Sarcasm: it can be one cutting comment that is never forgotten. Or, an easy habit that becomes part of our normal day-to-day interaction as couples. Turns out there’s a lot more to it than just a bit of sass as we shall see.
Why Do We Use Sarcasm?
There can be a lot of reasons why we resort to sarcasm but I think it is really good to pause and just peel back the layers on sarcasm. It turns out there’s some important but often very subtle underlying psychological things happening around this sarcasm issue.
Sometimes we use sarcasm to communicate complaints or criticism. We actually do this with the intent to come across in a less hostile way because we are couching our negativity in a touch of humor. Perhaps we feel it makes us appear less rude or less unfair when making a complaint about the person receiving the criticism[i].
In that way, sarcasm can be about me trying to save face while still extending the criticism or complaint in a more superficially polite way.
Other times sarcasm can be used on the other end of that: as a way to respond to criticism. We can dismiss someone’s feedback or argue against them while still appearing calm.
Sometimes it is just about finding a way to express annoyance in a way that is more socially acceptable than outright rage. When you make a cutting remark your peers may laugh and think you funny rather than be disappointed when you lose your temper.
Another interesting way we use sarcasm is for conflict resolution: sometimes we defuse a situation or de-escalate conflict by using sarcasm. Of course, since it has an edge to it, this does not always work.
When you pause and survey these possibilities, one theme that does emerge is that sarcasm is often about finding a way to express negative emotion in a less vulnerable, less directly-critical way. There is a sense in which it can be a little more polite because it is more indirect. In sarcasm, the actual negative intent is left for the listener to interpret. There’s also a relational component because in using sarcasm in this way we also create a sense of distance between ourselves and the recipient.
So you may think your sarcastic comments are just intended to be funny, but if you step back are they serving another, less wholesome purpose?
Sarcastic Communication in Marriage
Let’s examine the behavior more specifically. Sarcasm is often misinterpreted and can be easy to miss, so let’s run down the common characteristics of this form of speech.
Characteristics of Sarcastic Speech
- Exaggerated tone of voice OR blank, monotone voice
- Blank expression
- Raised eyebrows
- Rolling eyes
- Exaggerated fake smile or smirk
- False sympathy (“wow, that must have been soooo hard for youuuu”)
- Expressing the opposite emotion of what your words are saying (“I’m so glad you did that”)[ii]
What Does Sarcasm Convey in Marriage?
How does sarcasm work in an intimate relationship like marriage? In marriage, sarcasm is most often an expression of contempt[iii]. Contempt in marriage is very dangerous to the longevity of the marriage.
In this context, it often takes the form of expressing superiority, or showing a lack of respect (looking down your nose at your spouse) and often has a distant or icy quality to it. Because sarcasm falls under the domain of contempt, it is also a reliable predictor of divorce in a marriage. That’s why we really want you to pause and think about this one if it is part of how you guys interact.
Perception of Sarcasm
As we mentioned earlier, sarcasm is often used to express negative emotions in a more polite, calm way. This makes the sarcastic comment seem less offensive and hurtful to the person saying it[v]. Note that the perceived benefit is only a perception in the mind of the person saying the sarcasm.
The target of the sarcasm, on the other hand, often perceives it as being more hurtful and aggressive than a conventional non-sarcastic attack. You see, sarcastic comments often highlight the gap between what a person did and what they were expected to do (e.g., saying “thanks for your help with that” when your spouse did nothing to help highlights the perceived error) and can also come across as more cold, calculated and deliberately hurtful[vi]. An angry outburst might be easier to forgive as just a momentary feeling, but for someone to take the time to think of a sarcastic putdown adds another layer of deliberate choice, which makes what they say harder to ignore.
The right thing to have said in that example would be more like “When I have to work all day, like you do, and then do household chores alone all evening, I really struggle with feeling resentful towards you”.
It is good to note here: I am not saying you have to stop offering your spouse feedback, just that doing so in a sarcastic tone of voice is likely to end in disaster over time.
Responses to Sarcasm
There may be some of you listening today and you are thinking that you send or receive the odd sarcastic comment with your spouse and it is not a big deal. Fair enough: I’m not saying the very occasional comment means that your marriage is going to fail. But I do want you to seriously consider if even the occasional comment is really a good thing. Whether sarcastic comments and sarcastic responses are seen as humorous or offensive often comes down to the relationship quality of the individual couple. We’ll get back to this in a bit.
Sarcasm also works differently in a close relationship, becoming something of an unseen destructive force if you aren’t careful. Being in a close relationship with someone (having shared experiences and a common understanding of situations) can make sarcasm seem more normal, and a more appropriate way of speaking. However, this sense of common ground does NOT make sarcasm less hurtful. So in a marriage context, sarcasm may seem like a normal, commonplace way of speaking, but this does not actually reduce its negative effects[vii].
There is a difference between laughing together and laughing at ourselves and sarcasm. It is that negative edge.
Putting Sarcasm in its Place
The opposite of sarcasm is honest, open, vulnerable communication. So much healthier and so much more effective at bringing you together as a couple rather than driving the tip of the wedge in a little further. Our patrons will be receiving a step by step guide that shows them how to transform their sarcasm into this open, honest communication. You can also get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
As we look now at the effect on marriage and then more about how to stop this habit, I want to share a verse that really struck me a few years back. It is a verse from the Bible, in Ephesians 4:28 “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (ESV) It’s just such a crystal clear goal and a wonderful challenge for us all.
Sarcasm’s Effect on Marriage
We’ve talked about sarcasm more generally. What about in marriage specifically?
Overall Satisfaction. Research in 2013[viii] found a strong link between marital dysfunction and “negative” forms of humor, which includes sarcasm and harsh jokes at the spouse’s expense. Remember this is correlation not causation. This effect goes both ways: sarcasm can create dysfunction in marriage, but low satisfaction with marriage can also lead to more sarcastic communication. So this creates a downward spiral of “less satisfying communication that ultimately results in a less satisfying relationship[ix]“.
Sarcasm also has a stronger negative effect in couples who are already struggling in their marriage. Most sarcastic humor contains an element of aggression or accusation (pointing out a flaw, expressing annoyance etc). While well-adjusted couples may see the humor in it and choose to interpret the comment as being harmless, distressed couples will only see the aggressive intent of the comment and will typically react badly to it.
Conflict. Some couples see sarcasm as a tool to manage or resolve conflict, but research shows this is not an effective strategy.
What about humor for reducing conflict? Turns out the use of humor to reduce conflict more often works when the couple are well adjusted and have high relationship satisfaction. Such couples may be able to use benign or playful humor to diffuse conflict situations.
However, in couples where satisfaction is low, attempts to use sarcastic humor as a conflict resolution tool will often be ignored or rejected. Attempts to dismiss the conflict issue using sarcasm can therefore backfire and actually escalate the conflict further[x].
Stability. Research in 1993[xi] found that displays of contempt (such as sarcasm) predicted both spouses seriously considering divorce or separation. We really need to pause and consider the impact.
How To Stop
So maybe sarcasm isn’t the harmless humor you thought. If you’ve identified that it could be a problem for you, or for your spouse, what can you do?
Understanding the Intent. Try to distinguish whether your spouse is using sarcasm to be hurtful or in an attempt to be funny. One way to determine this is to observe whether they are often sarcastic in other contexts, or just when talking/arguing with you. If someone is sarcastic all the time to lots of different people, they may not be aware of the negative effect it has. As noted above, people using sarcasm often think it to be less hurtful than it really is, so just letting them know its real effect may convince them they need to stop[xii]. That’s one approach.
On the other side, if you are the person using sarcasm, remember that it probably feels more hurtful to your spouse than you perceive it as being[xiii]. In fact, I would suggest you tell your spouse that you have a serious question and would appreciate an honest answer: is my sarcasm hurtful?
Convey humor. We don’t want to take all your fun away. Working on how you express yourself while being sarcastic can help your sarcasm come across as funny rather than hurtful. Part of this is picking the right context and knowing which issues are likely to upset your spouse if you approach them sarcastically. You are the expert on your spouse so work out how best to use sarcasm in a way that’s fun rather than harmful.
But it can also be to do with your communication skills and how you express yourself through tone and facial expression. For example a study in 2014[xiv] found that raising your eyebrows while speaking can “guide” the listener to interpret your sarcastic comments as intended to be funny rather than mean. Just little cues like that can help your comments be seen as funny rather than spiteful.
There are times when it may be funny to sarcastically say, “Thanks for your help on that!” for example, if you both know the person you were speaking to was working much harder than you on the task. So I do not want to be a kill joy but there is a way of making sure folks know there is no underlying negative intent to the comment.
Genuine Communication. Sarcasm is a way of expressing yourself while not having to genuinely say what you mean, therefore making it “safer”[xv]. Learning to feel safe expressing yourself therefore reduces the need for sarcasm. This can be can be done by learning conflict managing and communication skills, and by learning to express your needs in a more genuine way. We dive into this specifically for sarcasm in our bonus content, and our flagship communication product, Talk To Me 101 is our online video course that really helps you develop highly effective communication with your spouse. So be sure to check that out too if this is a growth area for you guys.
[i] Julia Jorgensen, ‘The Functions of Sarcastic Irony in Speech’, Journal of Pragmatics, 26.5 (1996), 613–34 <https://doi.org/10.1016/0378-2166(95)00067-4>.
[ii] Salvatore Attardo and others, ‘Multimodal Markers of Irony and Sarcasm.’, Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 16.2 (2003), 243–60 <https://doi.org/10.1515/humr.2003.012>.
[iii] Lynn Katz and J.M. Gottman, Patterns of Marital Conflict Predict Children’s Internalizing and Externalizing Behaviors, 1993, xxix <https://doi.org/10.1037//0012-16184.108.40.2060>.
[iv] Dudley D. Cahn, Intimates in Conflict: A Communication Perspective (Routledge, 2013).
[v] Andrea Bowes and Albert Katz, ‘When Sarcasm Stings’, Discourse Processes, 48.4 (2011), 215–36 <https://doi.org/10.1080/0163853X.2010.532757>.
[vi] Bowes and Katz.
[vii] Joel Mounts, ‘A History of Sarcasm: Effects of Balanced Use of Sarcasm in a Relationship’, 2012.
[xi] Katz and Gottman, xxix.
[xii] Bowes and Katz.
[xiii] Bowes and Katz.
[xiv] Sabina Tabacaru and Maarten Lemmens, ‘Raised Eyebrows as Gestural Triggers in Humour: The Case of Sarcasm and Hyper-Understanding’, The European Journal of Humour Research, 2.2 (2014), 11–31.