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Embarrassing Moments In Relationships

Humor in relationships: The good, the bad, the embarrassing

Have you ever been at a party and had your partner make a joke so embarrassing, either so mean-spiritedness or so self-defeating, that you just wanted to melt away?

We've all had those awkward moments when we've seen someone sharply elbowing their partner and whispering, "Honey, Shut Up."

Partners can be very embarrassing!


For my podcast series Relationship Matters, I recently interviewed Dr. Jeff Hall (University of Kansas) about humor in relationships - the good, the bad, and the embarrassing. Dr. Hall did a series of studies, recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships

Dr. Hall argues that humor is indeed good for relationships, but it's really sharing the same sense of humor (be it silliness, dark humor, or what-ever) that contributes to more happiness in a relationship. Being able to share the humor and create funny/silly/playful moments together creates a relaxed and loving environment in which people are more likely to thrive.

But what about those awkward moments, when an attempt at humor becomes a social embarrassment? Dr. Hall's research shows in particular that aggressive humor (being mean spirited toward others) and self-defeating humor (making fun of your own faults) in public situations tends to be very embarrassing to partners.

Please get me out of here!

The research found that there is something unique about the social situation (for instance at a party) that leads to a moment when we feel responsible not only for ourselves but for how our partner comes across and how our relationship looks to others. For instance, if you're making fun of your own recent weight gain or joking about how you're just horrible at something related to your relationship, your partner is likely to be embarrassed because it makes them also look bad. Partners tend to feel responsible for each others' health and behaviors.

You can download the full podcast interview with Dr. Hall here.  

My advice

1)  In terms of partner compatibility, it helps if you share the same type of humor.

2)  If your humor is really silly, self-defeating, or aggressive, then tone it down in public situations, especially if your partner doesn't share that same humor.

3) Steer away from self-defeating humor that makes it look as if you're bad at relationships, getting fat, or bad at sex, etc. Your partner feels responsible for these things too, so in essence you're poking fun at them as well. 

4)  Remember that in public social situations, if you make a fool of yourself, then your partner may feel you made a fool of them too!


Hall, J.A. (2011). Is it something I said? Sense of humor and partner embarrassment. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 28 (3), 383-405. DOI: 10.1177/026540751038442

Copyright © 2012 Bjarne M. Holmes. All rights reserved. 


About the author: Dr. Bjarne Holmes is Associate Professor and the Program Director for Psychology at Champlain College in beautiful Burlington, Vermont. His research focuses on attachment, well-being, health, relationship attitudes and beliefs, and the role of media influence on social identity in young adults. Dr. Holmes is an Associate Editor of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships and he produces the journal's podcast series,"Relationship Matters" (download the podcasts for free here). He's also a regular contributor to the web page Science of Relationships (read his articles here). Dr. Holmes is available for media interviews, expert commentary, or consulting.