In the 25th installment of SAGE’s Relationship Matters podcast, hosted by Dr. Bjarne Holmes of Champlain College, Dr. Maryhope Howland (a former PhD student at the University of Minnesota; now at Kent State University) talks about her research on how people with different attachment styles use humor in relationships.
Individuals high in attachment security are comfortable getting close to others and with having others get close to them; they also find relationships enjoyable and easy-going. In contrast, those with insecure attachments doubt whether their partners will be there for them in times of need. There are at least two strategies for dealing with this attachment insecurity: (a) become preoccupied with relational partners by being overly sensitive to partner’s emotional moves and developing a sustained expectation that partner’s will eventually betray or abandon them (i.e., attachment anxiety), and/or (b) avoid developing relationships of any significant emotional depth to avoid getting hurt in the first place, which often leads insecurely attached individuals to become emotionally aloof, overly fixated with self-reliance, and emotionally unavailable to others in times of need (i.e., attachment avoidance).
Dr. Howland and her collaborator, Dr. Jeff Simpson (University of Minnesota) wanted to know whether people with these varying attachment strategies use humor differently in relationships and interpret their partners’ attempts at humor differently. Specifically, they considered two types of humor: affiliative humor and aggressive humor.
Howland explains, “Affiliative humor is just the good, happy, positive blend of good humor. It’s humor that we use to really make our partners laugh and laugh with our partner, to maybe lighten the mood or bring some levity to what might be a stressful situation… Aggressive humor is when we use humor to disguise criticism or a disparaging comment. It’s humor that’s used to put down the partner and ridicule them. It’s humor that may be used in an offensive way of to get your own point across, and it isn’t necessarily used as a way to get your partner to laugh.”
So how is this all related to attachment?
Howland continues, “If you can imagine if you are expecting support in a relationship and you are vulnerable and your partner uses this kind of aggressive humor, it can be jarring. When we sit back and think about who will this be the most jarring for it makes sense to think about attachment.”
Specifically, for those with high attachment anxiety, aggressive humor did the greatest damage. From this perspective, individuals high in anxiety partnered with emotionally aloof individuals high in attachment avoidance may be in the worst situation.
An interesting contrast in the study however was that individuals who were secure in the their attachment were not bothered by aggressive humor. In fact, when delivered with good timing, aggressive humor to these people can actually function to lighten the mood. Basically, when you’re securely attached you trust your partner’s intentions and give them the benefit of the doubt. As a result, you’re buffered from potential negative aspects of aggressive humor. Howland gives an example from the study of a woman who was nervous to speak with her mother. Her partner responds sarcastically, “take a sedative and have a glass of wine before calling her”, upon which both burst out laughing. Howland explains, “That kind of comment could go awry. He obviously knew his partner well and it lightened the mood. They both found it funny and it just lifted the mood for a moment.”