I didn’t get the importance of laughter until I was flat on the floor.
Look at any list of the top qualities people want in a relationship, and sense of humor is right up there. Ask your friends, single or married, what they want or appreciate in a partner, and it’s likely they’ll mention a sense of humor. The dating site that focuses most on long-term relationships, eHarmony, lists a sense of humor in its top seven qualities of an ideal partner. My own short foray into online dating proved that “sense of humor” is one of our most common needs when selecting a mate, and also one of the main ways we market ourselves to others.
I never understood it. Why would someone need their partner to provide a sense of humor when you can get humor in so many places? Partners are for emotional support, sexual intimacy, affection, love, and sharing of burdens. You need a partner who is honest, emotionally available, dependable. If you want to laugh, watch SNL, cue up Louis CK on Netflix, read The Onion—or just scroll through Facebook most days.
Certainly it didn’t play into my selection of any of the boyfriends of my youth, or of my ex-husband, with whom I shared nearly 20 years. He did happen to have a quietly intelligent sense of humor, but I never thought about it. I would describe both of us as serious people at our cores: a stoic, kind man and a melancholy, sensitive woman. I remember looking at a picture of us during our first year of dating, taken at a wedding, surprised at how wide he was smiling. I hadn’t ever seen all his teeth before.
Truth be told, I didn’t inspire much laughter in our house. I was in therapy a lot, then physically ill a few years, and always a super-ambitious, hard-working, Type A personality. I noticed though, that even during my hard times, my friends often commented on how funny I was—which perplexed me. I never saw myself as funny. It’s possible they were seeing a more socially attuned, “on” version of me that I simply didn’t bother with at home.
But as I aged, I lightened up. I found myself not only laughing but teasing my husband more often, even about some of our intractable issues. We enjoyed each other’s company but only shared a good hard chuckle maybe a couple of times a year. I often cracked jokes at which he didn’t laugh. Then I’d say, “Come on honey, you have to admit, that was funny.” To which he’d respond, “You’re definitely funnier than you used to be.”
When I met my current boyfriend—online, of course—I was looking for all kinds of signs as to whether we should be together. The first came when he wrote me the love letter to end all love letters. I closed the envelope and thought, “I want to be buried with this letter.” Another arrived in the mail. One Saturday on a whim, he did an amateur tarot reading for me, a spread that ended with “The Sun,” an extremely auspicious card. The following week, I opened a book that was mailed to my office and the same card dropped out; the author had inserted it as a bookmark.
But the clincher was how much I laughed with him. One night he capped off a romantic moment by asking, in a dreamy way, “Where did you come from?” Of course I didn’t know how to answer that; I was simply beaming from hearing the question asked of me, as if I were a unicorn or his own little Daenerys Targaryen. I opened my mouth to say something, I’m not sure what, but he put his hand up like a stop signal, commanding, “Don’t say Scranton!” (I’m not literally from Scranton, but close enough that we often joked about it—The Office, Joe Biden, and me.)
Something about the timing, or just the image of my Coal Belt hometown clashing against the romantic setting, made me burst into laughter, which prompted him and spiraled us into what felt like 10 straight minutes of stomach-clenching, snot-flying hysterics. I was flat on the carpet by the end of it, him collapsed nearby in an armchair, as if a band of elves had just invaded the living room and taken off with our wits. I could barely breathe. The uproar had cleansed me down to the cellular level.
Several years into our relationship, laughter has saved our behinds more than once: to break the heavy energy of a fight, during stressful times, on long monotonous car rides. It’s not jokes, per se, that keep things afloat; it’s a tendency to goofiness, a sense of fun, a willingness to tease and act playful. I think I was thrown all those years by the phrase “sense of humor” implying some kind of stand-up routine. For me, it’s more about an exchange of playful energy. I can often feel how my boyfriend’s silliness boosts me mentally and physically during my late-afternoon slump. I can see how my teasing remarks lift his mood when he’s overworked. He’s always telling me how funny I am. If I had to list his top five qualities, sense of humor would be right up there.
I get it now. It took several decades and a band of elves, but I finally understand why everyone wants laughter from the person with whom they start and end their days.