Throwing Shade in Your Marriage

How to prevent storm clouds from darkening your relationships.

Posted Jan 20, 2019

 The comedian Henny Youngman made a career of one-liners insulting his wife: “My wife said to me, 'For our anniversary I want to go somewhere I've never been before.' I said, 'Try the kitchen!'” Successful comedians make fortunes making jokes about their romantic partners. Sarah Silverman joked on Jimmy Kimmel Live about her breakup with Jimmy Kimmel, who married his next girlfriend: “Okay, Molly’s cute, she’s bright, she’s funny, she’s blonde, but come on!” Silverman joked about Kimmel’s wife. Kimmel retorted, “I have bad news. We’ve been married for five years” Silverman shot back, “It’s not fair! She gets like new, woke Jimmy. I had man-show Jimmy.” Trash-talking our current and former partners is a favorite pastime for many of us.

The pleasure in trash-talking our partners, though, can get out of control and turn ugly. In Edward Albee’s play Who is Afraid of Virginia Wolf, an older academic couple who drink too much rip into each other with great cruelty in front of a shocked young academic couple at a dinner party. Martha and George take turns mocking each other’s inadequacies in front of their dinner guests — Martha: “That's right, lunkhead; answer the door or are you too drunk to do that, too? Can't get the latch up, either?” George: “The real reason our son used to throw up all the time was nothing more complicated than that he couldn't stand you fiddling at him all the time, breaking into his bedroom with your kimono flying and your hands all over his” Martha sarcastically mocks George’s presumed impotence, while George viciously mocks Martha’s presumed pedophilia. Imagining how all of this must look to their dinner guests, George quips: “It isn't the prettiest spectacle seeing a couple of middle-aged types hacking away at each other, all red in the face and winded, missing half the time.”

In online dating profiles, one of the traits most preferred in a romantic partner is a sense of humor. We all want a romantic partner who can make us laugh. We want a partner who is amusing. Witty repartee is a kind of verbal foreplay that creates sexual chemistry. You’re boring if you don’t know how to engage in sexual banter and teasing. When you’re good at witty repartee and sexual banter your partner is amused as well as aroused. You’re having fun with your partner. Everything feels lighthearted. It’s the best antidepressant around. So how is it that witty repartee in an intimate relationship that brings mutual pleasure turns into a “pissing contest” that brings mutual contempt and disgust?

Humor is a good way to diffuse an escalating conflict in a relationship. A frustrating and perpetual conflict can often be diffused by finding some absurdity in it. An angry interchange can be magically turned into a moment of mutual amusement that might allow cooler minds to prevail when discussing a touchy issue, if you possess the presence of mind to make your partner laugh in the midst of a heated argument. Sometimes, though, we are so frustrated trying to get through to our partner that our humor has a sarcastic edge to it. The point is no longer to amuse our partners, but to stick it to them — to punish them for being such a maddeningly difficult person. Of course, they are not amused.

To add insult to injury, we might sarcastically say, “Can’t you take a joke?” to put them down for being humorless. That’s often the beginning of trading insults. Your partner feels you have been insensitive to the hurt inflicted at being the butt of your joke, so it seems totally justified in giving you a taste of your own medicine by sending a zinger right back your way. And if you’re wounded by the zinger and protest, your partner would feel perfectly justified in saying, “People living in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” or “If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.” Your partner would feel smug self-satisfaction in sticking it to you in justified retaliation. Next thing you know, you’ve turned into George and Martha, and you’re putting each other down in front of friends and family. How do you stop yourselves from turning into another George and Martha?

Face It: You’re Not Funny

1. If you’re funny, you get a laugh or at least a chuckle. If you’re being mean, you’ll see that hurt, humiliated, and angry look. Don’t argue that you are really funny, and your partner can’t take a harmless joke. Apologize for hurting your partner’s feelings.

2. It’s never funny to mock your partner in front of friends and family. It’s never funny to subject your partner to public humiliation, especially if your partner is too polite to put you in your place in public. Friends and family aren’t laughing, except uncomfortably. They are too embarrassed by the spectacle, but usually too polite to say anything and only feel sorry for your partner.

3. If you want to be funny, you have to learn how to get a laugh. Figure out how to be genuinely amusing, and stop whining about your partner not appreciating your sense of humor.

Practice Non-Retaliation

1. Don’t go tit for tat when your partner mocks you. Don’t sink to your partner’s level. Do as Michelle Obama recommends: “When they go low, we go high.”

2. Feel free to call your partner out on their behavior: “I see you’re really enjoying mocking me, but you’re hurting my feelings, so please stop.” And if your partner responds defensively by accusing you of being humorless, say something like: “I’d also appreciate it if you stopped criticizing me for being humorless when I’m feeling hurt because you made fun of me.” If that doesn’t work, just leave the room by saying something like: “I think I need to take a break from dealing with you, since it’s not getting me anywhere, and I don’t want an argument, and I’m guessing you don’t either.”

3. Feel free to revisit the issue when you’re feeling less hurt and angry. Coach your partner on the fact that if you’re not amused and not laughing, you are most likely offended. Coach your partner on the fact that a good comedian has to intuitively know their audience and what is the fine line between being amusingly provocative and being offensive for a particular audience.

The reason we want a partner who can make us laugh is because a partner who amuses us demonstrates an intuitive knowledge of who we are. A partner who offends us is showing indifference to our vulnerabilities as well as a cruel streak — a pleasure in sticking it to us when frustrated. We all want a partner who makes us feel good about ourselves, and a partner who is genuinely amusing lifts us up rather than puts us down.


Josephs, L. (2018) The Dynamics of Infidelity: Applying Relationship Science to Psychotherapy Practice. American Psychological Association. Washington, D.C.