When distressed couples come into counseling, a common complaint concerns sarcasm. One partner wants to know when it crosses the line into emotional abuse, while the other claims it’s just joking around.
Sarcasm comes in many forms. It can be:
- Playful, as when both partners enjoy the banter
- Innocently insensitive
- Poorly-timed humor, saying the wrong thing in the wrong context without malice
- Used as impression management, trying to sound smart, witty, and urbane
- Used to cover embarrassment
- Hostile, meant to devalue, to undermine confidence.
Of course 4 through 6 present the biggest problems in relationships. Impression management and covering embarrassment create intimacy barriers that will eventually cause disconnection, if not outright deceit. The resulting space between the partners almost always fills with resentment.
Those whose sarcasm masks hostility raise the specter of emotional abuse. It’s not the sarcasm alone, but the denial of their partners’ hurt. Defensiveness is in itself devaluing. I’ve had clients who cited research suggesting that happy couples laugh together, implying that there is something wrong with the partner for not laughing, let alone being hurt. “Too sensitive, no sense of humor, not smart enough to get it.”
I’ve written elsewhere that focus on the label applied to a behavior (for example, “abusive” or “sarcastic”) leads to frustrating arguments about the label. This obscures the crucial point that the behavior hurts, regardless of what you call it. The measure of behavior in love relationships should not be whether or not it’s abusive or sarcastic - that sets the bar way too low. No one falls in love with fantasies of an abuse-free or sarcastic-free relationship. Most people fall in love with fantasies of a compassionate, kind, loving union. Sarcasm that takes the form of 2 through 6 above is not compassionate, kind, and loving.