Using Humor to Build Relationships

Using Humor to Build Relationships


By The Gottman Institute

Humor is pretty complicated, and if we want to use it in a way that builds and maintains healthy, loving, and strong connections, we must be mindful.

Today on the Gottman Relationship Blog, we’re teaching you “the right way” to share humor in your relationships. The Gottman Method for joking around, if you will. Here it is. It’s pretty straightforward:

If you want to understand the role that humor plays in your relationships today, it’s useful to start by considering the role it played yesterday. We may learn a lot by asking a simple question: 

What effects have our friends’ and families’ senses of humor had on us in the past?

For simplicity’s sake, we will generally associate individual styles of expression with major schools of humor theory below. Here they are again:

Superiority Theory

Some attempts at humor — as Plato, Hobbes, and Aristotle explain — rely upon putting others below ourselves (and often involve themes such as racism, sexism, and homophobia). 

As you may expect, The Gottman Institute doesn’t endorse this particular comic strategy. Using it or being exposed to its effects can be highly unpleasant, and it is pretty unlikely to strengthen bonds with those you care about.

However, an understanding of our shared human tendency to enjoy status-elevating punch lines is very important, as it increases our consciousness of each other’s feelings.

Incongruity Theory

Humor often reminds us of the importance of perspective, encouraging flexibility and reality testing by insisting upon the existence of valid viewpoints outside of our own. Is what we think really the only truth? Does anyone else’s experience have value?

Relief Theory

Freud and others have long observed the obvious: humor can be used to create relief. It is a marvelous force of healing and social bonding. 

Less obvious and frequently observed is humor’s enormous potential for destruction. 

One joker may diffuse a tense situation by making everyone laugh together over a shared experience, while another seeks personal comfort, using “humor” to escape by creating distance rather than overcoming it (see: the long, lonely, and foolish road spanning defensiveness, condescension, and contemptuous mockery).

Our point is simple: Humor is pretty complicated, and if we want to use it in a way that builds and maintains healthy, loving, and strong connections, we must be mindful. 


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