, are women from the Oxygen Network and men from Comedy Central? Probably not, says Crawford—the differences are less about testosterone and more about context. After all, men still tend to have higher status in our society, and many studies have shown that people with power use humor differently than do their underlings. "You could say it's a way men talk, but it may be a way that higher-status people talk," says Crawford. When the boss cracks a joke, everybody chuckles; when his assistant wants to make a suggestion or offer criticism, she tempers it with self-deprecating humor.
As anyone who's worked with a jokester boss can attest, humor is very much in the eye of the beholder, and what's intended as a witty remark may fall miserably flat or even seem cruel in the context of a difficult or imbalanced relationship. That's true in romantic relationships too, agree psychologists: Trouble with humor is more likely to be a symptom than a cause of difficulty. It's all about, well, timing. If your significant other can't take a joke, take a good look at your own motives for making it. Were you really trying to be helpful? Perhaps this isn't the right moment—or the right topic—for humor.
Still, says Bippus, humor is an important and very flexible communication strategy, so don't shy away from it. It's also a big part of what makes us human. "Once, when my sister put on gorilla socks, the dog attacked her feet," says Bippus. "A person would have laughed instead. We can see incongruity as something other than threatening." When it's used well, humor helps us to put ourselves in perspective, to see past our fears and sorrows and to reach out to the people we love with a light touch instead of a heavy hand. Maybe Jessica Rabbit had the right idea after all.