Is laughter the answer to a happy marriage? It all depends on the type of laughter according to Jane Austen.

February 05, 2018
Is laughter the answer to a happy marriage?  It all depends on the type of laughter according to Jane Austen.
Peppermint teaSara Smile by Hall & Oates

Dear Erica,

My girlfriend and I come from vastly different backgrounds, but we always make each other laugh.  Everyone always says that humour is the most important thing in a marriage.  Do you think that’s true?

Intrigued in Irvine

Dear Intrigued in Irvine,

My answer is a surprising Yes and NO.  I would agree that a good sense of humour is extremely important in a marriage but as Jane Austen shows in Pride and Prejudice, the nature of the humour we use in our relationships makes a big difference.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy’s sister is amazed at the way, his new bride, Elizabeth teases her usually stiff and overbearing brother.  Austen writes, “Georgiana had the highest opinion in the world of Elizabeth; though at first she often listened with an astonishment bordering on alarm at her lively, sportive, manner of talking to her brother.”

There is no doubt that women and men are attracted to people who can make us laugh.  In Jane Austen’s Emma, the rakish Frank Churchill attracted both Emma and Jane Fairfax because of his light-hearted charm and wit.  As W.H. Auden wrote,  “Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.”

However, the way Mr. Bennett mocks his foolish wife in Pride and Prejudice, while hilarious to the reader, does nothing to strengthen their bond.  And research has gone on to back that up.   Jeffrey Hall, a professor at the University of Kansas, “warns a mate not to make his or her partner the butt of a joke.”1  The research shows that being “funny” or the ability “to make a joke out of anything is not strongly related to relationship satisfaction. What is strongly related to relationship satisfaction is the humor that couples create together.”2 

As such, I wanted to revisit one of my favourite scenes in 19th century literature, the last few lines in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.  When Margaret and John finally admit their love for each other, he teases her about her snobby and disapproving aunt and insists “her first exclamation will be, "That man!"'  And Margaret’s very charming response is “Hush!  or I shall try and show you your mother's indignant tones as she says, "That woman!"' Margaret and John’s good natured teasing and ability to see the humour in their in-laws disapproval unites them rather than pits one against the other.  And like Elizabeth and Darcy, you are left with the impression that their mutual respect coupled with a shared sense of humour guarantees a happily ever after.

So, my answer to your question, which Austen and Gaskell must have known, and Professor Hall has proven, is that humour is integral to a marriage, but only if it reflects a shared sense of humour rather than a desire to belittle your partner.