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No Laughing Matter: Joking Too Much in a Relationship Can Be Hurtful

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Biting humor can hurt. And yes, there is such a thing as joking too much in a relationship. When it comes to tone and frequency, learn how the adage “know your audience” really does apply.

Laughter and the ability to see irony and humor is possibly one of the best parts of life and love. However, when does humor cross the bridge into joking too much in a relationship?

Recently my husband and I stayed at a bed and breakfast overseas with a delightful couple as proprietors. While we enjoyed their company, as we drove away two days later, I realized I didn’t know anything about them. Since they had answered every question with a joke, sarcasm, or a clever quip, I found myself wondering whether what they said was truth or a lie (in the form of a joke).

Certainly no harm was done, especially as there was no necessity to create a deeper relationship. However, it did cause me to ponder how being facetious when the relationship truly does matter can cause people to question or even distrust the one constantly cracking jokes. At minimum, joking too much in a relationship can keep the other person at such a distance that they don’t really ever know you.

Thinking further on our B&B experience raised these questions: Does humor hurt or help a relationship? How much is too much? How do we manage the delicate balance of funny or hurtful? When does it become the scapegoat excuse for saying something mean about someone or for telling a lie? If the one who indulged the other’s jokes walks away feeling hurt, betrayed, distanced, or lied to, it’s safe to say it wasn’t funny.

Clearly, the balance here is something we must self-monitor. After all, if we’re the sarcastic ones and someone tells us not to be, the response is likely to be, “Yeah right” (said very sarcastically). Or worse, we may deride the person by saying, “get a backbone,” “it’s only a joke,” “you’re too sensitive,” or “lighten up!” The jokers among us tend to shift the responsibility of making humor funny onto the receiver rather than taking responsibility for what they said—or meant.

Consequently, self-inquiry, responsibility, and self-mastery are yet again the solutions to avoiding biting humor or joking too much in a relationship. Here are some areas to be wary of.

Humor as a defense mechanism. Pay attention to whether your humor is distancing you from others or bringing you closer. Humor is often used as a defense mechanism covering up true feelings. I can’t help but think of Robin Williams, one of the funniest people ever, whose humor covered such personal pain.

Humor as an excuse. When you say, “I was only joking,” to cover up being wrong, your humor is an avoidance of responsibility.

Making fun. Pay attention to your intentions and avoid using humor as a veil to harm. Making fun of your partner’s shortcomings is not actually fun at all. If you find it so, this is the trait of a bully, so some deep personal work and healing may well be in order.

Passive-aggressive comments. Those skillful at passive-aggressive humor are often so good at it that their comment may seem kind at first. For instance, your partner tells you he lost five pounds and you say, “You look like you lost a ton of weight!” While on one hand this comment is complimentary, on the other it feels insulting. Pay careful attention to what you’re actually saying and meaning and see if a simple, “You look great!” might bring a more powerful relationship-building result.

Sarcasm. When used for looking at life’s irony, sarcasm serves a great role. However, in its other synonymous forms: mockery, cynicism, derision, it will surely contribute to harm in a relationship.

Name-calling. This is clearly never a good idea in a relationship unless it’s a term of endearment like “Honey,” “Love,” or “Beautiful.” Even these names can be hurtful if used sarcastically. When in doubt, use the person’s name.

Self-deprecation. While comedians have built entire careers on making self-deprecating jokes and laughing at themselves, you need to be mindful of when this is simply putting yourself down to beat your partner to the punch. Or, when it is giving others permission to make fun of you. Again, you will find taking responsibility for either making improvements or practicing self-acceptance to be a healthier path.

LOL. In the modern terrain of texting and emailing, we have added, “LOL” (laughing out loud) or “JK” (just kidding) to clarify that we are using humor. This is useful but can be used to cover passive-aggressive comments or try to quell the pain of those who might be offended.

If you’re wondering if you or someone else is joking too much in a relationship, the adage “know your audience” really does apply. The purer our intentions, the kinder our hearts, and the more conscious our words, the better results we will get.

In the mood for some pure comedy? Check out “The Spirituality of Laughter.”