In Relationships, Humor Is a Funny Thing

We’re all drawn to people whose sense of humor tickles our own. And people who seem to have no sense of humor at all are off-putting.

Humor is – I’ll say it – a funny thing. Unless one knows the audience, it can even involve taking a risk.

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It can rub someone the wrong way if it touches a nerve, delves into a sensitive or controversial social issue, or restimulates someone’s personal pain. Professional comedians disagree over whether anything goes and therefore there should be no limits to what can be mocked.

In relationships, a sense of humor is crucial. And the type of humor that’s expressed can tell us a lot about the friend or partner we’re with.

For example, humor at someone else’s expense or at the expense of a group of people, betrays an inability to empathize. It tells us a lot about the unexamined prejudices of the joke-teller who can always deny any bad intent and blame the objector by saying: “Can’t you take a joke?”

Someone who doesn’t take themself too seriously, however, can be appealing. They can laugh at their own foibles, which tells us that they’re not hung up on being perfect in order to like themselves.

And laughter, “a good medicine,” can brighten one’s day, provide an alternative way to see something that might otherwise seem merely bleak, and, more importantly, reinforce companionship. It’s a mood-lifter.

The health benefits of laughter, neuroscientist Robert Provine wrote back in 2001, are probably a result of the connections it creates. Laughter, he found, unites people, strengthens bonds, and stimulates social support.

When people laugh together, they experience a closeness, for laughter is a part of the ability to share fun. To really laugh is to get in touch with that inner child, put aside the usual rat race, and be without a goal for a second or two.

But to laugh is not the same as trying to get a laugh in a relationship. Seeing the humor in something is one thing, but working to get laughs is healthy only at comedy clubs.

Humor can be a disguise for insecurity. It can be a way not to pay attention enough to one’s own unhealed pain and hurt in order to circumvent dealing with them in a productive manner.

And humor is not only a way to cope with (if not heal from) one’s own pain – hence the great humorists in groups who’ve experienced oppression of one sort or another. It can also be a way to avoid the pain of others.

Being in the presence of one who avoids your feelings can get old quickly. It takes place when you bring up a serious and particularly moving issue, an issue of disagreement, or an expression of what you need from them.

That hearer, often unconsciously, uses humor to escape from the empathy of hearing your pain or request so as not to trigger the hearer’s own buried feelings – feelings that threaten to surface in reaction. It means they’re afraid of what threatens to arise in their own emotional life.

The question to ask when considering a relationship where humor is a conspicuous part is: Is there a pattern of that humor intruding when you’re sharing something serious? If the humor derails your own emotions, then it’s being used to shut down intimacy.

Humor can thus be a means of avoiding the closeness of relationships either as friends or as partners. Still others can use it consistently in early dating to win over potential partners as a mask for their insecurity about developing close relationships.

People who are secure in themselves, people who can provide healthy companionship and intimacy, don’t have to be comedians 24/7. They don’t have to prove to someone that they really desire connection.

The relational questions then are: Does the humor divert attention from learning and feeling what really motivates a friend or a date? Or is it just a part of being together, laughing not to cover oneself, but out of the fun that makes people develop closeness?

Contributed by

Bob Minor

University of Kansas
Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies
A national resource for information on gender issues and gay/straight relationships for organizations, businesses, educational institutions, and media outlets such as NBC and USA Today, Bob Minor, Ph.D. …

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