Ask almost anyone what they’re looking for in a romantic partner, and “a sense of humor” is bound to be toward the top of their list. But how important is humor when it comes to a strong relationship? And does the type of humor matter?

Researchers at the University of Western Ontario recently tried to find out. They studied nearly 100 couples, focusing on the role of two forms of humor in their relationship: affiliative humor (using comments, jokes, or witty banter to make someone laugh or feel better when they’re down) and aggressive humor (using sarcasm or ridicule to criticize or put someone down without regard for their feelings).

All couples in the study had been dating for at least three months. The researchers gave study participants a questionnaire measuring their own and their partner’s style of humor, as well as their satisfaction with their relationship. Two weeks later, the couples returned to the researchers’ lab and were asked to discuss an unresolved conflict that had arisen over those previous 14 days. The researchers observed the couples during their discussion in the lab and analyzed how they used affiliative and aggressive humor. They also filmed the discussions and later had a team of observers watch the tapes to rate how funny each partner was during the conversation.

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The results, recently published in the journal Personal Relationships, showed that people who used affiliative humor were rated just as funny as people who used aggressive humor. But people who reported greater satisfaction with their relationship had partners who used more affiliative humor and less aggressive humor while resolving their conflict. What’s more, when people used affiliative humor while discussing their problem, their partners reported feeling closer to them afterwards; when people used more aggressive humor, their partners reported feeling less close to them. The researchers also found that while men and women used the same amount of aggressive humor during the discussions, men tended to use more affiliative humor than women while resolving their problems.

The researchers caution that they don’t yet know whether affiliative humor leads to satisfying relationships, or the other way around. “When people feel happy with their relationship, they are more likely to engage in pro-relationship behaviors, such as affiliative humor,” says Loren Campbell, the study’s lead author. “On the other hand, people who use affiliative humor more often are probably more likely to have partners who appreciate their humor and thus feel more positively about the relationship.”

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