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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Howard Stanten CPCC,PCC and Erin Wright CPCC,PCC are Relationship Coaches helping couples, individuals, and teams bring the best of who they are and what they do to their relationships, and those they lead and serve.