Want to know why bringing the heat down a notch during a relationship conflict is so important? Close your eyes and picture the last time you and your spouse laughed together. Really put yourself in that memory, conjuring up how it felt. It felt good, right? Want to feel it again?
There’s no question that shared moments of laughter are powerful opportunities to bond with your partner. But a good sense of humor can do much more than help you and your partner grow closer—it can also help you regain your sense of connection when conflict tries to drive you apart. What’s more, de-escalating a heated argument with your spouse is easier when you have a bonded, trusting relationship.
The Science of Humor as a Conflict Resolution Tool
We don’t need scientific studies to tell us that laughter feels good. But you might find it interesting to know that there’s actually a neurological basis for why humor feels so soothing and can be so effective for alleviating conflict.
Specifically, laughing beneficially influences your body’s stress response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This leads to increased relaxation and reduced muscle tension, heart rate, and blood pressure—the exact opposite effect of an argument. In other words, laughing helps mitigate the stressful fight or flight response that arises during conflict and paves the way toward a calmer state of mind for you and your loved one. When the human body is in fight or flight mode from experiencing emotional trauma it releases high levels of cortisol that can cause long-lasting effects, often presenting with physical manifestations and ailments.
Laughter also releases hormones like endorphins that make you happy and improve your mood and promote social bonding (to say nothing of the long-term benefits of laughter, including a stronger immune system).
Why Humor Works for Conflict Resolution (And Why Sometimes It Doesn’t)
The use of humor can be an elegant, efficient, and sophisticated strategy to de-escalate conflict and help spouses resolve their differences in a loving way. In addition to the relaxing physiological impact it has on us, humor can help you and your spouse in many ways. The examples below are just the tip of the iceberg.
- Diffuse tension
- Lower defensiveness
- Help see things from a different perspective
- Interrupt strong reactive emotions
- Find creative ways to problem-solve
Just keep in mind; not all types of humor have a beneficial effect. In fact, certain types of humor only add to the sense of alienation, separation, and hurt feelings that marital conflict often creates. And while there’s no single rule about what won’t work, a couple is far less likely to use humor successfully if they practice any of the following behaviors.
What You Should Never do to Your Spouse
- Use mean-spirited jokes (e.g., humor as an attempt to criticize, insult, or put down, even if it’s just “in jest”)
- Use extreme sarcasm
- Use humor as a way to avoid emotions or mislead
- Fail to effectively read each other’s reactions
Simply put, poorly used humor can make marital conflicts worse—let alone fail to help resolve them. One 2014 study published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology determined that couples who used negative humor during the conflict were less effective at problem-solving and behaved more negatively overall toward during conflict compared to couples who used positive humor.
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Putting it to Work: 3 Ways to Use Humor Effectively in Your Marriage
Using humor to de-escalate conflict might come more naturally to some people than it does to others. The good news is that humor is a skill that can be developed over time. Here are three things to keep in mind if you want to introduce more comedic relief into your marital conflicts:
- Check yourself. Ensure your use of humor is coming from a well-intentioned place. Are you using humor to one up, put down, or avoid something? Are your words, body language, and tone of voice all communicating an attempt to repair and connect? If not, pause and take a deep breath to regroup.
- Read the room. If you sense your partner isn’t picking up on your attempted humor, see if you can stop and adjust your approach.
- Strengthen your funny bone. Frequently create opportunities to laugh with your partner—create inside jokes, use lighthearted banter, be goofy, have fun. The more often humor shows up in your relationship, the more accessible it will be when inevitable conflict arises.