Marriage is a Joke

One person? For a lifetime? And complete fidelity? You’ve gotta be kidding. Well, yeah, you kind of do have to be kidding. Joking. Laughing. Delighting. At least, that’s what the scientists say…

marriage is a joke

Photo Credit: boskizzi via Compfight cc

My honeymoon was a disaster. We were two poor graduate students amazed at how cheap it was to stay in an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica at the end of October. It seemed too good to be true.

It was.

Jamaica in October is cheap because it’s hurricane season, and you never know what you’re going to get. We got a hurricane. For that week, the sun didn’t exist, the winds whipped sand like a loofa-by-God, and it rained incessantly. I suppose a honeymoon in the midst of a tropical storm can still be romantic, if you make all the right moves.

But my first move on the honeymoon was decidedly not the right one.

While eating our first dinner together as a married couple, I got a piece of food stuck in my teeth. Feeling uncomfortable, I excused myself to our nearby hotel room and flossed it out. Marveling at the size of it, I left it sitting beside the sink so my new bride could see it, too. (I know, I know.) And then I returned to dinner.

Unfortunately, the ant population in Jamaica at the end of October functions quite differently than their North American brethren. In October, Jamaican ants are hungry.

Six Decades of Laughter

How does anyone stay married?

What I mean is, once we really get to know our partners, once we spend our daily lives with them and get to know their real quirks and idiosyncracies, once we know how they look when no one else is looking, once we’ve lived in their mess and with their mistakes, why does anyone choose to remain lifelong companions?

My wife’s grandparents have been married for sixty-three years. Last summer, while dining with them in their home, my wife and I asked them, “What is the key to remaining together for more than six decades?”

This bride of more than sixty years became thoughtful and quiet. A short pause. And then she aged in reverse as a wide smile dawned on her face and she exclaimed, “Look at the two of us! Who else would have us?!” Through a gale of laughter, she added, “We couldn’t get divorced—we only have one car!”

Across the table, her husband of sixty-three years watched and listened and the corners of his mouth turned upward with fondness for his constant bride. And then he slyly offered his own opinion, “The key to marriage is learning how to dis-communicate.”

Another eruption of laughter as we enjoyed the joke that was no joke. Because although the words were a joke, the way in which the words were being shared was no joke at all:

They were laughing about life.

They were enjoying each other.

They were showing us the secret to six decades of marriage: laughter and delight in the one we have committed to love, for better or worse.

Why Scientists Say the Best Marriages are a Joke

Dr. John Gottman is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, and he has dedicated his life to studying marriage. When couples come to his laboratory, they participate in an interview in which they tell the story of their relationship. Unbeknownst to the couples, how they respond to the first questions in the interview is a strong predictor of whether or not they will stay together. Not what they say. But how they say it.

The couples who recall the early days of their relationship—the good and the bad times—with smiles and laughter and softness are more likely to stay married. Marriage is hard, but the success of a marriage isn’t related to how hard it is. Rather, marriages hinge upon how hard we laugh about them.

It seems “rose-colored glasses” have gotten a bad rap. Because the rose-colored glasses through which we first gazed upon our partner were not a distortion of the truth—they gave us a window into the whole truth. A window of grace through which we saw our beloved in all of their mess and delighted in them anyway.

It seems the key to a rich, enduring marriage is the daily choice to keep wearing our rose-colored glasses, to view our beloved through the eyes of grace.

Oftentimes, when it feels like our partner has changed, it’s simply not true. Oftentimes, they haven’t changed—we have: we’ve become more critical, more demanding, less interested in who they are and more interested in who we want them to be. If our spouse married us in part because we made them laugh and we’ve quit trying to make them smile, then we’ve changed the marriage contract.

We need to put our rose-colored glasses on again, to crack open the long shut window of grace and behold once again the good and beautiful parts of the person we love, to remember the reasons we fell in love in the first place, to remember the parts of them that now make us crazy used to make us laugh.

The Last Laugh

Almost twelve years after I left a piece of half-masticated food on our honeymoon sink only to return hours later to find a stream of ants pouring through the window and into our hotel room, my wife is telling the story of the debacle to friends at our supper table. And as she tells the story, she smiles and delights in one of my more disgusting moments. She thinks our honeymoon was a joke and, in her laughter about it, I hear the bedrock of a marriage.

When we stubbornly claim the eyes of grace and steadfastly enjoy the messy joke of life and marriage and our beloved, before you know it, sixty years have slipped by. You end up with one car and one person and one marriage and a lifetime of delight.

When that happens, marriage is indeed a joke. And two lovers get to have the last laugh. Together.

Question: What do you think is the key to keeping laughter and delight in a marriage? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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 My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is a hopeful, redemptive vision for marriages and for people. Here’s an excerpt:

Places of unconditional love in this commodified world are, quite simply, pockets of uprising. Marriage is a call to this kind of rebellious love—an opportunity for souls to learn the insurrectional art of unconditional love and sacrifice. It is a training ground—a rebel training camp for a people preparing to invade a broken, aching world with a grace-filled love. ” 

The Marriage Manifesto is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook for free.

The book is also available for Kindle and Nook.

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Next Post: “Is Anyone Else Tired of Playing It Safe?”

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Meg Wa Mbatia

    Sooo true. Five years in marriage and its the laughter that sees us through the hard times!

  • Lisa Bartelt

    “It seems the key to a rich, enduring marriage is the daily choice to keep wearing our rose-colored glasses, to view our beloved through the eyes of grace.”
    Ab.So.Lute.Ly.
    There’s so much I could say about this post in relation to my marriage. I’ll be blogging about some of it next month, but let me just say this now: We’ve been married for six and a half years. The first three years of our marriage were a shadow of what marriage was meant to be, and honestly, they were kind of a nightmare when I look back on them. I learned some things about my husband’s past that were really hard to deal with. A few years after that, we almost lost our marriage because of a choice he made. And through it all, looking at him with grace was what was happening and I didn’t really know it. (And I say that with the disclaimer that it was God working through me. I could not have accomplished it on my own. I still don’t understand it sometimes.)
    I connected with this post so much. Phil and I laugh together about a lot of things, and his quirkiness (and my acceptance of it and him) are what drew us together in the first place. I thought when we got married that a lifetime of marriage was a given because neither of us “believed in” divorce. Now, though, I see that decades of marriage can happen without joy, as patient (or not so patient) endurance. I’d rather be like the couple you talked about. Still laughing and loving sixty years later.
    Thanks for writing this post.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks for sharing this, Lisa. I’m looking forward to reading more about it next month! Are you going to do it like the serial installments of the job search story? Loved that!

      • Lisa Bartelt

        Oh, thanks. Not this time! But I’ll have to try that again with another story.

  • Ashley Buck

    I married my best friend on 5th October this year. We met on a Christian dating website and married within 18 months of knowing one another. We see marriage as a triangle with God at the top, and either one of us on the parallel line below on each corner. If we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, and we humble ourselves showing lots of grace (as you call it the ‘window of grace’) we will succeed in our marriage. Learning to use the love that Jesus showed the world and applying this unconditional love to one another is essential in marriage as well as in the world. To learn one another’s love languages is also VERY important, as this ensures you know what the other one looks for in a relationship. As Christians we do make mistakes and my wife and I have both made many, but the love of God, his goodness, mercy and grace is upon us abundantly. You can’t always look at things from a joking perspective either, as a level of seriousness and compassion are essential too. I strongly believe that my Christian faith and all it stands for is essential in life including marriage.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Congratulations, Ashley! And so funny that you mentioned the Love Languages. The author, Gary Chapman, gave a talk about an hour ago just a few blocks from my house! That book is a great read for any young couple.

  • Dave Wright

    Shannon and have been married now for 23 years. They havent all been smooth, but we can predict each other. We think think alike, literally, and sometimes at the same time. She is a part of me that I cannot live without, and vice versa. But, you already knew that. 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Dave, I don’t care how much I know that, I love hearing it again! So happy for the two of you and the way all of your hard work is bearing fruit in relationship to one another.

  • JJ

    Love this! Once again you knocked it out of the ballpark – thank you!

  • Catharine Phillips

    Yep, We’ve had plenty of goobers left next to the sink, but the times when my beloved invites me out front to listen to the way the rain falls through the leaves, or see it run a particular way down the windshield, or this morning, marveling at the return of the juncos to our backyard… or yesterday texting me that the sandhills are headed my direction… there’s nothing like the laughter of recognition.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Just love how attentive you and your husband are too the world around you and the ways that comes out in your writing. Laughter of recognition is a good phrase, Catharine. I like it.

  • Denise Bennett

    my husband and I have been married for 31 years. He still makes me laugh. Him: “You’re so easily amused.” Me: “Good thing for you, buddy!” We both love puns and try to come up with the most outrageous ones possible on a given topic. We make up stupid names for the cats and sing ridiculous songs to them too. We used to do that with the kids but they’re in their 20’s now. I think not taking ourselves too seriously is the key. It is definitely a growing edge for me, the drama queen, but compassion for self and the other enables us to laugh rather than snarl when life inevitably does not go the way we planned.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Denise, thanks for this: “compassion for self and the other enables us to laugh.” I like the idea of exploring, what is it that helps some couples laugh at the mess while other couples snarl?

  • Bonnie N.

    I could relate. Our wedding last July was beautiful, but the
    honeymoon no! My husband ended up in ER in Portland (we’re from California),
    because of a bad reaction to some meds he was taking. We are still not laughing
    about that, but we’ve learned to lighten up.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Bonnie, congratulations on your marriage! And please know, we didn’t laugh about our honeymoon within the first year, either. : )

  • Bonnie N.

    I can remember the first time he made me laugh. I’ve been hooked ever since.

  • Ndeto Kairu

    Thank you Dr. Kelly. I enjoy and learn a lot from your sharing and writing.After 30+ years of marriage I have learned that it is my attitude that decides my world. I laugh a lot at myself and the world around me and so true that laughter is the best medicine.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Ndeto! When two people who have made that kind of decision about attitude get together for a lifetime, amazing things can happen. Blessings to you both!

  • Jennifer Newell

    We celebrated 23 yrs last weekend. Over the years I have learned you can either laugh about it or cry about it. Sometimes in the moment there are tears but years later it can be a source of laughter. My honeymoon was in Maui, Hawaii and it rained everyday. The funniest part is that the pictures looked more beautiful to me afterwards than when I was there in person. However, during the most frustrating time of not having fun in the sun, we did stumble upon a double rainbow and it was an incredible sight. Hanging on to the little delights along the way help you keep smiling when times are tough.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Congratulations, Jenn! And great point: when we can turn our initial tears into laughter over the years, that is crucial.

  • Laura

    Wow! The perfect question for me to challenge myself about how I’m feeling, i.e., married for 8 years, am feeling fed up, annoyed and willfully detached. And yet based on this question and the real events from a previous evening when much laughter ensued between us and a dear friend…I think part of the answer might be “laughter and delight is influenced by learning from and how we tell the story together”. Let me explain, in my husband retelling of a “story” (his side) to our good friend about a messy and ridiculous argument that involved the destruction of several table lamps in our very small and modest apartment…and me finishing the “story” (my side) with an quip about “for someone who hates overhead lighting it sure looks like you’re going to have to put up with it for awhile until I can get us some lamps”…the gut wrenching laughter that ensued for our friend and my husband and myself was truly sublime but not just because of a slapstick recall of destroyed furniture. It was sublime because it was because of our dear friend, who really pointed something out to me that hit home. As she said, “I think it’s really great that you two can really laugh about the fall out of what sounds like a pretty heated moment at that time”. Bless her! The truth is I had never thought of it that way. So, because of a dear friend looking in from outside, me standing back and reflecting upon your question Dr. Flanagan, and the fact that my husband and I are the only ones who can know our story together…then our ability to keep the laughter and delight in our marriage must depend in part, on learning from and how we tell the story together.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Great point, Laura, and one I hadn’t thought of. Maybe the ability to reflect back on hard times with laughter is a reflection of building the narrative together over the ensuing years. The laughter is the end product of being willing to retell our messy parts together over time. Great food for thought!

      • Laura

        Yes and yes! Though I personally would be more modest about the “being willing” part as unbeknownst to me, the spontenous laughter brought me to a new place where I could ponder and look back and then feel relief about acknowledging that my messy self could and was moving forwards!

  • uncle kimmy

    There is no question that being able to laugh both at and with eachother is the constant refresher of the water in the well. Life in a marriage is stressful for everyone, and the laughter at the causes of the stress is the best stress-buster.

    Without we would drown in our personal swamp of despond. Instead we laugh and somehow manage to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again!

  • sharon clarke

    Stay young enjoying each other company. Make laughter the best way to pass any obstacles. And stay committed.

  • Vibe4theSoul

    This reminds me of two different definitions of a joke, which is are you laughing WITH a person, or are you laughing AT a person… 1) Is to laugh WITH the person and show grace and saying that the person who had a short fall, still has equal value with you. and 2) Is to laugh AT the person showing that you think your above the other person, making them feel they are less than you are.

  • Victoria

    15 yrs, thinking I could help him, pity, prayer and stability for the kids. Wish I had the wisdom and insight I have today 16 years ago. Hope and pray to instill the wisdom from places like these as the years go on. As a side note, laughing and having fun together has never been part of our marriage and probably never will be.

  • Janet

    Have been best friends with my husband for 43 years and married for almost 40. Men need supervision and have to be watched :-). The “secret” to our long lasting love is — both my husband and myself laugh at the him.
    When I recently shared this with a justice of the peace, she exclaimed that was a wonderful idea since she oftentimes wants to strangle her husband. Better to laugh at your man……than be tried, convicted and incarcerated. Lol

  • May Lady

    When you can laugh in your marriage that you can laugh in other problems in your life. I have been married for 24 years. My husband traditionally asked my parents first and after they said no, he send them massage through our friends for 3 years to finally got their acceptance! 2 or 3 years after our marriage he started to complaining a lot and I started to get his complains SERIOUSLY.
    From that moment to next 20 years he wanted to get divorce! but did not act to actually doing that. We have a son who born 1 year after marriage and we keep live together because of him.
    In year 2012 things got worse and my husband brought me papers for divorce and I refused to sign them. This act was like fire extinguisher! He stop his bad and negative talks.
    When I think deeply, I realized that if I would not take his complains seriously in the first years of our marriage and laughed at them, I would not waste 20 years of our lives in a loveless relationship.
    Now, that I am easy going and more relax, we have a very good life together!
    Final words: The key of keeping marriage strong is in the hands of women. They have deeper and more complicated thoughts and emotions. Men’s thoughts and emotions are more superficially and easy to manipulate. So a woman can keep the marriage if SHE WANTS!

  • Jonathan State

    I think that the key is putting Jesus first in each of your lives and then looking at each other as second. When you do this I think that it takes the pressure off seeing your wife or husband as the most most important thing in your life. I think knowing that your spouse is held accountable by Jesus means that you can trust them more.

  • Dick Irwin

    My wife of 42 years (in Dec) has the most contagious laugh ever. I affectionately call it her “horse laugh”. That sweet laugh has caused mass hysteria in more than one movie theater, as her laugh is far more entertaining that most punchlines. I’ve made it my mission in life to trigger that horse laugh as often as possible. So far, so good.