Laughing After Divorce

The role of humor in divorce recovery

Posted Jun 24, 2016

Approximately half of all marriages end in divorce, according to the American Psychological Association. As my colleagues and I explain in our recent study, divorce has a number of adverse effects. These effects include depression, increased mortality risk, significant life changes, guilt, and identity threats (see Afifi; Frisby; Sbarra; Waite).

As with any challenges in life, there is variance in how people experience and recover from problems. With this in mind, we examined one factor that might help explain differences in post-divorce recovery. Specifically, we aimed to understand the role of humorous communication.

Years of research have documented that humorous communicators cope better with difficult situations. (I have summarized this research before). Given the connections between humor use and decreased stress levels, we aimed to understand how humorous communication might explain differences in post-divorce factors.

To that end, we studied 89 divorced adults who were about 38 years old on average. We examined a number of humor-related factors, including the style of humor used and the frequency of shared laughter with a close other. We conducted a number of analyses, and what follows is a summary of some of the findings:

  • Individuals who reported that they used self-defeating humor also reported higher levels of physical stress.
  • Individuals who reported self-defeating humor use also reported greater instances of shared laughter with a source of support.
  • “The adaptive styles of humor (i.e., affiliative and self-enhancing) were not related to the postdivorce outcomes examined here, although there were clear trends for positive effects on psychological stress. People who employed more prosocial forms of humor tended to have less psychological distress. However, physical somatic symptoms, such as headaches, insomnia, and digestive problems, were not associated with positive humor styles in any way” (p. 67).

In summarizing our findings, we reasoned that “results allow us to make an important distinction between adaptive and maladaptive humor. It is not simply the use of humor that allows one to be more resilient and to cope, but instead, it is the use of adaptive humor” (p. 68).  

Though this is only one of many studies examining humor in difficult situations, the pattern of findings indicate that humor is an important method one can use when coping with difficult times. Though, as our findings underscore, the style of humor matters.

Dr. Sean M. Horan is a Communication professor. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealDrSean. His expertise is communication across relationships, with topics including deception, affection, workplace romance, sexual risk/safety, attraction, deceptive affection, and initial impressions. His work/commentary has appeared on CNN, ABC, Fox, The Wall Street Journal, and more.

American Psychological Association (2016, June 24). Marriage and divorce. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/topics/divorce/

Frisby, B. N., Horan, S. M., & Booth-Butterfield, M. (2016). The role of humor styles and shared laughter in the post-divorce recovery process. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 57, 56-75. doi: 10.1080/10502556.2015.1113820