The first thing that attracted Kevin to Brooke was his sense of humor. Kevin was a pharmaceutical salesman who came regularly to the doctor's office where Brooke worked as a receptionist. "He cracked me up every time he came in," she told us. Romance blossomed between the two and within a year they married. But by their first anniversary, the marriage was in trouble. Brooke was angry and unhappy. "Kevin never takes anything seriously," she complained. "If I try to talk to him about important things—like buying a house or having children—all I get are his silly wisecracks."
Kevin and Brooke found out that humor is a two-edged sword. Humor can add zest to your marriage. It can make you more accepting of your mate, defuse difficult situations, and enhance your life together. However, misused humor has brought more than one marriage to the brink of disaster. So how do you keep humor alive and well in your marriage without misusing it? Here are some ideas.
1. Don't use humor to avoid dealing with difficult relational issues. Kevin turned most serious discussions into jokes. For instance, their first serious discussion about having a baby wound up with Kevin doing a stand-up routine about a pregnant Brooke. She told us: "He stuffed a pillow under his shirt and waddled around the room. He really was funny and I admit that he made me laugh. But that's the way it goes every time I bring up the issue—Kevin turns the discussion into a joke. The difference now is that I usually end up in tears."
2. Don't use humor to avoid talking about your personal pain and struggles. One man, Hank, was often stressed and frustrated by conditions at work. Even though this was evident to his wife, Sheila, he refused to discuss his frustrations. When she asked him what was wrong, he would dismiss her concerns with a laugh: "Don't you have enough problems without taking on mine? I think you must have a problem deficiency!" Unfortunately, his attempts at humor did nothing to relieve Sheila's concerns or to lessen his frustrations. Instead, it created a barrier between them. Sheila realized that you can't be intimate with someone who is a mystery to you. "When Hank laughs off his pain and frustration, I feel left out. And that's not the kind of marriage I want."
3. Don't get mired in sarcasm. "When you first meet Nan," Steve said, "you think that she is the funniest person alive. She has a running commentary on everything and everybody. But let me tell you, after five-and-a-half years of marriage, I'm tired of her acid humor." No one seemed to escape Nan's sarcasm. Her caustic comments covered the waterfront, from her mother-in-law's cooking ("the smell of that garbage truck reminds me of your mother's stew") to her pastor's efforts ("that was certainly a forgettable sermon").
At times, Nan was very funny. And, no denying it, her humorous comments often were right on the mark. But the ongoing stream of remarks eventually lost their humor value and created a bleak and cynical climate. Increasingly, Steve tuned Nan out or at least didn't reward her comments by laughing. "I've come to the point," Steve said, "where I'd love to challenge her to make it through just one day without saying something sarcastic."
4. Don't put humor above valuing others—or yourself. "Jennie knows so little about golf that when I talked about a guy's handicap, she thought he was crippled," Bill told a laughing group of their friends. Everyone thought Bill's comments were funny—except for Jennie. "Bill always refers to me as his 'dizzy blonde' and has a thousand stories to prove his point," she complained. "I know that Bill loves me, and I even think he respects me, but you'd never know it when he's with a group of people."
While Bill loves being the life of the party, usually at Jennie's expense, Sam plays the clown by directing his disparaging comments at himself and embarrasses his wife, Cindy, in the process. "Sam is an attractive, competent person," she told us, "but you'd think he was a real loser from the public picture he paints of himself. He acts like the Three Stooges all wrapped up into one. And I hate it."
5. Don't tease. "What's the matter, can't you take a little joke?" you ask. "Don't take life so seriously." Teasing makes many people feel defenseless and uncomfortable. Sarah was the only girl in a family of four children. "I can't tell you how many times I was teased by my brothers to the point of tears," she said. "They would start teasing and didn't know when to stop. She knows now that her brothers loved her, but that's not the way she felt then. To this day, she hates when anyone—including her husband—teases her. Recently her husband, Bud, teased her about a brightly colored dress she was wearing to a long-anticipated party. "That's quite an outfit," he said. "You're really going to light up the party."
"Is the dress too bright?" she asked.
"Not for the guys. They'll love it."
At that point, it was clear that Sarah was agitated. "I'm only kidding," he offered. "It looks great."
But Sarah, hurt and angry, went to the bedroom to change.
Make Your Mate Laugh
Bud was right about one thing: it is important to cultivate humor and fun in your marriage. He just had the wrong idea in the way he chose to do it.
He and Sarah, along with the other couples, are now striving to cultivate humor by following a fundamental principle: learn and practice the things that make your mate laugh. Bud is developing a whole repertoire of puns that never fail to delight Sarah. And Sarah is looking for things to make Bud laugh—in everyday experiences, newspapers and books, and funny movies.
Like other successful couples, Bud and Sarah recognize that humor is essential to the well-being of their marriage. "It makes us feel alive and connected," Sarah told us. "We have found that laughter is the perfect antidote for the rough spots and tough times in our relationship."
Robert and Jeanette Lauer lead marriage workshops and are the authors of fifteen books, including Becoming Family: How to Build a Stepfamily that Really Works (Augsburg) and How to Survive and Thrive in an Empty Nest (New Harbinger).
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