“Can’t You Take a Joke?”: What to Do When Teasing Hurts

A couples therapist explores why humor can hurt and how to talk about it.

Posted Jun 30, 2019

Jenna and Bill are finishing up a dinner date. As they are walking out of the restaurant, Jenna starts to rifle through her purse to find her keys. After a few moments, Bill says, “Hurry up, Messy Bessy, we don’t have all night.” Jenna feels her cheeks flush and her eyes fill with tears. Seeing that she is getting upset, Bill comments, “Come on. Can’t you take a joke?!” Now, in addition to feeling embarrassed, Jenna also feels invalidated. A cloud of tension hangs over them, and one thing is clear: these two are not going to end the night in each other’s arms!

I have been working as a couples therapist for 20 years, and I know how many fights begin because someone “can’t take a joke.”

Let’s explore the role of humor in an intimate relationship. The basic recipe for relational health is this: Do more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff. The good stuff includes deep conversations, fun times together, laughter, and play. All of these build a cushion of positivity, warmth, and trust between partners. That cushion softens the blow when the inevitable bad stuff hits: misunderstanding, frustration, and disconnection.

Teasing in and of itself is not always negative—in fact, in many circumstances, it is wonderful. It can be a potent form of flirtation and seduction. It can reflect how well you know your partner. It can be a shared little world of private jokes, silly characters, and inside jokes that build trust and bring you closer to each other. How ironic that teasing is something that can both enhance connection and sever it.

I find it helpful to look at a distinction I use all the time in my clinical work and teaching: intent versus impact. In an intimate partnership, we are going to step on each other’s toes from time to time. Our words and actions can have the impact of feeling hurtful to our partner without us having the intention of being hurtful. Making this distinction can help us make amends. We can hold ourselves accountable with self-compassion, and our partners can let us know about their hurt while remembering that we are imperfect and lovable. 

I want to provide you with some questions to invite reflection and conversation.

Questions for the Teaser

  • How did your family of origin “do” teasing? What I often see is that the teaser grew up in a family that used sarcasm carelessly and thoughtlessly, perhaps even emotionally abusively. A little person who is growing up in a family like this cannot say to the big people who hold all the power, “Ouch. That hurt my feelings!” The only choice then is to thicken up your skin, to detach from your authentic response in order to survive. I invite you to connect with the way that teasing felt before you built up walls to protect yourself from pain. I also invite you to bring your awareness to the fact that your partner might be building up walls to protect themselves from your words. Connect with how that feels and see if that awareness leads you to make a different choice.
  • What is the concern or yearning that hides behind your teasing? Sometimes we use humor because we feel unsure about how to raise a concern. If this resonates for you, view your teasing as a symptom of a larger relational problem: concerns cannot be aired in a direct manner, so they are getting aired indirectly via teasing. Healthy intimate relationships have this as a guiding principle: “If it’s a concern for you, it’s a concern for me.” If you are upset or troubled by something in your relationship, you need to be able to turn toward your partner, raise your concern, and have that concern validated and addressed. This needs to be the case even if your partner doesn’t share your concern or wishes you didn’t have this concern. If you think you resort to teasing because the climate of your relationship is such that you can’t raise a concern in a direct way, this is a problem that warrants both of your attention.
  • When your hurtful comment is pointed out to you, do you respond with apology or defensiveness? If your partner tells you that your words hurt them, resist the urge to explain yourself. Resist the urge to tell your partner that it’s no big deal. As you feel defensiveness rise in you, pause and take some deep breaths. Just look into your partner’s eyes and apologize. Ask your partner what will help them move on. Then do that. And move on.

Questions for the Teased:

  • What would it be like to talk with your partner about why their joke felt so bad? Willingness to be vulnerable is essential for a healthy intimate relationship. Relationships thrive when partners can expose their tender underbelly and have their sharing met with kindness and care. For Jenna, being called “Messy Bessy” touches a tender spot that dates back to her childhood. Her family struggled financially as she was growing up, and she felt shame about her ill-fitting hand-me-downs clothes and worn-out shoes that always looked, to her, shabby and messy. I want Jenna to be able to talk with Bill about that core wound so that he can approach it with gentleness and care. Further, opening up to him about why his comment hurt gives her the opportunity to collect some really important data: Bill’s reaction. Once she has shared the story behind her reaction, I want Bill to respond with compassion and care. I want him to say some version of, “I can see why that’s a tender spot for you. I commit to being more careful going forward.”
  • Can you stand up for yourself without putting your partner down? When you feel hurt by your partner’s words, it’s easy to fight fire with fire—sarcasm, criticism, defensiveness. Resist that urge because it only escalates the situation and creates more distance and tension. Instead, stand up for yourself by letting your partner know that their words cross a line for you and feel hurtful.
  • Are there ways that you use teasing too? A client shared with me a story about her feelings getting hurt by something her boyfriend said. We started to talk about times that she pokes at him, and she reflected, “I can dish it out, but I can’t take it!” I appreciated her willingness to practice self-awareness and humility. She identified that she carries a gendered double standard—women can tease men because they are “tough,” but men can’t tease women because it’s cruel. Having been told to “man up,” boys and men often have effective strategies for covering up their hurt. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. If your partner is a guy, check in with him about how he experiences your teasing. And be open to his feedback.

I love this saying: An intimate relationship is improved by the two or three things we don’t say each day. View a fight that stems from an ill-fated joke not as a reason to withdraw or get defensive but as a vehicle for intimacy. This moment of friction gifts you access into your partner’s interior, their map of pain points and insecurities, as well as insights into your own patterns and beliefs. Treating those tender spots—your own and your partner’s—with reverence and care deepens trust and creates healing. It also helps you to face the world together as a team. And there’s no better place to be than on your partner’s team!