90% of being a couple is just shouting "what?" from other rooms.
If you found that line even a little bit funny, here's what happened to your brain: an electrical wave traveled out through your cerebral cortex and your body experienced surprise, delight, perhaps an audible chuckle. If the humor was effective enough to elicit a laugh, it might have triggered the brain's emotional reward center, delivering a shot of feel-good dopamine as well as mood-lifting serotonin. Laughter can even trigger the release of endorphins, those pain-relieving chemicals associated with exercise, tasty food and enjoyable sex.
Humor can be a powerful thing, not only for us as individuals but for our relationship as well. Many couples find it an effective way to repair the fracture after we've slipped into a pothole together and become steeped in negativity, hurt feelings, and a sense of disconnection from one another. Well-timed humor can prevent an escalation of the negativity by reducing tension and softening rough edges.1
Particularly powerful are inside jokes--our shared funny takes on friends and family, our memorable and laughably embarrassing moments, our private vocabulary and expressions that always bring a smile to our faces. Inside jokes can lighten the moment as the relationship slides into darker territory. Self-effacing humor can be especially effective as a substitute for the defensiveness that erupts so quickly and easily during arguments. Mired in conflict, it's easy to forget that we're partners on the same team. The division between us can feel big following misunderstandings, thoughtless comments, or the surfacing of differences in opinion or values. Inside jokes can bring a sense of we into moments where the sense of me looms very large as we nurse our hurt, upset, and anger.
Caution is in order: humor can backfire. Both timing and delivery matter. Well-timed humor can save a small moment from growing into something larger. But when the situation is already complex, humor alone, without serious and thoughtful dialogue, can seem to our partner like we're trivializing what's important. Humor should be balanced with honesty and sincerity. And when humor reflects contempt or belittles the other's point of view (such as sarcasm), it's not likely to promote a repair of emotional injury or reduction of tension, and may actually deepen the conflict.2 Tread carefully, but keep humor in mind.
- Brittle, Zach. H is for humor. The Gottman Institute Relationship Blog. www.gottman.com. April 14, 2014.