Relationship hack: Why class clowns make better partners

Want a happy, satisfying relationship? Psychologists say the best way is to learn to take a joke.

  • New research looks at how partners' attitudes toward humor affects the overall quality of a relationship.
  • Out of the three basic types of people, people who love to be laughed at made for better partners.
  • Fine-tuning your sense of humor might be the secret to a healthy, happy, and committed relationship.

It should come as no surprise that we tend to look for a sense of humor in our romantic partners. The trouble is, we all find different things funny—or not funny. New research in the Journal of Research in Personality quantifies exactly how our particular blend of humor affects our relationships. The bottom line? You'll do better if you can take a joke.

The study looked at three different approaches to humor: gelotophobia (entirely unrelated to a deep-seated fear of gelato; instead, this is the fear of being laughed at), gelotophilia (the joy of being laughed at), and katagelasticism (the joy of laughing at others). People can have mixtures of these qualities in varying degrees, but some people mostly enjoy being laughed at, mostly enjoy laughing at others, or mostly hate being laughed at.

Three attitudes toward laughter

Gelotophobes are, as you might expect, kind of a bummer. Prior research has shown about 10% of people experience a fear of laughter bordering on paranoia. When they hear people laughing in public, their first thought is "Are they laughing at me?" They have trouble distinguishing between laughter that has positive connotations ("Your shirt is hilarious!") and laughter with negative connotations ("Your shirt is ridiculous!"). Uncertain of the laugher's intentions, they assume malicious intent.

Katagelastic people are, in short, jerks. They enjoy calling people out and mocking others. A gelotophobe's hell is full of katagelastic people. Of course, there's some variation in the flavor of katagelastic people—some are harmless pranksters, while others are truly mean-spirited. They're of the opinion that laughing at others is a natural part of life, and, if the butt of their jokes doesn't like it, they should fight back. As a result, katagelastic people usually can both dish it out and take it.

The real gems are gelotophiliacs—those people who get a kick out of being laughed at. This quality might sound like masochism, but its really borne out of a sense of humility and humor. Unlike gelotophobes, gelotophiliacs find laughter as a positive thing, and they seek it out. These are your class clowns and stand-up comedians. Self-deprecation is a gelotophiliac's bread and butter.

How does this work in a relationship?

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The researchers found that gelotophiliacs were more likely to expect their relationships to last a long time.

To figure out which sense of humor performed best in a relationship, the researchers first gave 154 heterosexual couples a questionnaire designed to identify people as mostly gelotophobic, gelotophilic, or katagelastic. Then, they administered two other questionnaires designed to measure the quality of couples' relationships. These evaluated relationship dimensions like sexuality, fascination, communication, overall happiness, and similar variables.

First, the researchers found that birds of a feather do indeed flock together. Most couples had similar scores in each humor category.

Broadly, the results broke down much in the way one would think. Gelotophobes—who tend to perceive themselves as unattractive and generally underestimate themselves—were less sexually satisfied, did not trust their partners very much, and felt constrained by their relationship. Overall, they were fairly unhappy. Living life thinking that everybody is secretly mocking you tends to do that.

Interestingly, katagelasticism was unrelated to relationship satisfaction. It seems like couples that enjoy making fun of one another are just as likely to be blissfully content or miserable. However, katagelastic couples did have more arguments, which is kind of a natural consequence of constantly making jokes at your partner's expense. In addition, when the man in the relationship was katagelastic, both he and his female partner were less sexually satisfied.

Gelotophilic couples were made in the shade. They reported significantly higher relationship satisfaction and happiness. But this result becomes a little more nuanced when we start looking at the two sexes.

Overall, only women were more satisfied in their relationship when they were gelotophilic. They reported being more attracted to their partners and sexually satisfied. What's more, the man in the relationship was also more sexually satisfied and felt a stronger sense of togetherness when their female partner was gelotophilic. There was little effect on relationship quality when the man enjoyed being laughed at.

How can you develop healthy humor habits?

For gelotophobes, being in a happy relationship might be less of a priority than getting away from the feeling that everybody is ridiculing them. While everybody dislikes being laughed at to some degree, some people have such an aversion to the experience that it can be considered a real handicap, like any other phobia. Unfortunately, this type of phobia has only recently been recognized, and effective treatments are still being developed. Just as with other phobias, however, it is believed that gelotophobia can be treated and ameliorated.

As for developing a better sense of humor, research has shown that, while there are some genetic components to humor that make somebody more inclined to appreciate a good joke, your genes aren't the end-all-be-all. Humor is just as much a product of nature as it is nurture, so there's hope out there for those of you who hear crickets more than laughs. As for how you go about developing that sense of humor? Well, if we knew that, we'd all be comedians.



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