There is something about the early morning hours that is appealing to me. The stillness of the day, listening to the birds “wake up,” smelling the freshness of the air and watching the colors of the sky. Most of my energy is expended before noon. So imagine my dismay as a newlywed when my husband didn’t start moving till 11:30? You guessed it. Major Conflict. Honestly, how could I not know this before we were married?!? Now, all of a sudden, he sleeps until noon?!? Love casts a blind eye. Naturally, as any good, loving, caring wife does- I began to nag and complain. The next morning I receive a 3×5 card on my pillow reading:
Thou Shalt Let Thy Husband Sleep.
Nearly 30 years later we still reference this note. It’s become an endearing inside joke between us. I still like to get up early and he still likes to sleep in late – that piece hasn’t changed. But at least we can have a sense of humor about it.
Humor is a great asset in relationships. It diminishes anxiety and fear, and it aids in reducing conflict. When there is an unexpected touch of playfulness, defenses remain low. Playfulness and humor fuel connection. Every relationship has opportunity to create a humor portfolio from which they can draw, in times of crisis. According to the book, Stress Management: A Wellness Approach, by Nanette Tummers, our personal humor portfolio is a collection of our favorite ways to laugh and keep a sense of light heartedness during stressful circumstances. A humor portfolio can include inside jokes, quotes from movies or television shows, and descriptions of personal situations created over the history of the relationship. Not taking ourselves, or others, too seriously, and actively building and drawing on a developing humor portfolio, will consistently empower us with a priceless secret weapon… humor.
Physical Benefits of Humor
Humor is a powerful asset to relationship maintenance and growth. According to author and researcher, Dr. John Gottman, it is listed as one of the “secret weapons of emotionally intelligent people.” Humor increases ‘feel good’ hormones of endorphins and lowers the stress hormone levels of adrenaline, cortisol and epinephrine. Because humor lowers the stress hormone levels in our bodies, it can also lower the stress level of an argument! That makes sense, right?
When humor is introduced to a tense situation, ‘feel good’ hormones are released. Neurotransmitters called endorphins are released when we smile. Endorphins make us feel happier and less stressed. These ‘feel good’ hormones can also help to de-escalate an argument. Humor creates a positive state of mind by boosting self-confidence and our feelings of self-worth, caring, forgiveness, in addition to increasing our feelings of attachment and bonding. There is also an increased level of oxytocin in the body, helping us to feel loved and supported.
Increasing endorphins through a positive attitude soothes the fight/flight response (in the sympathetic nervous system), which facilitates a state of peace in the body. These ‘feel good’ hormones in the brain are a strong antidote to those nasty fight or flight hormones of adrenaline, cortisol and epinephrine which can fuel an argument.
Adding an element of humor and playfulness to a tense situation, however, can diffuse anger, guilt, stress, and many other undesirable emotions. When there is a lowering of blood pressure, an argument can actually become more productive because the fight or flight response is reduced. This adds improved alertness and clarity which helps us to face the anxiety of actually talking about our guilt, anger, hurt, or whatever the undesirable emotion might be. All of this makes humor a priceless secret weapon.
Relational Benefits to Humor
When we are able to be vulnerable, less defensive, and not take things personally, and when we can be a little more playful, we can often be more desirable to our partner. Truth be known, we might like ourselves a little better, as well! A grin is more attractive than a grimace. Let‛s face it. Pervasive defensiveness and inhibition is a turn off. When we are playful, we are less defensive, and more spontaneous. Subsequently, we are naturally more fun to be around.
A well timed inside joke can be a tension release and improve conflict resolution. A touch of humor can help to get us out of grid-lock and see things from our partner‛s perspective. When humor and laughter come into play, vulnerability and unity can enter. Disconnection can turn into connection. A touch of humor, a smile, a kiss on the cheek or an inside joke can spark those ‘feel good’ hormones in the brain. An inside joke can bring fond memories, reminding us of our common history. Since an inside joke is exactly that– “inside”– it‛s intimate. An inside joke can be a shortcut to closeness, because you are the only ones who understand it. It’s intimate and bonding. It is a reminder of the history with one another and the attraction we have toward one another.
Often times, conflict in a relationship happens because a couple becomes bored with each other. Humor and playfulness are great secret weapons and antidotes to staleness in a relationship. When a relationship experiences the benefits of humor, those ‘feel good’ hormones in the brain that are released give us the opportunity to be creative. Variety and creativity are variables that keep relationships alive. They bond us together as we continue to explore one another emotionally, spiritually, and physically. As a result, there is an increased attraction to our partner. Without a doubt, humor is a priceless secret weapon.
Although humor and a shift to playfulness are great ways to prevent negativity from escalating out of control, they can also be hurtful if not done with safety. Humor in the form of sarcasm or making fun isn’t safe. This can be shaming. It can fuel the fight or flight response, increasing feelings of criticism and defensiveness. Effective humor and playfulness means laughing WITH our partner, not laughing AT our partner. It‛s the shared laughter that brings connection. We were created to be in connection with one another. While we go through our years of relationships with each other and with ourselves, it’s easy to get dried up and take ourselves and each other too seriously.
I’m thankful for that little 3×5 card and the memory that comes with it. Life is too short to not have a good sense of humor.
Life and death is in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21) so use your humor with kindness and wisdom!
Kathryn Manley, MS, LPC, CST
Individual, Family, and Marriage Counseling
Certified Sex Therapist (AASECT)