Have you ever been in the heat of an argument, when your partner suddenly cracked a joke? How did you feel? Did it help or hinder the resolution of your conflict? For me, I think it would depend on a few things: (1) the level of anger I possessed at the time, (2) the strength of my desire to be angry, (3) the severity of the argument, and of course, (4) the hilarity of the joke. In my relationship, I'm usually the one who makes the jokes. So while I haven't experienced this seemingly contradictory event very often, I'm sure that Hus (aka- my husband) has felt both enjoyment and frustration with the random insertions of my jokes during a disagreement.
Recent research by Campbell, Martin, and Ward (2008) investigated how different types of humor used during arguments influence relationship satisfaction and conflict resolution. They looked at four styles of humor, two of which are considered healthy or positive (affiliative and self-enhancing) and two that are considered unhealthy or negative (aggressive and self-defeating) (Martin, Puhlik-Doris, Larsen, Gray, & Weir, 2003).
- "Affiliative humor involves saying funny things, telling jokes, and engaging in spontaneous witty banter in order to amuse others, to facilitate relationships, and to reduce interpersonal tensions in a way that is affirming of both oneself and others" (Campbell et al., 2008, p. 42).
- Self-enhancing humor refers to using humor to adjust or change an individual's feelings. People use this type of humor to cope with stress. Individuals will make these jokes or comments during hard times and also during everyday life events.
- Individuals use aggressive humor to demean or manipulate others. Aggressive humor includes insulting, criticism, sarcasm, teasing, or other form of derogatory humor. Aggressive humor is used to enhance oneself at the expense of others.
- Self-defeating humor involves doing or saying demeaning things about oneself to amuse others. People who use self-defeating humor often degrade themselves for a laugh and then laugh along with others at their own expense.
After 98 couples participated in a three-phase study, the researchers came to many conclusions about the use of humor during conflict:
- Men used affiliative humor more often than women.
- Men and women both used aggressive humor to the same extent.
- People were more satisfied with their relationships when their partners used more affiliative (as opposed to more aggressive) humor during conflicts.
- People felt a lot closer to their partners after a disagreement when their partners and when they themselves used more affiliative (as opposed to more aggressive) humor during an argument.
- When people's partners used more affiliative humor during the discussion of conflict, their distress was lowered. Oppositely, an individual's own use of affiliative humor had no effect on their own distress.
- When individuals used aggressive humor with their partners during conflict, their distress increased, but when people's partners used aggressive humor during the discussion of conflict, there was minimal impact on their own distress.
- People who had partners who used more affiliative humor during conflict reported that they were more able to resolve their differences, where individuals who used more aggressive humor reported little to no resolution of their conflict.
Although I definitely believe in the power of humor and laughter in close relationships, I'm still not so sure about using it during an argument. Again, for me it would depend on many things. For instance, I think humor would be great in an argument about slacking on daily chores, but it would likely further infuriate me in an argument about infidelity. But, I guess if you're stuck on using humor during a pesky quarrel, you should try jokes that facilitate your relationship or reduce tension and stay away from teasing, insults, and sarcasm. Who knows, maybe humorous conflict is the way to go.
- Campbell, L., Martin, R. A., & Ward, J. R. (2008). An observational study of humor while resolving conflict in dating couples. Personal Relationships, 15, 41-55.
- Martin, R. A., Puhlik-Doris, P., Larsen, G., Gray, L., & Weir, K. (2003). Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality, 37, 48-75.