People love funny people. A good sense of humor is an incredibly attractive quality, one of the most important qualities that people look for during relationship initiation (Buss, 1998). Once a relationship is established, how does humor affect relationship quality? In particular, how does humor work during conflict?
Couples can argue about all sorts of topics, from serious matters like the future, finances, loyalty, family, or responsibilities to less serious concerns like who gets to choose the next movie and who ate the last ice cream sandwich. You can imagine how humor, if well-timed and well-received, could be helpful. That witty comment might suddenly dissolve tension and help put the conversation into perspective. But in the throes of a heated argument, just imagine the effects of an ill-timed joke: Instead of diffusing the situation, it could ignite anger and escalate the conflict.
Winterheld and colleagues (2013) recently investigated how humor operates during romantic relationship conflict by inviting couples into the lab to discuss either a serious or trivial “unresolved relationship problem.” The researchers videotaped the conflict discussion and coded participants’ verbal statements and non-verbal behaviors for attempts at humor, distress, anger, and satisfaction with the outcome of the conversation. Prior to the conflict discussion, the researchers also surveyed each member of the couple individually in order to assess some of their impressions of their relationship and to measure some personality characteristics.
To learn from their findings, we first need to appreciate that humor can be subdivided into four styles (Martin, Puhlik-Doris, Larsen, Gray, & Weir, 2003). The first two styles, affilitative humor and self-enhancing humor, are both positive humor styles. The former (affiliative) involves using wit, inside-jokes, or amusing comments to bring people together or ease tensions, the latter (self-enhancing) involves having a positive view of the world and using humor to gain perspective. The other two humor styles are both negative styles: aggressive humor and self-defeating humor. Martin and colleagues (2003) identify aggressive humor as sarcasm, humor that pokes fun, or biting jokes that are funny at the expense of others. In self-defeating humor, the butt of the joke becomes the self. People who use self-defeating humor might try to ingratiate themselves to others by making fun of themselves or by acting foolishly.
Are some humor styles more useful in conflicts than others? Yes, but it often depends on the nature of the conflict and aspects about the partner (Winterheld et al., 2013). In Winterheld and colleagues’ study, when individuals’ partners were emotionally distraught (i.e., highly distressed) those individuals appeared to be sensitive to their partners’ underlying attachment tendencies when choosing what type of humor to use: The more anxious the partner, the more these individuals opted for that soothing, benign style of affilitative humor. his was much more useful than other styles of humor. Even in conflict, people recognize that highly anxious partners, when distressed, need the comfort and reassurance that affiliative humor provides. Less anxious people, on the other hand, may be better able to cope in the absence of affiliative humor.
Are you someone who is apt to toss sarcastic remarks into a fight? Think again. People tend to be less satisfied with the outcome of a fight, the more their partners use aggressive humor (Winterheld et al., 2013) Instead of aggressive humor, consider the balm of affiliative humor. In romantic conflicts, the more people use affiliative humor, the more laughter occurs, the less anger is displayed, and the happier people tend to be with the way a conflict conversation resolves, in part because affiliative humor seems to reduce anger (Winterheld et al., 2013). Even when distressed by the conversation, people seem to appreciate affiliative humor.
While the authors did not examine self-enhancing humor (it would be tricky to outwardly observe this kind of humor), they did look at the role of self-defeating humor. The conclusion? Self-defeating humor does not seem well-suited to dissolving tension. When partners used self-defeating humor, highly-distressed individuals tended to be angrier. Anxious partners in particular seem sensitive to self-defeating humor: they laughed in response to affiliative humor, but laughed less the more their partners used self-defeating humor.
In sum, when it comes to conflict, know your partner. Is your partner someone who tends to have high attachment anxiety (i.e., fears abandonment and questions his/her own self-worth when it comes to close relationships) or is your partner more secure? In either case, affiliative humor is a better bet than self-defeating humor, but this is particularly important when in conflicts with anxiously-attached individuals.
Buss, D. M. (1988). The evolution of human intrasexual competition: tactics of mate attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 616-628.
Martin, R. A., Puhlik-Doris, P., Larsen, G., Gray, J., & Weir, K. (2003). Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality, 37, 48-75.
Winterheld, H. A., Simpson, J. A., & Oriña, M. M. (2013). It’s in the way that you use it: Attachment and the dyadic nature of humor during conflict negotiation in romantic couples. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(4), 496-508.