Humor is often touted as a worthwhile tool for helping couples manage and resolve conflicts, as it can promote playfulness, lighten the mood and prevent the discussion from escalating into an argument.
But, as many of you may have experienced firsthand, it turns out that not just any ol’ joke will do. While using humor can be helpful, the wrong type, timing, or delivery of a well-intentioned, tension-cutting joke may actually hurt the conversation (and the relationship). Interested in just how (un)helpful humor may be in resolving conflicts, researchers at California State University videotaped and evaluated the conflict resolution discussions of 96 long term dating couples. Specifically, the researchers were interested in looking at (a) which humor style was used each time one partner made a humor attempt, (b) the immediate response that each humor attempt elicited in his or her partner, and (c) how satisfied each partner was with the conflict resolution. While there are numerous forms of dyadic humor, the study found that couples typically displayed three particular types of humor during the conflict resolution discussions: affiliative, self-defeating, and agressive.
- Affiliative: Other-directed, benevolent humor. Affiliative humor is often used to enhance relationships and reduce another’s tension/distress, by engaging “inside” jokes or good-natured teasing.
- Aggressive: Other-directed, negative humor. Aggressive humor involves hostile or cruel use of humor to enhance the self at the expense of others, without regard for its impact on them. “Playfully” putting others down, sarcasm, and belittling are commonly used examples of aggressive humor.
- Self-defeating: Self-directed, negative humor. Self-defeating humor reflects a negative self-view and is used to enhance relationships with others at their own expense by making self-disparaging comments or laughing along with others while they are being ridiculed. Self-defeating humor involves ingratiating the self to others to gain their reassurance by saying or doing funny things that make one look foolish.
As you may have guessed, researchers found that affiliative humor was related to positive partner responses (more laughter, less anger, and greater satisfaction with the conflict resolution) and that the immediate positive responses were amplified when the partner was more distressed, which shows us that affiliative humor is particularly helpful at reducing tension in conflicts. Additionally, individuals who used affiliative humor more were also more satisfied with the conflict resolution themselves. And this makes sense: since the use of affiliative humor is intended to reduce tension, you would likely be more satisfied with the outcome of a conflict resolution if you succeeded in helping to reduce the level of distress in your partner than if you hadn’t. Individuals in the study who used more self-defeating humor were less satisfied with the conflict resolution. Although affiliative and self-defeating humor are both intended to enhance relationships, self-defeating humor often comes at a personal cost; it is linked to greater depression and anxiety, less psychological well-being, lower self-esteem, and less social intimacy. Since this form of humor involves an increased focus on one’s own distress and perceived foibles, it may make those who use it less able to address their partner’s distress effectively. So, when partners are highly distressed, they respond negatively to this form of humor by laughing less and displaying greater anger. As you may have also guessed, when individuals used more aggressive humor, their partners wereless satisfied with the conflict resolution. Interestingly, though, researchers found that the use of aggressive humor only solicited more anger from a partner (ie: it was more hurtful) if the partner was seeking more care and reassurance (ie: was more vulnerable) within the discussion. The hostile component of aggressive humor might overshadow any playfulness that may have been intended when a partner is more vulnerable. Using aggressive humor in less stressful situations, however, may have less adverse impact on relationship outcomes. Imagine a stay-at-home mom who engages her partner about helping out around the house. The overwhelming stress of the day-to-day with the house and the kids and everything else is just too much for one person, but she also wrestles with the guilt of not contributing financially, or disappointment of not pursuing a career of her own, or self-criticism of not being able to get “enough” done in any given day. While she is trying to connect with and be understood and supported by her partner, he responds with a sarcastic quip: “You think this is too much? If I was the one home everyday and you went to work, this house would be spotless and the kids would be perfect little angels.”
You can imagine how the rest of this discussion might go.
Now don’t raise your eyebrows at this guy just yet; while perhaps poorly timed, his joke was not intended maliciously or insensitively. Because this mom was more distressed and vulnerable regarding this conflict, she wasn’t able to see the playful tone and exaggerated inflections within her husband’s sarcasm that pointed to what an impossible thing it actually would be, to have one person maintain a spotless house and perfectly behaved children all the time. In a less stressful situation, however, his sarcastic response may have been much less jarring, prompting her to follow up with a wink and, “Yes, and you would solve world hunger and cure cancer all before dinner was served, too.” While this hasn’t resolved the conflict at hand, this shift in timing and response has reduced the tension associated with the issue, making it an easier conversation to have. It might even become an “inside joke,” like those used in affiliative humor. Do you (or your partner) ever try to diffuse conflict or tension with a joke? Does it tend to help or hurt the discussion? Source: 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.