There are a slew of variables that have been assessed to determine what predicts marital satisfaction: Attitudes, personality, temperament, interests, life goals, and intimacy are but a few of the ones shown to contribute to marital happiness. One variable, however, is not often included, but has been proven to impact marital contentment: humor. Apparently, the use of humor, which things a couple finds funny, how jokes are told to one another and the humor style, all have an impact on marital satisfaction. In fact, marital satisfaction appears to be more related to how a partner perceives their spouse’s wittiness than their own level of humor. 

There are different degrees and types of humor, each of which seems to impact marital contentment. According to researchers, there are at least four styles of humor, some with sub-categories:

Constructive humor, which brings people together, and is the type of humor that Jerry Seinfeld is known for. It  focuses on everyday life, creating a sense of well-being among people who are enjoying the moment together.

Self-enhancing humor, which is the ability to laugh at yourself. This is a healthy way of lightening tension or helping to cope with life’s rough patches. You often see television hosts like Jimmy Kimmel employ this type of humor.

Self-defeating humor, which is when the joke-teller puts him/herself down. The iconic Rodney Dangerfield was known for lines like: “I was such an ugly baby” or “I don’t get no respect.” This style is an unhealthy and self-demeaning attempt to find wit in a painful situation.

Joan Rivers and Don Rickles both exemplified aggressive humor, which involves insults and makes people uncomfortable. It can be anti-social or even scatological in its focus, but clearly makes people squirm at least as much as laugh.

A questionnaire can be used to evaluate the type of humor styles individuals tend to use in their daily lives. The questionnaire has been used in research among happily married couples and couples whose marriages ended in divorce. The results of these studies provide interesting insights into an important aspect of marital satisfaction.

The findings suggest that men who use constructive and self-enhancing humor styles have marriages that are higher in relationship happiness and satisfaction. Women who use self-defeating humor in their marriages seem to have higher degrees of contentment in their marriages, but only if they don’t use too much negativity. Too much self-defeating humor may be correlated with an increase in divorce rates. If you put yourself down too much, you may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of negativity that causes others to see you in a negative light. People who use the aggressive style of humor, which can consist of a shame and embarrassment component, appear to be much more likely to divorce.

All of these findings are tempered by one important factor: If both of the spouses are similar in their use of a particular style of humor, that partnership is likely to be enhanced–even if the aggressive style of humor is the one most frequently used. This could simply mean that both partners understand one another that much better.

The most important takeaway from this is that jokes, and how they are told to a spouse, can significantly enhance the joy in a marriage or impact the marriage negatively. Minimizing, or even overlooking, the importance of humor in a relationship is not simply a mistake, but may cut out a large area of import for quality and happiness. Telling jokes that bring joy and a sense of well-being are, of course, the best. But so is just telling a joke, as long as it is not insulting or aggressive. A husband and wife who can share humor is a couple that will have an enhanced quality of life.


Dr. Michael J. Salamon is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the author of numerous articles and books...