“The gods gave men fire so he put it out with water.
They gave him love so he could put it out with marriage.”
– Sam Levison
Let’s face it. Married people can say and do mean things to each other that can cause as much pain as a bullet tearing into flesh. The body needs carbohydrates to repair tissue damage, just as a relationship needs humor to repair minor misunderstandings and bigger betrayals.
Take, for instance, this true story about a couple whose names have been changed. It’s an example of how humor can cause disclosure of something otherwise kept a secret.
Jill had been trying to talk to her husband, John, about getting a new refrigerator. He flatly refused, arguing they should wait until the beer got warm. Then, the night before John left on a business trip, they had a huge fight about the refrigerator and “kitchen sink” all their gripes about each other. When John returned, Jill thought he seemed different. When he told Jill he’d rethought it and they should buy a new refrigerator and get the one she wanted, Jill was suspicious about the big change in his attitude. But rather than have another fight prying out of him why the sudden change in attitude, she ordered a top of the line refrigerator.
Then Jill sat down with John and asked, “When are you going on another business trip?”
“Because I want a new stove, but I don’t want you to cheat on me to get it.”
John’s eyes welled as he confessed he’d been drunk when a woman at the conference came onto him and was in bed with her before he knew it. Rather than think of John’s behavior with wholesale condemnation, Jill wanted to learn why she’d been betrayed. With the help of a couple’s therapist, Jill and John were able to unravel what sparked John’s indiscretion.
They learned that when a relationship is strained, we’re more vulnerable to other people’s kindness and are more apt to rebel against the confines of matrimony, i.e., have an affair. John drank to the point of being vulnerable to someone’s advances after the argument they’d had the night before he left on his trip. In this fight, Jill listed John’s flaws as a husband, a father, a man, a human, a primate, and a mammal. For his part, John responded with his litany of Jill’s flaws as a wife, a mother, a human, a primate, a mammal, and to one her better threw in as a housekeeper and cook.
This blog speaks to how humor can diffuse an argument. Even one in which the parties are resorting to notes to support their view that the other spouse is the one who is mean, petty, vicious, sloppy, and unreasonable. Relationship research finds humor can repair emotions during an argument more quickly than any other cognitive strategy like compromise, taking a break, or asking for clarity about an issue. The reason is that humor has been woven into our relationship DNA since humans evolved from tetrapods.
Humor disarms the negative sentiment override each spouse’s beliefs about the other, as discussed in Part 1 of this series. I’m suggesting that a couple’s repetitive fight remains unresolved because neither is truly engaged with the other to dispel the negative beliefs about each other, each holding fast to their worst fantasy about the other. How do you break this cycle? Just like ketones in a ketogenic diet act as signaling molecules to the cell’s mitochondria to waste calories rather than store them, humor acts as a signal to the brain to release oxytocin, referred to as the “cuddle hormone,” creating a feeling of connectedness and bonding. One of the hypotheses about why humor works is attributed to the incongruity of what a spouse expects from the other during an argument.
The thing about arguments in any relationship is that the person you’re arguing with isn’t the person in front of you. It’s the person or people who taught you how to argue. We come to relationships with learned behavior about asking for what we want and how to behave when we don’t get it. Underneath the argument are three things we seek: power or control, respect and recognition, or closeness and caring. Arguments often involve shouting or hitting for children who have not learned social skills and are too young to control their emotions. A child’s fight often starts with the child seeing a situation as unfair, when they’re trying to assert their rights, feel others don’t see their perspective, or view the same situation differently.
As children, we learn how to adapt to stress and become maximizers or minimizers. A maximizer is a person who initiates an emotional connection, the one who always wants to talk. On the other hand, the minimizer is the one who withdraws, needs space, and tends to keep their feelings contained. These are deeply ingrained unconscious defense mechanisms that we carry with us into the world and our relationships. When we feel under attack in an argument, our reptilian brain confuses psychological distress with physical survival, and our flight or fight response is triggered.
In a marriage or any relationship, for that matter, it helps to understand these deeply ingrained behaviors when your minimizer partner is hiding in the bedroom or storms out of the room after an argument. You need to realize they aren’t doing this to piss you off but to give their nervous system time to settle down. When this happens, rather than thinking your partner is less engaged in the relationship, consider this was their learned response to stress as a child. Conversely, when your maximizer partner turns a hardship, trial, or tribulation into a catastrophe, remember that they’re reacting to feeling overwhelmed from having their feelings ignored or minimized as a child, and you are the tangible representation of that neglect. One of the reasons researchers believe that children of divorced families get divorced more frequently than those from intact families is that their experience did not model how a fight can be productive. When a child hasn’t been taught the tools for dealing with conflict, as an adult, their instinctual, primitive flight or fight response is the only tool they have to defend themselves against a perceived attack.
So what’s the answer to join in the chaos (maximize) or downplay the problem that created the situation (minimize)? Neither. Two people who feel as if they’re under attack are worse than one. Fortunately, research hints at solutions to avoid arguments when tension rises and responses start to get personal. But you may have to change your mind about some things if you want to put these insights into practice. If you start with the explicit goal of changing your partner’s mind, you’re likely to get the opposite result. The less you try to force a particular view on someone, the freer they’ll feel to reflect honestly on what they think and may come to revise their thinking.
- Minimizers have to validate the maximizer’s feelings to diffuse the need for the maximizer to plead their case.
- Maximizers must give the minimizer the benefit of the doubt in understanding that when they shut down during an argument, it’s their attempt to calm themselves and decrease their stress.
- Each must reset their attitude about the other’s reaction and take small steps toward nonjudgmentally explaining how their behavior affects them.
- You’re an adult now, so if you’re the one who has to take the first step towards resolution, this is not surrender, this is love, and love always pulls you in, even when you want to push away.
Caring deeply about an issue in your relationship that you don’t seem to be able to resolve with your partner and yet wanting to end the rift is a knife’s edge balance. When touchy subjects arise, try a non-confrontational approach by asking an open-ended question. For example, “What’s on your mind when I raise this issue” or “How do you feel about what I said I feel?”
If a replay of what has happened when you’ve raised this issue in the past makes you feel as if you’re about to burp up battery fluid, try this guaranteed technique to defuse the argument. Ask your partner to lie down next to you on the floor. Yes, on the floor. The fight or flight trigger resets in this position. Lying down allows you to talk to your partner without perceiving each other as a threat. Ask them to hold your hand and ask how they feel about continuing the discussion you feared would result in each of you throwing verbal grenades at the other. Since research finds that humor is the key to resilience and having better sex, you may even find you end up making passionate love instead of makeup sex.
Finding reasons to laugh together makes you come away from the episode feeling more connected, relaxed, and pleased that you chose each other. It’s essential to integrate humor into your marriage. Humor helps put things in perspective, reduces stress levels, mitigates the mundane aspects of marriage, and creates a sense of exclusivity when the two of you share an inside joke that no one else is in on.
So when you feel as if you’re on the brink of a marital nuclear explosion and lying down on the floor isn‘t an option, try putting on a pair of glasses with a fake mustache, a funny hat or mask. There‘s no question about it, you can’t fight when you’re laughing.