My Funny Valentine

Those lips, those eyes, that rubber nose: There's nothing more alluring in a mate than a sense of humor, the love experts say.

February 06, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

The guy didn't seem all that funny to Cathy at first. He dressed like a slob, failed to make a dinner reservation, and teased her for spilling food in her lap (only to do the same thing himself). The waitress even had to run the pair down in the street: He hadn't paid the bill.

But when the date was nearly over, and they'd settled down to beers and bluegrass music at the old Cub Hill Inn, Mark Atkinson made her laugh about the night. They laughed and laughed -- and married 10 months later.

"We got the chance to say this was the most ridiculous moment of our lives," recalls Cathy Atkinson, 46, a Cockeysville computer consultant, and mother of two who will celebrate her 18th wedding anniversary in June. "If we couldn't laugh together, we would never have survived."

For those who are thinking of roses, candy, perfume or some other fancy gift to impress your date this Valentine's Day, you might want to think about letting loose with your best punch-line instead.

Laughter, it seems, is the best medicine for an ailing love life -- at least it's what psychologists, behavioral researchers, advice authors and dating services have begun prescribing for their clients.

"Humor is basically a leadership trait. Someone who can use humor is self-assured and is willing to take risks," says Regina Barreca, professor of English at the University of Connecticut and author of several books on humor and dating. "It's not bungee jumping, but it's kind of like emotional bungee jumping -- you're counting on shared ground and generosity from the other person."

When Match.Com, an online dating service, asked its 4,500 singles what attributes they found most attractive in a potential partner, humor polled highest with 33 percent ranking it tops. It was followed by a person's face (26 percent), intelligence (24 percent), body (14 percent) and financial status (1 percent). "We are most attracted to people who make us feel good when we're around them," says Trish McDermott, the company's "vice-president of romance." "It's not rocket science."

A group of University of Louisville students who were shown photographs of the opposite sex -- along with made-up interview transcripts -- found the subjects far more desirable when the transcripts included what researchers considered "humorous, self-deprecating remarks."

"The effects were stronger for the men being evaluated than the women, but it was a factor for both," says Michael R. Cunningham, a Louisville psychology professor and co-author of the 1998 study.

Cunningham notes that other studies he's conducted have consistently shown that humor is a turn-on. It indicates intelligence and a mastery of life, qualities that make a person popular with peers as well as the opposite sex, he says.

"People go for personality over physical attractiveness and wealth," Cunningham says.

Beth Corwin, 30, a Pikesville native, was sitting in a New York bar last month when a stranger walked up and made an amusing remark. She laughed. They talked.

And while she wouldn't normally respond to an advance in a bar, she found the man "intriguing." It turned out he was a Bronx assistant district attorney who performed stand-up comedy at local clubs. They've been dating since.

"He has an interesting way of looking at things," says Corwin, an executive with a public relations firm in Manhattan. "He makes me laugh at myself, but in a good way."

Scientists have long studied what makes men and women attracted to each other. Two of the leading theories involve "similarity and complementarity." We want someone like us -- or at least someone who can off-set our shortcomings.

And so it is with humor. It isn't enough to be funny -- you have to be humorous in a way that is compatible.

In a study conducted at Connecticut College, 30 college couples were shown a series of cartoons, comic strips and jokes and asked to rate them for humor. Men and women who were dating tended to turn in similar scores. The more intimate the couple, the more likely they were to find the same things funny.

"People who share the same kind of humor, this reflects something of their approach to life," says Bernard I. Murstein, the psychology professor who conducted the study in the mid-80s. "There's no such thing as a good joke that everyone believes is good."

Murstein, who retired from the college last year, has spent 30 years studying marital choice and believes humor is the element most neglected by his fellow researchers.

To find something funny, he says, a person has to be able to see things from a different perspective. Men and women who lack a sense of humor "have a strike against them" in the dating game.

"If you can't get outside yourself, nothing seems funny," he says.

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