In my years of practice as a marriage and family therapist, I have seen numerous clients for pre-marital counseling. When the time comes to discuss expectations of married life, more often than not, “having sense of humor” would surface as one of the characteristics that engaged couple say they hope their partner has and maintains in a marriage. Researchers also showed that a good sense of humor is one of the most sought-out characteristics in a romantic partner (Cann, Calhoun, & Banks, 1997; Bressler & Balshine, 2006). Interestingly, however, I also have met many clients who cited that their partner’s sense of humour or the way they handle situations with humor causes issues in their relationship. So, is sense of humor useful in marital relationship?
Study about humour and its psychological functions has been a long interest in the field of psychology. Freud took a special interest in humour and wrote all about his thoughts in his book “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious”, first published in 1905. According to Freud, jokes and humour emerge when our conscious mind is allowed the expression of thoughts that society usually suppress or forbids. Similarly, Avner Ziv, a Professor at Tel Aviv University, explains that in addition to giving a way for taboo thoughts to have a more socially acceptable expressions, humour could also serve as a social adhesive, releasing social and political tension, provide defense against fear and anxiety and an opportunity for our intellectual mind to express slightly illogical thought in a safe environment.
In marriage life there will be challenges that come both from outside of the couple and from within. Considering that humour could contribute to relational maintenance (Haas & Stafford, 2005), has the potential to mitigate conflict (Bippus, 2003), and can generate playful and positive emotions (Aune & Wong, 2002), why in some couples does the use of humour not yield positive result?
The answer might be due to the different styles of humour. Rod Martin researched humour and compiled a Humor Styles Questionnaire in 2003. He found that there are four styles of humour: affiliative, aggressive, self-enhancing humour and self-defeating humour. Affiliative humour involves telling jokes about things that everyone might find funny. The goal is to use humour to bring people together, to find the humour in everyday life, to create a sense of togetherness, happiness, and well-being. Aggressive humour involves put-downs or insults targeted toward individuals. Included in this type of humour are sarcasm, teasing, ridicule, or derisive action. Self-enhancing humour is being able to laugh at ourselves, such as making a joke when something bad has happened to us: trying to find the humour in everyday situations, and making ourselves the target of the humour in a good-natured way. This is related to a healthy approach to coping with stress. Self-defeating humour, on the other hand, is where we put ourselves down in an aggressive or “poor me” fashion. This sometimes used as a way to avoid attacks by making oneself the butt of jokes before others put us down.
Further research on humour in marital relationship reported by Saraglou, Lacour & Demeure in 2010 stated that marital instability and dissatisfaction among divorced people seems to stem from the fact that the couples: 1) Did not use positive, constructive humour enough; 2) use a lot of antisocial (aggressive and earthy) humour (especially men); 3) have different interpersonal warmth or hostility when using humour; 4) misperceive men-women differences in the use of positive humour; and 5) use a lot of self-disparaging humour (especially women).
In short, the positive effects of humour depend on which style (and how) humour is used in a relationship. The more positive styles of humour (affiliative and self-enhancing) contributed positively to the marital relation but the more negative styles of humour (aggressive and self-defeating) contributed negatively. For example, the effects of sarcasm might seem positive when the couple is applying it toward something outside of the relationship. This way, sarcasm might create “inside jokes” that bond the couple together “against the world”. But when used toward each other, its use could produce negative results because it has more potential of being misinterpreted and hurting the partner’s feelings.
Written By Natalia Indrasari
MA (Psychoanalytic Studies) MS (Counselling)
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
AAMFT Clinical member