(Today’s blog originally appeared in The Friendship Doctor column in Psychology Today on May 6, 2011. Thanks so much to The Friendship Doctor herself, Irene Levine, Ph.D., for suggesting the interview originally and allowing me to repost it here. Dr. Levine is a psychologist, professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, and the author of “Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.” Visit Dr. Levine’s web site, www.thefriendshipblog.com.)
Irene: One gauge of a healthy friendship is the ability to share gut-wrenching laughter. Jokes between best friends come effortlessly—-and even in situations that appear dire, close friends are able to find a touch of levity that diffuses stress and leaves both of them feeling better.
It’s probably not surprising that many of my best friends tend to enjoy the same sitcoms as I do: Curb Your Enthusiasm, Modern Family, and Thirty Rock (and re-runs of Raymond and Seinfeld) are close to the top of our lists. It’s another example of the joy of finding someone who “gets you” and sees the world in the same way.
Good humor can, in fact, create and cement friendships; conversely, caustic humor can signal toxicity. So I was especially happy to speak to my colleague, humorist Judy Gruen, to get her take on its significance to friendship:
Judy, what role does humor play in female friendships?
Women bond together in friendship over all kinds of things, from sharing secrets about our relationships, to how often we dip into the Ben & Jerry’s during midnight reconnaissance missions to the freezer, to our true weights.
Adding laughter added to the mix sweetens the pot and makes the bond even stronger than industrial-strength epoxy. When we laugh together over life, (with or without shared eye-rolling), it’s a way of saying, “Yes! I relate to that, too!”
Laughter can reassure us that we are not alone in our frustrations at waiting two hours for a live, albeit non-English-speaking, customer service rep to answer our call – from Bangalore. I am frequently amazed at how many of my readers consider me their friend or even a long-lost sister because my columns have made them laugh. They appreciate that I admit my own foibles and frustrations; it helps bond us, even though we’ve never met. And when they buy my books as a result, I feel close to them, too!
Do women have to share a sense of humor to connect?
I’m sure there are women bonded by glumness, but if you’ve got a choice, why not connect through lightness and mirth instead? I feel sorry for people who were born with congenital Humor Deficiency Syndrome and I can’t imagine what those relationships are like. Is anyone researching a cure for this dreaded disease?
How can humor enhance friendships?
Humor is a rapid-fire tension-defuser. For example, if one woman is venting about a problem at work, in her marriage, or with her teenager, a judicious injection of humor can help her feel better about the situation. It’s therapeutic. I’m not talking about sarcastic humor, which would only add to her pain. I’m talking about a more gentle humor that’s a way of saying, “It’s okay, girlfriend. This too shall pass.” Sarcastic humor can work if you are talking about things that don’t touch you personally, or sometimes, where you are sure to agree.
Can humor ever be toxic to a relationship?
Like Agent Orange! Humor only hits the mark when it has a point of view, but if that point of view is nasty, cynical, hostile, or insensitive to an individual’s circumstances, it can really cause serious damage. You can wound people deeply with barbed assaults that are supposedly “humorous.”
Humor is like medicine – it can have negative side effects if mixed with the wrong personality and sensibilities. Let’s be honest: men’s egos are famously sensitive. A woman making jokes at her husband’s expense, especially if the topic relates at all to something he considers part of his manliness (his career, qualities as a husband, skill at white water rafting) can erode that relationship and require major mea culpas. Women have their sensitive spots, too. You’d want to tread very carefully when joking about how difficult it is to find a great guy to marry when you know your friend is in deep pain over her single state.
When someone is hurting, your humor has to build in encouragement and sensitivity. You could joke, for example, about all the places your friend hasn’t yet gone to where she might meet a solid, dependable guy, like the UPS station or an Army recruiting station. You can joke about sending her ex a photo of her looking stunning in the wedding dress she’ll wear when she does get married. That’s humor that reassures and says, “I believe in you.” If you know your friends enjoy more pointed barbs, go for it, but you have to know your audience.
When does humor cross the line?
When it causes pain, includes anger or hostility, or is mean-spirited.
How can women handle a relationship that’s too serious?
Some women thrive on relationship intensity, so that’s something every individual needs to assess. As for me, if there’s no potential for laughter in a relationship, I’m outta there.
Judy Gruen’s latest book, Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping, provides laughter all year round. Catch up on other Mirth and Meaning blogs you may have missed on judygruen.com