The Light and Dark Side of Humor

The Light and Dark Side of Humor

Growing up do you remember hearing the children’s chant “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” This is just one way we were taught to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Broken bones do heal, and words can leave deep wounds that never heal.  According to Harriet B. Braiker “you no doubt remember with crystal clarity the words that caused you the most emotional pain, even if they were couched as ‘good hearted’ or ‘well-meaning’ humor.” Often we are taught that having a sense of humor can help us make friends, decrease conflict in relationships, and to not take ourselves too seriously. According to Ben Zeev (2017) he writes in his blog “humor is similar to emotions in that it has a strong element of incongruity and change. Both emotions and humor combine two perspectives- the expected and unexpected.”  In my last blog post I wrote about communicating feelings the correct way, and in this post I would like to touch upon how humor can be communicated in a positive way and negative way and how it affects romantic relationships. Anderson & DiTunnariello (2016) states “Humor is defined as a message containing incongruous elements that may either be playfully enacted or violates expectations.”


First I will begin defining how Humor is categorized utilizing The Humor Styles Questionnaire (HSQ) developed by Martin, Puhlik-Doris, Larsen, Gray, and Weir. They identified four styles of humor: affiliative, self-enhancing, aggressive, and self-defeating behavior. Nickolaisen (2016) describes them as follows:

  • Affilliative Humor -“often used to reduce conflict and entertain others”
  • Self- Enhancing Humor-  “to cope with negative or undesired events”
  • Aggressive Humor- “enhancing the self at the expense of others…is hostile and puts others down.
  • Self-Defeating Humor- “enhances relationships at the expense of the self…it tends to be overly self-deprecating and puts people in a one down position among others.”

In romantic relationships it is important to understand which kinds of humor are beneficial for the relationships.  Anderson & DiTunnariello (2016) writes “the ways individuals use and interpret humor in their relationships are based on a variety of conditions, including the topic being discussed, the past history of relational partners, and the emotional tone of the conversation, among other factors.” Sometimes we are unaware of our intentions when using humor.  When others use it in a hurtful manner we may avoid voicing the offense which could cause each of us to create negative self-talk within ourselves. Let’s dive into the pros and cons of humor next.

Light Side of Humor

The pros of humor in relationships is being able to inspire laughter, a different perspective,  lightens the mood, and gives life to relationships…humor is key to bringing individuals together in the first place, as it plays a critical role in attraction (Anderson & DiTunnariello, 2016). Positive humor is linked to affilliative and self-enhancing humor and is ways to cope with relationship conflict or undesired external events.  Laughter, inside jokes, playfulness can help create a shared bonding in relationships. For instance, I’ve worked with couples to utilize a random word that would evoke a laugh from both parties during overheated arguments. For example saying “banana” out of nowhere will cause the conflict to stop for a brief moment. Utilizing this also helps the couple learn to rely on “time-outs” during discussions. When couples begin to feel their safety is threatened (feeling unheard, dismissed, controlled, disconnected, shamed) the senses will heighten and at that moment both parties are self-absorbed and conflict will not be resolved. Time-outs are not just tools that can only be used for children. It can be beneficial in adult relationships. Ben Zeev (2017) stated “in nature humor is not a joke. In this sense, humor is similar to art, both draw attention away from the self and its desires, thereby enabling us to look at reality from a safe and somewhat different perspective.”  Mr. Zeev also writes decreasing the emotional intensity when using humor helps to reduce or eliminate shame and relegate it to a minor trivial level. So you might be thinking to yourself “If these are significant benefits to humor, what are the cons?”

Dark Side Humor

                Aggressive and self-defeating humor is linked negatively in romantic relationships. Aggressive humor puts people down, while self-deprecating is at the expense of our self worth. According to Anderson & DiTunnariello (2016) his study found that aggressive humor is self centered, and belittles others. He writes “the humorous tone by the sender makes the aggressive humor socially acceptable. Teasing, sarcasm, mimicking, or repetitions are [examples] of negative humor that people find socially acceptable although in reality is detrimental to a relationship.” Anderson & DiTunnariello (2016) reported participant’s responses to using or receiving aggressive humor “were all meant to communicate something, often something negative—those who used aggressive humor admitted it, and those who received aggressive humor recognized it.” Using negative humor during conflict is avoiding the issue at hand. As you are not willing to see the other person’s experience, or you are trying to avoid feeling uneasy. Nickolaisen (2016) “intimate partners inevitably experience conflict because they have extended interactions, shared actions, and reliance to some extent.” Conflict is a part of life and avoiding it will cause you to have unrealistic expectations. Repeated humor can cause participants to question themselves and generate uncomfortable sense of certainty (Anderson & DiTunariello, 2016). In relationships you want to feel connected with your significant other and participating in aggressive humor can often lead to disconnection. Ultimately using aggressive humor is a selfish act in relationships. Anderson & Tunnariello (2016) participants used “aggressive humor as a tool to appease their needs in romantic relationships without posing a severe threat to the relationship.” This means people use aggressive humor to have their needs met and sacrifice their partner’s self-worth to get it.

Teasing & Sarcasm

                Before I get into how humor affects relationship satisfaction I wanted to touch base on teasing and sarcasm. These are types of humor taught to us at a young age by our peers, families, and significant adults growing up.  Harriet Braiker writes “permitting yourself to be the brunt of jokes or the target of hostile humor is neither admirable nor a sign of emotional health. When you laugh along with those who tease you, you not only devalue your own self-esteem, you also reward the teasers for their hurtfulness or cruelty as well.”  According to Nickolaisen (2016) found that teasing can be a way others use to express hurt or dissatisfaction in hopes to avoid conflict as it can be covered by “I was just teasing.” He explains there are two kinds of teasing prosocial and antisocial. Prosocial would tease in ways that are minimally threatening, and is mindful to make amends if receiver takes offense. Antisocial teaser’s threaten the receiver’s self-image, and unapologetic if receiver is offended. Sarcasm on the other hand is used to belittle or dismiss another person’s point of view or feelings due to being hurt.  According to Anderson & DiTunnariello (2016) “participants saw sarcasm as a way to communicate information about the relationship in a particularly demeaning, disrespectful, or hurtful way…sarcasm heightened existing conflicts or served as the starting point of new conflicts.”

Impacts on Romantic Relationships

                Attachment is a primary need for “felt security”, a safe haven to go to, and a secure base to go out from. When using humor it is important to stop and think about when you are going to use it. Ask yourself “am I using this to bring me closer to my significant other, or am I using it to fulfill a need that may be hurtful to my partner?” Hall’s (2017) research found that “although humor production may help to generate a general atmosphere of pleasantness, its association with relational satisfaction is weak”, and “in a romantic relationships, the value of humor depends on how it is used.”  Some of the things to look out for when determining if you want to engage in humor in your relationship are as follows.

  • When not to use Humor
    • Avoid using humor during conflict. “Conflict tends to be a time when escalation can occur rather quickly, and affective and physiological arousal is high” (Nickolaisen, 2016).
    • If you choose to use self-deprecating humor  to avoid conflict know that it is only a short term solution, and long-term dissatisfaction can occur (Nickolaisen, 2016)
    • Research has shown that the “the benefits of humor production may be valuable to the humor-producing individual but not as much for the joker’s partner or for the relationship (Hall, 2017)
    • Remind yourself that aggressive humor is labeled as contempt by John Gottmann whose research has shown to be the strongest predictor of divorce (Nickolaisen, 2016).
  • When to use humor
    • Be mindful to use it only when you and your partner are stable and not in distress. The other party is more willing to accept and reflect if it is brought upon during a time of feeling connected.
    • Use during times both parties are problem solving. It is more likely you will use light side humor and be effective in finding resolutions.
    • Have realistic expectations. Know that you cannot completely eliminate humor. According to Charles Darwin’s research “humor is advantageous for the survival of primates in as much that it enhances pair bonding, eases social interactions, increases group cohesion, and engenders an approach response with other primates (Hall, 2017).

           In conclusion, having an understanding of humor can help you utilize this communication tool in a healthy way that works for both you and your partner. To discover joy is to begin building connection with others instead of disconnection.


Anderson, W., & DiTunnariello N. (2016). Aggressive Humor as a Negative Relational Maintenance Behavior during Times of Conflict, The Qualitative Report, 21(8), 1513-1530. Retrieved from

Ben-Zeev, A. (2017) Nobody Does it better, Psychology today

Braiker, H. (2002).The Disease to Please: Curing the people pleasing syndrome, McGrawHill Professional

Campbell, L., Moroz, S. (2014). Humour Use Between Spouses and Positive and Negative Interpersonal Behaviors During  Conflict, Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 532-542.

Hall, J.A. (2017). Humor in Romantic Relationships: a meta-analysis, Journal of the International Association for Relationship Research, 24(2),  1-17, Retrieved from

Nickolaisen, S. (2016). Clinical Implications of Humor Styles and Their Effect on Intimate Partner Conflict, Counseling & Wellness Journal, 5, 1-11, Retrieved by