Copyright Pauline Wallin, Ph.D. 2003. All rights reserved

Marriage is relatively easy. It's the staying together afterward that's hard. But don't say you weren't warned. Most traditional wedding vows list problems that are bound to come up:

"To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health . . ."

There certainly will be times when things are worse rather than better; when money is tight; and when one of the partners is in poor physical or emotional health. These are times that strain a relationship, and encourage bratty attitudes and behaviors. But a sense of humor can get you through difficult times more smoothly.

I'm not implying that arguments, financial problems or illness are funny. Nevertheless, if you take them too seriously, you can become stuck in a sense of victimhood. By dwelling on the negative you encourage your "inner brat" to grumble and complain, to blame others and to engage in other self-destructive thoughts.

On the other hand, adding a dose of humor gets you out of negative thinking and helps your relationship in many ways:

1. It helps ease tension. Properly applied, humor can deflate a tense argument.

2. It gives you a different perspective, which often shows you that things are not as bad as they seem. Shifting perspectives can also make you a more creative problem-solver.

3. It reduces stress. Laughter has both physical and mental benefits.

4. It helps reduce defensiveness and stubbornness in a conflict, by providing a non-blaming focus. When people are less defensive, they are able to resolve their differences more quickly with less damage.

5. It lightens the mood, which makes you more tolerant and willing to compromise.

6. It allows you to connect with your partner. This is especially true when you break the tension with something that you have both found amusing in the past, such as a facial expression or a familiar silly phrase. When you're both laughing at the same thing, you reaffirm your sense of we-ness.

7. It makes everyday interactions more playful and pleasurable.

Humor does not mean the same thing as telling jokes. In a relationship, humor involves the willingness to suspend judgment, to appreciate irony and to recapture a child-like playfulness, which helps prevent stress and tension. It is the ability to both be funny and to appreciate your partner's amusement.

Sometimes humor is misdirected. People who use sarcasm or ridicule are usually more interested in putting the other person down, than in constructive communication. When confronted by a partner whose feelings have been hurt, these people counter with, "I'm only kidding. Can't you take a joke?" If you frequently find yourself saying, "I'm only kidding," that means your so-called humor is coming from your "inner brat" rather than from your heart.

Humor can also be overused, e.g., when people kid around so much that they never take anything seriously. People who do this usually have some difficulty with intimacy. In any case, such constant kidding makes their partners feel trivialized.


1. Be physically affectionate. Try a light touch on the arm or a playful pat on the fanny (in private, so as not to embarrass) delivered with a smile. This serves as a momentary connection that draws you together.

2. Learn to notice amusing incidents in your everyday life, and share them with your partner. This has a double benefit. Not only does it give you the opportunity to smile together, but also the mindset of finding something funny to report puts you in a more positive mood all day.

3. Instead of criticizing your partner, poke fun at yourself. This gets their attention while minimizing their defensiveness. For example, suppose your partner is basically a safe driver but you are uncomfortable with some of his or her tactics. You've tried direct requests but they haven't helped. Next time you're in the car when your partner is driving, say something like, "I think my knuckles are permanently white;" or "Maybe I ought to take a crash course (pun intended) on keeping my mouth shut when you change lanes."

4. Gentle teasing is OK, but stay away from subjects that your partner is especially sensitive about. If you don't know what they are, they will become apparent. For example, if you get a hurt reaction when you try to make a humorous comment about your partner's looks or weight, then apologize and don't try it again.

5. When apologizing mention your inner brat. For example, "I guess my inner brat tried to win that round. I'm going to send it to its room." This helps you break the tension of the conflict, while still owning responsibility for your actions.

6. Be prepared for some trial and error in incorporating humor into your communications. If you and you partner are both committed to being more playful, you will be more likely to forgive misdirected humor.

7. Humor is typically an indirect way of communicating. Keep in mind that it is only one technique in maintaining a long-term relationship. It is not to be a substitute for in-depth discussions and major decisions.

Author's Bio: 

Pauline Wallin, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Camp Hill, PA, and author of "Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-defeating Behavior" (Beyond Words Publishing, 2001)

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