Conflict is inevitable, but with the right tools, we can conquer it and even connect through it. One tool that is highly underrated, but has an enormous amount of research backing up its effectiveness in ensuring healthy and long-lasting relationships is humor. Humor predicts a higher likelihood of staying together six years after getting married and it contributes to one’s overall happiness later in the relationship. Not only that, but when a joke is cracked and received by the partner during conflict, this lowers each partner’s blood pressure and pulse rate, which increases their chances of having an effective conversation while addressing their issues (1).
To be clear, humor does not include instances where one partner is laughing while the other is not. It is not effective, or healthy if one partner feels unheard or hurt perhaps through sarcasm or mockery. Humor within conflict only works when both partners are experiencing it and have a shared understanding of the meaning behind it.
What does it look and sound like?
The following are some examples of how humor can be and has been applied during conflict from real-life couples in therapy.
Raise the hackles. Once during conflict, a partner raised her shoulders, imitating their dog raising the hackles on her back when she feels scared or unsafe. This physical indication was a way to break the tension through shared laughter and understanding that something uncomfortable or scary was happening that perhaps neither partner had the words for at that moment. Since then, when either partner is feeling distressed during conflict, they raise their shoulders in an effort to laugh together and name their discomfort.
Tell me you love me. I shared the Gottman Repair Checklist with a couple in order to refer to while in conflict. One partner was surprised at the phrase “tell me you love me” since it sounded demanding and so direct. She was struggling to see how that could be used between them in a helpful way. I clarified that half of our communication is the content, but equally important is the tone and the way in which we say things. At which point, her partner turned to her and said, “yeah, so I could use my Batman voice to request this” and proceeded to say “tell me you love me” in a Christian Bale Dark Night Batman voice, which prompted both of them to crack up. This then became an ongoing joke where when conflict began to arise between them, they leaned on this statement, specifically in a deep, serious Batman voice to incorporate some laughter and lessen the tension at that moment.
As you wish. One couple was addressing a perpetual issue where the husband was not cleaning up his dishes. Through discussion, they developed a ritual of connection where the wife would ask her husband kindly to clean up his dishes and he would respond “as you wish,” not only cleaning up his items but also implying the same meaning as from their favorite movie, The Princess Bride, that being “I love you.” Rather than this remaining as an ongoing source of conflict, it actually became a way for them to express their love for one another.
Let me get my notepad. I was working with one couple with a significant amount of past hurt. While doing a listener-speaker exercise to build trust, the husband asked to pause prior to getting started because he wanted to make sure he took notes to get his wife’s perspective down correctly and truly understand her. Of course, this was okay and encouraged, and once he left, the wife was left smiling. Upon asking her what was going on for her, she said it meant so much to her that her husband was so genuinely interested in her emotional experience that she couldn’t help but smile. After she shared this with him, when they sit down to have a serious conversation or if he’s not quite understanding, he will pause them and say “let me get my notepad” to not only thoroughly grasp what she is sharing but also imply that he cares about what she has to say. This offers the couple various things including a moment to pause for a break prior to a difficult conversation, it adds some humor they both share and it helps them effectively communicate by recording exact words and phrases in order to accurately reflect back. It has become a consistent way for them to connect through their conflict.
You know the saying “laughter is the best medicine?” I think this might be true for our bodies, just as much as it is for our relationships.
1. Gottman, J. M., Silver, N., & Berkrot, P. (2012). What makes love last?: how to build trust and avoid betrayal. [Old Saybrook, Conn.]: Tantor Media.