Dear Dr. Alasko: My wife constantly makes sarcastic remarks about me and the things I do. She'll say, "Well, that was a big help." Or, "Great job!" And, "I'm so glad you're here!" Etc. But of course I know she means the opposite because her of her angry tone of voice. If I object, she protests that I “can't take a joke” or that I'm “too sensitive.” Her unpredictable attacking comments have me constantly on edge. How can I get her to stop?
Dear Reader: Sarcasm is indeed a profound and distressing behavior. And you’re right — it’s not an innocuous way of making jokes. For starters, here are some synonyms for sarcasm: mockery, derision, cynicism, disdain, scorn. None of these words imply anything positive. If you’re the brunt of derision, scorn, mockery, etc., especially in a close relationship, how could you possibly feel good about the exchange? And yet, people who are allegedly close use sarcasm commonly in their communication.
Sarcasm is psychologically rooted in anger, distrust and cowardice. People using are angry or frustrated, don’t trust the other person (or themselves) to pull off speaking speak directly, and are often afraid to take the risk to express their true feelings.
Occasionally there's a more benign explanation: it's a nasty habit, like smoking. And changing one’s habitual way of speaking is difficult. So people can be addicted to a hurtful way of speaking because there's an instant subliminal payoff: When I make you feel bad, I feel better. Sure, it's a dysfunctional and cowardly way to communicate, yet again, it's all too common.
The path out of this habit, regardless of its roots, involves taking two separate steps. The first: your wife has to realize and accept the fact that her scornful method of self-expression causes you emotional pain. The second: both of you need to find a more effective way to communicate feelings and needs.
Why both of you? Because serious situations usually indicate an overall relationship imbalance, so the curative request needs to balance on both sides. So start by asking yourself: which of your behaviors do you know are irritating to her? Surely she has her own list, and while it might be a daunting task for you to confront your annoying (or even disrespectful) actions, you need to face up to the fact that her sarcasm might be rooted in her desire to hurt you because you’re constantly disrespecting her.
Next comes the negotiating. There’s one caveat to this, though: these steps will prove effective only if each of you holds a strong commitment to maintaining and improving your marriage. Asking a partner to make significant changes in a relationship is futile if that person is already halfway out the door, or has grown distant enough to distrust that the partner will negotiate in good faith.
Once you have determined that you so both want your marriage to continue and prosper, you then arrange to hold a personal Conference on Effective Communication. You begin by each composing a brief and well-reasoned request for behavioral and communicational change. You present your request that she stops using sarcasm. And she presents her own list of demands.
IMPORTANT: Do not try to resolve anything during your first Conference. Each of you just briefly describes what you need. Then agree to meet and talk again in a few days.
I'll discuss this process in greater depth and detail in the next Beyond Blame blog post.