My husband can never just gently get into bed. At any given time, he outweighs me by 80-100 pounds, and it always feels to me like he is flopping onto the bed with as much force as possible, which has the effect of both startling me and bouncing me out of my comfort zone. He denies that he has this habit and always responds to my protests with, “What? I’m just getting into bed like a normal person. What do you want me to do?”
So, the other night, while I was sitting in bed knitting, my husband got into the bed with his usual vigor, and my arm jerked several stitches off of my knitting needle which I had to go back and fix, and which also annoyed me. I immediately snapped, “Steve! Seriously?” which was code for, “How many times have we talked about this? How hard is it to just ease into bed without announcing your arrival with the exertion of a bull elephant?”
I expected him to defend his technique as usual when instead, he said, “Well, it could have been worse…I could have done this…,” at which point he popped up on the bed and started jumping up and down like an 8 year-old. The scene was so absurd that I couldn’t stop laughing, and instead of engaging in another tired quarrel, we shared a moment of playful connection.
Dr. John Gottman identified humor as a common “repair attempt,” that many functional couples use to manage conflict. If used well, and in a way that is inclusive and not contemptuous, it can be a very effective technique.
With nearly 30 years of marriage and 7 children, my husband and I have had lots and lots of practice both engaging in and averting typical couple power struggles. A long time ago, I remember at one point saying to my husband, “Stop trying to control me. You can’t control me,” because I do have a rebellious streak a mile wide with a tendency to do the opposite of what someone is trying to make me do (which is all coming back to me through my teenagers). Neither of us likes to feel controlled. It has become an ongoing joke now that if things start escalating, one of us will commonly interrupt with, “Are you trying to control me?” with a tone of voice that suggests that we are being ridiculous, and we end up laughing. Once, I remember him throwing out, “I’m trying to control you right now and you’re not cooperating,” and it was so unexpected with the comical look on his face that I was completely disarmed and laughed, and another conflict was avoided.
Humor can be used to manage potential family conflict as well. Parenting and finances are two common potential points of contention for many couples. On one family vacation, I remember an incident in which those both collided, and I started getting irritated with my husband. It was a typical vacation in which one child had already vomited in the car, there were ongoing quarrels about who was in whose space and who was breathing whose air, and my nerves were raw from all the noise. On the way home, when my husband stopped at a gas station, I couldn’t wait to get out of the car and walk away somewhere by myself to breathe.
When I walked back to the car, my then three year-old began pulling my hand to show me something she wanted at a vending machine. It was a pink mustache for 75 cents, and she was so insistent that I decided to hit her dad up for the money. Instead of thinking it was cute like I did, he thought it was a ridiculous waste of 75 cents and he was tired of bleeding money on our vacation. Instead of agreeing, he gave me a look that said, “A pink mustache? Really? Why don’t I just hand you three quarters to go flush down the toilet?”
Soo…instead of lashing out about what a cheapskate he was, I decided to take a different approach. I knew he was tired and stressed like I was from the torture of being in a confined space with 7 noisy children. I picked up a quarter from the bottom of my purse and announced to my teenage sons, “Okay everyone…your sister wants a pink mustache that costs 75 cents, and I personally think that would be amusing to look at, and so I am willing to donate a quarter to her pink mustache fund. Does anyone else want to donate to see the pink mustache?” Immediately, two brothers anted up and even offered to take her in to purchase the disguise. When she came back, delighted to be wearing a pink mustache, we all laughed, and even my husband had to admit it was adorable, and instead of being upset with me over an argument, he was grateful that I hadn’t undermined him in front of the children and escalated conflict.
Humor is effective if the relationship already feels safe. If you see your partner as your collaborator, you are more likely to join with them in the silliness. You take bigger comedic risks, because humor is often about presenting the unexpected. If you see him/her as the enemy, it can easily be misinterpreted. Humor also requires a fair amount of creativity, which is more expansive when people are not emotionally flooded, so when people struggle to regulate emotion, it can be more challenging to access humor.
Couples who can use humor are couples who work at building friendship actively outside of conflict. They are couples who have lots of experiences laughing together. I don’t think I could endure a relationship in which my spouse didn’t appreciate my sense of humor; I am well aware that not everyone finds me as amusing as my spouse does. However, because he laughs at my lame jokes and laughs at shared comedic references with me, it feels safe to explore humor with him.
Humor can be accessed intentionally in a spirit of playfulness. If you don’t know where to start, listen to a funny podcast. My favorite is NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! For additional inspiration, watch the Argument Clinic by Monty Python’s the Flying Circus, which you can access on YouTube here. I might be showing my age with that suggestion, but I promise you won’t look at an argument the same way again.