Men say it all the time, “I know she likes me because she laughs at my jokes.”
According to psychologist Norman Li, they’re right. Li argues that humor evolved as a way to test the social waters; you joke to indicate interest not just in romantic partners, but friends, family, colleagues — anyone who might be an ally. We do it to move new connections forward, guessing correctly that someone who isn’t interested in getting to know us better is less likely to laugh. It’s also true that someone who is trying to make you laugh probably likes you.
To test the theory, Li and his colleague set up three studies, which backed up his idea that, in dating situations, people who make jokes and respond well to them are both indicating romantic interest.
Other kinds of conversation indicated less attraction.
Li also believes that humor helps us monitor the status of our current ties. When two people share a laugh, they can see that “they are satisfied or aligned with each other.” Lack of response is a warning sign, Li says: “I noticed one day that my romantic partner was no longer laughing at some of the silly little things that I said or did that used to make her laugh. I told her all about the theory but she insisted that her lack of laughter had nothing to do with dissatisfaction — she was just worried about other things. Well, a few months later, the relationship crumbled: we separated and never got back together.”
In short, a joke is a bid for connection. According to John Gottman, a celebrated relationship researcher, and his wife psychologist Julie Schwartz Gottman, who run a 2-day $750-per pair workshop called "The Art and Science of Love, responding frequently and enthusiastically to bids for connection is the key to good marriages. Besides a joke, a “bid” could be when your lover points out the window and says, "Look at that beautiful sky!" You could say "Gorgeous” and come sit beside her (an active “turn-towards”), nod but walk away, or say, “What about the dishes?” People who succeed romantically turn towards their partners’ bids 87 percent of the time.
Some other tips based on studies by John Gottman and his research partner Robert Levenson: a romantic tie is most likely to last if the pair can maintain a ratio of five positive comments to one negative one — even during a fight. Intense chemistry isn’t the glue. Instead, the ability to calm down as a pair and soothe each other made a couple last. Humor can do that, too.
How do you feel when your partner tries to defuse fights with a joke? If your partner is always evading your complaints, you may get furious. Women are traditionally the ones bringing up “issues.” I have to say, that’s me. I’m always trying to have the big productive discussion.
So I try to remember that a joke is a bid for connection. I try opening up to the humor, making a humorous response, and insisting that we talk about the rough stuff. Humor helps me calm down and see that the crisis may be less dramatic than I thought.
In the Gottmans’ workshop, participants learn that a strong marriage starts with a strong friendship, listening enough so you know a good deal about each other’s histories and interests. You admire each other, turn towards each other’s bids, and develop optimism about your bond, seeing yourself as a good team. When you fight, you keep it positive, calm each other, and see what the Gottmans call “dreams within conflict.” If your husband says he’s unhappy because he never has time to himself, instead of reacting to the feeling of being pushed away, you might ask, “What would you want to do if you had all the time you needed?” Building a sense of shared purpose can arise from seeing each other’s dreams. A 2013 study showed that among 80 “distressed” married couples who participated in the “Art and Science of Love,” most were happier a year later.
It’s easy to think that only people who are more compatible or have less stress in their lives can pull this off. It may sound unreachable. But is it impossible to laugh at your partner’s next joke? Or make one? Try it and see if things shift. Especially if you’re coping with health challenges, know that your health will surely benefit from laughter and love.