Sarcasm can be a way to bring humor and playfulness into a relationship. There are some relationships where sarcasm causes little or no harm. If this is how sarcasm shows up in your relationship, no worries.
Frequently, however, we see sarcasm being used as a weapon to put a partner down and make them feel small. Weaponized sarcasm is mean and unkind. The marriage researcher, John Gottman, points out that sarcasm (and its accompanying eye-rolling) is often a sign of contempt. And, according to Gottman, unchecked contempt is the number one indicator that divorce is likely.
Sarcasm is derived from the Greek word “sarkazein” meaning “to tear or strip the flesh off.” Sounds painful, huh?
David Dunning, writing for the "Science of People," says that "Sarcasm is not only hurtful it is also the least genuine mode of communication."
He goes on to say that people use sarcasm for three reasons:
“Insecurity: For some, using sarcasm or teasing is a way of avoiding confrontation because they are afraid of asking for what they want.
Latent Anger: Sarcasm can also be passive aggressive or a way to assert dominance. Someone who is angry or upset but is too afraid to bring it up will often use sarcasm as a disguised barb.
Social Awkwardness: When people are not good at reading those around them or are not sure how to carry on a conversation, they will often employ sarcasm hoping it sounds playful or affectionate.
Clifford N. Lazarus PhD reports in Psychology Today, “When it comes right down to it, sarcasm is a subtle form of bullying and most bullies are angry, insecure, cowards.”
In the work we do with couples, we are acutely aware of the cost of sarcasm in relationships.
We work from one main premise......TRUST is the foundation upon which vibrant, fulfilling relationships are built. Weaponized sarcasm is a passive aggressive communication style that undermines TRUST. It is an indicator that the relationship needs something different….sooner rather than later.
If you’re in a relationship where the trust is starting to crumble, look to repair your relationship’s foundation by cutting out the sarcasm. Don't hesitate to name it. Nothing can make sarcasm fade away quicker than shining a light on it and stating exactly how it makes you feel.
Let your partner know how their comments impact you and your relationship. If you’re guilty of tossing some sarcasm bombs from time to time, own it. And, commit to doing your best to honor your request to knock it off.
It’s not enough to simply stop using sarcasm. Each partner must work to substitute sarcasm with direct, honest, communication. Take a look at where you might be using sarcasm to avoid directly asking for what you want or genuinely expressing something that is upsetting you. If your partner is mystified by all of this, ask them if they would be willing to have you help them by saying something like, “Hey, there’s that sarcasm again. What is it that you really want?”
This will take practice. So, allow for plenty of mistakes and messiness. Mistakes and messes are how we learn. If both of you are willing to practice reducing your use of sarcasm and increase your level of honesty, your relationship will be better off. Even if you are one of this couples who doesn’t feel that sarcasm is a big deal, most relationships can benefit from an increased dose of direct, honest communication.
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When your partner is struggling with something, a natural tendency is to step in and try to “fix” whatever is wrong. This usually involves advice around the need to take some kind of action. Afterall, we don’t like it when we see our partner in pain, sadness, anger, frustration….
When our partners are in these kinds of emotional states, some of us see a fire that needs to be put out…now! “Quick, there’s a fire over there, grab the hose, put it out before it spreads!”
Within every relationship, there tends to be one person who is “the fixer.” Although, this tendency can certainly be found in anyone. The “fixer” often judges emotions like anger and sadness as “bad.” The fixer’s solution is “to do” something to help make these emotions go away.
Have you ever proposed what you think are wonderful solutions to your partner’s “problem” only to see the sadness or anger intensify? That’s a really good clue that this ain’t the time for fixing!
Emotions like anger and sadness are the body’s way of responding to a specific circumstance. With anger, there is usually some kind of boundary that has been crossed. With sadness, some kind of loss.
The most direct route to experiencing happiness and joy again is to allow your partner to experience the full force of their anger or sadness. The body knows this. And, when a well-meaning partner steps in try and short circuit this process with a “fix,” the body knows what is happening and resists – often ramping up the anger or sadness as way of saying “No, getting to sunnier days means letting the storm clouds do their thing first!”
The good news is there is a way that each of you can navigate through these rough seas that will help grow your relationship and increase your intimacy.
For the partner in distress, if you are able, let your partner know up front what it is you want from them. If you aren’t looking for a “fix” tell them that.
It may sound something like this, “Honey, I’m having a really challenging time with someone at work. I just need to vent. Could you just listen for a while, I’m not really looking for advice?”
For the partner looking to provide support, ask your partner what they want. “Just to be clear, how can I best support you? Do you want some advice or are you just looking to vent to someone who really cares?”
A conversation that doesn’t involving “fixing” involves simply “being with” your partner. It may involve words of affirmation like, “I can see why you’re so angry” or “It’s okay to be sad.” Simply letting your partner know that you are there for there for them, you hear them, and that they aren’t wrong for feeling their feelings can go a long way in bringing you closer together as a couple.
You may be tempted to lean in and give some physical assurances like a hug. Tread lightly here as well. Hugging can have the same effect as “fixing.” When your partner is experiencing emotional pain, it is again best to ask what they need from you. Ask before hugging. Explain that you’d like to express your love and support with a hug and that you aren’t trying to fix anything. And, then, respect your partner’s answer.
Of course, there are times when your partner may really want you to just tell them what to do, to take care of them. It’s just that for many of us, the default is “to fix.” And, when that doesn’t work or isn’t welcomed with open arms, we can get resentful and disconnected from our partner.
When you can set aside what you think is best, and get really clear on what your partner wants, your relationship will thank you.
We have conversations with ourselves all day long. “What just happened?” or “What’s going to happen?” are common themes. Oddly enough, the story that often gets left out is “What’s happening right here, right now.” When we leave out what’s happening in the moment, we are missing out on, well…. everything. And, that includes our relationships.
Quick lesson: What is mindfulness? Answer: Being fully present in the moment. End of lesson. Told you it was quick.
You see, there’s nothing “woo-woo” or “out there” about mindfulness. In fact, mindfulness is very much “right here.” It’s a simple concept really. And, so difficult for many of us to be.
Relationship literally means “the state of being connected.” When we aren’t mindful in our relationships, our relationships fall apart. If you’re eating dinner together and one of you is thinking about the mess at work tomorrow and the other is thinking about a fight they just had with a friend, there’s not much mindfulness going on at that table.
Couples have become so good at not being mindful that they can have whole conversations without hearing what each other is saying.
Put enough of these experiences together, and you are putting your relationship on autopilot.
Relationships on autopilot feel boring, old, and stale. They feel like something is missing. Well yeah, the “state of being connected” is missing.
Newsflash: Without a “state of being connected” you ain’t got a relationship.
So, how do you get more into connection? Anyone?? If you said something like “be more mindful or more present” you’re on the right track.
For the next minute, close your eyes and just concentrate on your breathing. If some thoughts come in – don’t worry about them – just notice them and let them go – continue focusing on your breathing. Go ahead and do that – I’ll wait.
Congratulations! You were just mindful!
Notice how you feel during and just after this exercise. The next time you are with your partner try bringing that kind of presence to your relationship.
Keep in mind that this is a practice. You’re not going to be perfect at this mindfulness stuff, not many are. And, the goal is not perfect. The goal is to be more present than you were.
Being mindful is challenging not because paying attention to what is in front of us is particularly difficult. It’s challenging because we forget to do it.
Here’s an idea: Set a reminder in your phone to take a few deep breaths and get present. One good time would be just before you connect with your partner, say, before getting home from work. You could put a “Get Present” sign on your bathroom mirror, door to your house…you get the idea.
The next time your partner wants to have a chat, give the same kind of focused attention to your partner as you give to your breath in this exercise.
Notice what’s different about your relationship when you are more mindful. And, consider sharing what you are up to with your partner. You can even do a minute of focused breathing together – it’s a great way to get connected to each other rather than to those stories about the past and future running in your head.
Let us know what happens. We’d love to hear from you.
Howard Stanten MPT,CPCC is an Executive Leadership and Professional