Nails on a chalkboard. Someone vomiting in the next stall over. “Friday” by singer Rebecca Black. Another cringe-inducing (non)sound to add to this list: the silence of a flat-landed joke…on a date.
I would know. During my last date, every single one of my jokes went unacknowledged. I didn’t even earn the “I see you trying to be funny” finger-wiggle. What’s worse? When she finally did laugh, it was in response to something I’d said with complete and utter sincerity. B-R-U-T-A-L.
When she asked to see me again, I cited the classic “I think we’re looking for different things.” But I couldn’t help but wonder: is a mismatched sense of humor really a reason to *not* to date someone? She clearly didn’t think so. So, I called up my go-to relationship therapists and posed my Q.
Knock, Knock…Who’s There?
“Humor is a form of communication,” says Shadeen Francis, LMFT, a relationship and marriage therapist. “As with other styles of communication, you don’t have to think and speak in the exact same way.” But the more similarly you communicate, the easier (and, in this case, more fun!) your conversations will be.
So, does it matter? “It depends,” Francis says. “Is it important to you that your partner can make you laugh or thinks you’re funny? Then having similar or compatible senses of humor is important.” But it’s not important if, well, it’s not!
For me, having a shared sense of humor is way high up on my Things I Want In A Partner list. Same for David G., a straight man in his early 30s who says, “It’s downright demoralizing for me when my jokes land flat again and again and again when I’m in the early stages of dating someone, it makes me feel like we’re on different wavelengths.” Integrative holistic psychotherapist Rebecca Hendrix, LMFT, says this makes sense: “Similar sense[s] of humor are one way to feel like our partners ‘get’ us.”
If sharing a sense of humor is important to you, Francis suggests honoring that. “If the criterion goes unmet, over time it will become a source of conflict, and if that conflict remains unresolved, you may begin to feel like [you and your partner] don’t have enough in common to stay together,” she says.
For other daters, different qualities — like strong verbal communication skills, light-heartedness, or ambition — may stand out as being more important.
Marli E., a straight woman in her early 30s, values verbal communication over shared humor. “My partner has a sarcastic sense of humor, but I have a sense of humor that’s punny,” she says. Sometimes she finds his sarcasm rude, or he finds her puns annoying. But, she says, “We communicate well when our sense of humor doesn’t align, so it works”.
Rachel T., a queer woman in her late 20s, prioritizes playfulness. “Even though my partner and I don’t share the same humor style, I love that she’s always laughing and isn’t too serious,” she says.
Haha Or Ouch?
One thing that all experts brought up is the thin line between a sarcastic joke and mean comment — and how that can factor into relationship satisfaction. According to Hendrix, sarcasm becomes mean when it’s rooted in underlying feelings resentment, frustration, anger, or hurt. When the ‘joke’ is being used to passive aggressively communicate a grievance, it veers into mean territory,” Francis adds.
Don’t read this wrong: Sarcasm can be funny. But for it to land as funny, the ‘receiver’ has to be able to pick it up right away and know you’re joking, says Courtney Glashow, LCSW, founder and psychotherapist of Anchor Therapy LLC. “If a sarcastic joke is consistently misunderstood or hurts your partner, it’s a relationship problem.”
Cassie B., a queer lesbian in her late 20s who recently moved in with her partner says her girlfriend’s jokes can be biting. “I can take it to a certain extent, but there’s a line where my feelings start to get hurt,” she says. Still, they make it work. “We’ve had a lot of discussions around jokes that she can make with me versus jokes that she should save for her best friend.”
However, not all folks are able (or willing) to work through the mismatch. “Growing up, my dad used sarcasm in a way that was really painful. So now I try to avoid dating guys who rely on sarcasm to communicate because I fing it triggering,” Trevor F., a gay man in his early 30s, says. That’s totally OK, too, says Francis. “If sarcasm has been used a distancing tool in the past, being a relationship with a sarcastic person could make you feel unsafe.”
The Punch Line
Your sense of humor is actually a shape-shifter. “It’s constantly being influenced by the media we consume, the cultures we become part of, our experiences, our routines, and who we spend time with,” explains Francis.
And that means even if you come into the relationship with different senses of humor, it’s possible to cultivate a shared sense of humor over time. “There is room to grow toward more similar humor styles and create a mutual language of fun and inside jokes,” she says. In fact, one study out of The University of Kansas found that the ability to create humor together was more strongly correlated with relationship satisfaction than the ability to make (or take) a joke.
Ultimately, the question of humor’s importance comes down to your individual valuation of a shared sense of humor and how compatible you are in other arenas. “In general, we say that people need to be 80% compatible for the relationship to work,” says Hendrix. “If having the same or similar sense of humor as your partner isn’t the most important to you and you’re compatible in other ways, then it’s not important.”
Now, if you need me I’ll be eliciting laughter emojis in my Tinder messages. Or at the very least, trying to.