Couples making funny faces

The first telltale sign that I’m getting upset with my husband is my clenching jaw. What’s the trigger? Any one of a dozen things, but all having the common core: He did not do something the way that I thought he should have. I start rehearsing the self-righteous [and entirely justified!] lecture in my mind.

But then my husband, a marvellously funny man, will peer, wide-eyed and blinking, into my face, cock his head like a parrot, and start singing a little song about me and the silly reason that I’m mad [usually to the tune of a popular song]. He’s so good it usually even rhymes. By the end I can’t help but smile, and my amusement has chased away my frustration. All is forgiven, and our evening rolls on.

In contrast, when my husband is upset about something, he tends to rant. Over the 20 years of our marriage I have learned that if I just listen to him and nod appreciatively, he’ll pick up steam, like a train chugging ever faster down a track, and eventually his rant will turn into a full-on stand-up comedy routine about his irritations—complete with embellishments and dramatic re-enactments. It’s hilarious. His recent tirade about his annoyances with my mother had me laughing so hard, I literally could not speak.

Of course, there are things about my husband that I sometimes wish were different, and I’m sure that he could provide you an exhaustive list of all the ways I disappoint him. But the fact that he is funny, and I am easily amused, has saved our marriage from the many things that could have sunk it.

Why laugh about it?

All relationships have natural friction points. Differences between partner’s opinions, personalities, hopes and expectations all create hurt and frustration. This is true for every couple, even the happiest. Research into relationships conducted by Dr John Gottman of The Gottman Institute, Washington, estimates that up to 80 per cent of the problems that all couples have are due to these intrinsic differences. These are therefore “unsolvable problems” that are never going to change. You may be surprised to learn that happy couples have just as many differences and circumstantial hardships as unhappy couples, yet they are thriving anyway. Why? One thing that happy couples often have that struggling couples don’t, is humour.

The more you think about all the horrible ways in which your partner has disappointed or offended you, the worse you feel

Going for a giggle in a tense moment sounds simplistic, but reaching for humour instead of anger, defensiveness or judgement during a friction point does four extremely important things to strengthen your relationship:

1. It creates a “repair attempt”

The happiest, most successful couples are able to stop an argument in its tracks by attempting to repair the impending rift before it gets too wide. Reaching out to an angry, upset, or hurt partner in efforts to close the gap and restore peace [and then having that olive branch accepted] is a “repair attempt”. When the thunder and lightning of a bad fight are rumbling on the horizon and one partner is able to crack a joke that makes the other person smile, the sun peeks through the ominous clouds. Moods lift, the problem seems less serious, and it’s easier to reconnect.

2. It breaks a negative mood state

Negative moods like anger, resentment or hurt tend to reinforce themselves and get stronger over time. When you are upset about something, you ruminate about it—turning it over and over in your mind, like a cow chewing her cud. The more you think about all the horrible ways in which your partner has disappointed or offended you, the worse you feel. But when someone throws a cold splash of unexpected humour into the face of self-righteous anger, it breaks the pattern. Getting knocked off keel by something funny shifts the trajectory of a bad mood, allowing positive feelings to flow back into an otherwise unhappy outcome.

Newsflash: You and your partner will always be different people

3. It creates emotional safety

Nobody behaves well when they are feeling attacked, threatened or shut out. I guarantee you that when you aggressively confront your partner about something it will nearly always provoke them to feel offended and defensive. Likewise, if you coldly dismiss your partner’s complaints you are inviting them to get more angry and hostile. But responding with humour will nearly always get a more positive response. Why? It restores emotional safety. When you are funny, unexpected, and light-hearted, you are communicating, “I’m not really that mad. You’re safe with me.” Defensiveness is diffused, and aggressiveness wanes: Connection has been achieved. All of a sudden, whatever you are in conflict about seems more manageable and easier to deal with.

4. It emphasises the positive aspects of your relationship

Some people are wary about being light-hearted with relationship problems that seem serious to them, saying, “But won’t it minimise my feelings?” Or, “But if we just joke about it, things will never change!” So they insist on grinding away at their differences, and becoming increasingly unhappy when things stay the same. Newsflash: You and your partner will always be different people. They will never change into exactly who and what you think they should be. Focussing on the negative aspects of your relationship will make those differences more pronounced and will change the emotional climate of your marriage for the worse.

Find reasons to laugh

In contrast, enjoying your partner’s company, having fun with them and appreciating the good things about them will help you have a better relationship. And the grand paradox is that when people feel safe, accepted and cherished for who they are, it is actually easier for them to change for the better. When you use humour to communicate to your partner that you enjoy them, they will be more eager to please you and less inclined to fight with you.

So the next time things get difficult between you and your partner, do something unexpected and funny. Crack a joke. Sing a silly song. Make a face. Emphasise the funny parts of your disagreement. Find reasons to laugh. Have a good time. And if the neighbours call the cops on you—blame me.


This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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