Sarcasm hurts–if used incorrectly. And if you or your spouse comes from a sarcastic family, that could easily start to tear away at your relationship.

Every Wednesday for the last eight years I’ve put up a post about marriage–my Wifey Wednesday articles. With Christmas around the corner, though, I’ve been talking a lot about family traditions and managing the in-laws at Christmas. And one of the things that I’ve found really impacts a marriage is the “feel” of the family of origin–especially if that family is sarcastic.

So I thought today we’d look at how sarcasm hurts when used the wrong way, and how to change the “feel” of your marriage and nuclear family.

Sarcasm Hurts: How sarcastic families can cause hurt hearts--and how we can change the "feel" of our family, and our marriage.

For the first two years of my marriage, I was sure that my brothers-in-law hated my husband.

Their conversation was always so sarcastic. And I wasn’t used to that. So when someone said a sarcastic insult, I went through a little shell shock.

I asked about sarcasm on my Facebook Page last week, and I got all kinds of comments! Here’s what some of you said about sarcastic families:

1. Sarcasm is fun and silly…when it’s fun and silly. Too often it’s used as an undercover attack. Don’t attack your family! We pick and use sarcasm but we keep it above board.

2. It is something that I need to work on at times. My children are young and I think sarcasm from kids is UGLY! I do not want it from my kids so I have to watch what comes from my mouth.

3. I guess I must be operating with a different definition of sarcasm than most people are or something, because I echo the comments that say it’s only funny when it’s straightforward and everyone knows it’s funny–I can sarcastically say I don’t know if I want to keep my husband if he puts his dishes in the sink instead of the dishwasher (or whatever), but I can only say that because we’re both 150% positive that we both want to keep each other permanently. It wouldn’t be funny, and we’d never say it, if there was even the tiniest chance of it being true! For us it’s a way of teasing, but it’s really obviously teasing (at least to us; we occasionally surprise those unfamiliar with our family dynamics). It’s never passive aggressive or mean and would really upset both of us if it were.

So let’s analyze this: I don’t think sarcasm is necessarily bad.

Since my marriage, I’ve become a LOT more sarcastic. I tease my father-in-law all the time, and he definitely likes it.

Nevertheless, sarcasm can often get out of hand, and can poison the dynamic of a family without you necessarily even realizing it.

Often we hide behind sarcasm when we’re unable to say what we really feel.

Sarcasm can be very passive aggressive. One of my kids went through a period where she was sure a group of friends really didn’t like her. If she mentioned that she was planning on going out for lunch with a different friend, or that she had Skyped with someone new, they’d say, “what? We’re not enough for you?” Or “There she goes again, trying to become Little Miss Popular.” It really hurt her.

But as we were talking about it, she realized that it was just that the girls were lonely and were afraid they were losing her. Instead of saying that outright, they’d be sarcastic in a way that hurt.

Many families get in that dynamic. Instead of expressing true feelings and true needs, they lash out and insult or tease in a slightly nasty–or even really nasty–way. And if you call them on it, people will often say, “Why are you so sensitive? I was just joking.” Here’s how one Facebook reader described this dynamic:

Sarcasm is something that was used, when I was entering my husband’s family, as a barbed tool against me & when it hurt, it was excused as, “but I was just joking! Can’t you take a joke?!”

For that reason, I think sarcasm with the family you grew up in is fine — you know the “language” and you know when it’s crossing lines and needs to stop. But for heavens sake, PLEASE spare the poor inlaws!

But sometimes we hide behind sarcasm because we’re even afraid to say something nice! That feels just too vulnerable. Here’s some great advice:

Sometimes, giving an honest compliment is a bit awkward, especially when the norm is sarcasm. But do it anyway! Even when people shrug it off, it really means a lot. Make it a point to say two or three or ten kind things for every sarcastic comment, if that’s what it takes.

Sarcasm can make a person hard or jaded.

When we’re used to responding to people by joking about their worst qualities, then that is what we’ll tend to look for in people. We won’t look for things to praise.

Even if you only mean it as a joke, when it’s done too much, it can wear at someone. And it doesn’t just hurt the recipient of the sarcasm, either; it hurts the person who is always saying it, too. They start scanning for things to joke about rather than scanning for things to encourage people about. And people need encouragement and affirmation! Indeed, researcher John Gottmann found that one of the two keys of predicting a successful marriage is that people scan for things to praise–not to criticize.

One Facebook fan said this:

I was raised in a sarcastic family and it mostly felt fun, felt “right.” But now that I’ve been away from it for so long, I don’t enjoy it from my family any more. It feels hurtful. I would not have agreed with the naysayers before. It’s almost like I’ve acculturated to no sarcasm, and now I don’t “get” it. Humor is very cultural, I believe.

When we’re in the middle of it, we often think it’s fine. But as you’re away from it, and start building people up and talking openly, you start to see how toxic too much sarcasm can actually be.

Is sarcasm always bad?

No, not necessarily. In fact, a Harvard study has found that people who are sarcastic tend to be more intelligent and more creative! And teasing can actually be fun in marriage–as long as it’s balanced out with plenty of encouragement and praise:

You can also use sarcasm to increase intimacy, either as a flirtation or by teasing a friend. “You only say the opposite of what you really mean if you know the person is going to understand you,” says Dr. Kreuz. By using sarcasm, he says, “you are saying, ‘I trust you. I am bringing you into the club.’ ”

But for sarcasm to work, it needs to be between two people who have a high degree of trust already.

Here’s another Facebook fan summed it up:

A phrase my mom often said was, “Many a truth is spoken in jest.” I think that can often be the case with sarcasm. That said, I think it is how it’s done, with whom, about what, and what is the spirit behind it. I think you can be sarcastic with certain people in a way that is fun and funny, but we need to be careful how that translates into other situations, as evidenced by the above stories. It can be fun and light-hearted, or it can reveal a heart filled with bitterness. So perhaps sarcasm is a tool, one that can be useful in the right context but can also be very damaging if we aren’t careful.

So what do you do if your husband is sarcastic, and it bothers you?

After all, women seem to be bothered by sarcasm more. In one study out of Penn State, researchers found that NO man thought that sarcasm was necessarily harmful, while women were split on the issue.

Here’s some good advice from a Facebook reader:

When someone is sarcastic, try to get them to just share their feelings in a straightforward way to hopefully encourage more of that. For example, you can say, “I don’t understand, what is it about me doing (fill in the blank) that is wrong?” Or, “It sounds like you’re saying it bothers you when I do that.”

I’ve found that this works well in my marriage! My husband is often very sarcastic (he comes from a very sarcastic home!)–but he balances it with a LOT of encouragement and praise and luvvy-duvvy talk, so it doesn’t bother me that much. But if he becomes TOO sarcastic, I just turn it into a question: “Are you saying that I haven’t spent enough time with you lately?” Or “Does it really bother you when I do X?” And then we can have some real conversations.

This time of year is a good one to raise this question with your husband:

What do you think the ‘feel’ of our family is? Do we build each other up or tear each other down?

Because you’ll be with extended family so much, you can talk about the effects both of your families’ modes of communication had on you, and what you’ve carried with you into marriage.

If you’re feeling hurt by sarcasm, talk about it now. And then take my reader’s advice: make 10 kind comments for every one sarcastic one. That will make your marriage–and your family–feel much safer!

Now let me know in the comments: How has sarcasm affected your marriage–or your family?

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