New research sheds light on the role humor plays in maintaining and strengthening romantic relationships. The findings, which appear in the journal Psychological Science, indicate that humor is not just a pleasant addition to a relationship; it’s a powerful tool that couples use to signal continued interest and improve relationship quality.
Humor has long been recognized as a desirable trait in potential romantic partners, but researchers wanted to delve deeper into its role within established relationships. Previous studies mainly focused on humor’s importance during the early stages of courtship, leaving a gap in our understanding of how humor continues to affect relationships over time.
“My co-authors and I have been investigating humor in relationships, but from a relationship initiation perspective. Typically, humor is seen to precede attraction, where humorous individuals are seen to be more attractive,” explained study author Kenneth Tan, an assistant professor of psychology at Singapore Management University.
“However, it could also be the case that when you are attracted to someone, you start finding them humorous (Li et al., 2009). We also heard anecdotally that when you are happy in the relationship, you find your partner funny, even if they are objectively not that funny in the first place. Hence, we wanted to examine the association between humor and relationship quality in the case of established relationships.”
The researchers conducted a unique study involving 108 couples from a large university in Singapore. These couples were romantically involved, with an average relationship duration of 18.27 months. The researchers used a daily-diary approach, asking participants to complete daily assessments for seven consecutive evenings. They collected a total of 1,227 daily assessments from the couples, ensuring a comprehensive dataset for analysis.
Each day, participants reported their perceptions of humor within their relationships and their levels of relationship satisfaction, commitment, and perceived partner commitment. This allowed the researchers to examine the day-to-day fluctuations in humor and relationship quality within established romantic relationships.
Tan and his colleagues found strong support for the interest-indicator model of humor. According to this model, humor serves as a tool for signaling and maintaining interest in a romantic relationship. On days when individuals reported higher levels of satisfaction, commitment, or perceived partner commitment, they also reported greater engagement in humor with their partners. This suggests that humor is used to express and gauge continued interest in an ongoing relationship.
The researchers also examined lagged effects to understand the directionality of the relationship between humor and relationship quality over time. They found that positive relationship quality on one day predicted increased humor production and perception the next day. This indicates that relationship quality positively influences the use of humor in subsequent interactions.
“We found consistent evidence of the ‘interest indicator perspective’ in established relationships. On days where you were more satisfied and committed with the relationship, you found your romantic partner more humorous both on the same day as well as the next. On days where you were less satisfied and committed with your relationship, you found your partner less humorous both on the same day as well as the next. On the other hand, we did not find consistent evidence of the reverse. On days where you perceived and initiated more humour, it was not associated with greater commitment the next day, only satisfaction.”
Contrary to some theories that suggested males may use humor more to attract mates, the study did not find significant gender differences in the relationship between humor and relationship quality. Both men and women in established relationships used humor similarly to maintain interest and strengthen their bonds.
“Men reported producing more humor in the relationship, but there were no gender effects regarding our focal hypotheses,” Tan said. “It was also not the case that humor had stronger effects in relationships that were shorter in length, since it typically is thought that humor might be important in the early phase of relationships to establish attraction.”
While this study offers valuable insights into the role of humor in established relationships, it’s essential to acknowledge its limitations. The participants were college students in dating relationships, so the findings may not directly apply to older adults or long-term marriages. Future research could explore these relationships to determine if similar patterns emerge.
“We found our results with a college sample in Singapore, but believe that the results should generalize to married, older couples from Western cultures as well,” Tan noted. “Regarding future questions, we would like to examine such bi-directional associations of humor in different relationships such as work or parent-child relationships too.”
“Finally, we would like to examine the psychological indicators/traits that couples think of their partner when there is humor. For example, do couples in established relationships also find their partner creative, intelligent and warm when their partners are humorous, just like when relationships are just starting out?”
The study, “The Role of Humor Production and Perception in the Daily Life of Couples: An Interest-Indicator Perspective“, was authored by Kenneth Tan, Bryan K. C. Choy, and Norman P. Li.