H is for Humor
By Zach Brittle, LMHC
When I was in the ninth grade, I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit six times in the movie theater. I have probably watched it at least once a year since then. It is my favorite movie of all time. I am not kidding.
First of all, Bob Hoskins is a genius. He and his thick English accent seamlessly disappear into the character of Eddie Valiant, an alcoholic private investigator in depression-era Hollywood. On top of that he spends half of the movie acting alongside a cartoon rabbit. (It’s an Oscar-worthy performance though he was only nominated for a Golden Globe.)
The film (yes, film) was ahead of its time technologically. It combined live action and animation in a way that is said to have spearheaded the modern era of American animation. It’s also an exercise in collaboration, as several competing studios came together to create a robust “Toon Town” which included our favorite Disney and Warner Brothers characters and even Betty Boop.
But the reason Who Framed Roger Rabbit is my favorite is because of Roger, a scrawny, precocious, hilariously odd yet lovable character - not terribly unlike ninth grade me. And because of Roger’s wife Jessica, a beautiful, sophisticated, classic noir femme fatale, complete with the smoky voice and endless curves. (She’s not bad, she’s just drawn that way.)
Roger is crazy in love with Jessica. Despite the fact that Jessica is way out of Roger’s league, she’s crazy in love with him too. Eddie doesn’t understand it, so he asks her, with more than a little suspicion, “What do you see in that guy anyway?” Jessica responds simply and unapologetically: “He makes me laugh.”
All of a sudden, ninth grade me had hope. Could it be possible that a good sense humor was enough to help me get - and keep - the girl? I think so.
Humor has been woven into our relational DNA since the earliest of days. Aristotle believed that laughter is what separates us from the beasts, and that a baby does not have a soul until the moment it laughs - usually around its 40th day.
If laughter is what makes us human, then humor is a necessary tie that binds us to one another and reminds us that our relationships are designed to bring joy. Monty Python’s John Cleese, who understands humor more than most, says, “A wonderful thing about true laughter is that it just destroys any kind of system of dividing people.”
During the course of his research Dr. Gottman was able to divide couples into two categories: masters and disasters. The disasters were prone toward “systems of dividing,” specifically the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling. The masters had effective strategies for dismantling those systems. Dr. Gottman calls these strategies repair attempts.
Repair attempts are the “secret weapon of emotionally intelligent couples,” according to Dr. Gottman. Repair attempts are “any statement or action that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.” Masters repair early and often using a variety of strategies.
Repairs can be cognitive strategies like compromise, taking a break, or asking for clarity. They can also be emotional repairs like expressing affection, taking responsibility or - you guessed it - using humor.
Humor is a powerful repair technique. It can lower the tension level of an argument, destroy the division between you and your partner, and remind you that you’re human. An artfully deployed inside joke can shift the focus away from your fixed position and toward your shared we-ness. It’s an emotional repair without an emotional conversation.
It’s important to note that humor can also backfire. Humor needs to be balanced with sincerity. If humor is your only strategy, you will dilute its power. Also, any humor that expresses criticism or contempt or belittles the other’s point of view (like sarcasm) will not serve to repair the relationship, but will actually deepen the conflict.
Remember that repair attempts are the secret weapon of emotionally intelligent couples. Humor is the most secret because it’s your secret. As you and your partner build your friendship, and collect experiences, look for the places where comedy shows up. Look for the ridiculous, the surprising, the awkward. Watch Monty Python sketches. Buy a joke book if you have to.
In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Roger literally uses humor to save Jessica’s life. It’s unlikely that any of you will be terrorized by a pack of weasels trying to erase you with toxic Dip, but the symbolism is clear. Relationships are under constant threat of toxic systems. Take it from ninth grade me: A strong sense of humor is a powerful tool.
Q: What did one snowman say to the other snowman?
A: Do you smell carrots?
This is Zach's eighth posting of his Relationship Alphabet column on The Gottman Relationship Blog. If you missed a posting or are reading for the first time, you can catch up on his column here. Zach is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Seattle, WA specializing in couples therapy. You can learn more about Zach and inquire about availability at www.zachbrittle.com.