Updated: Apr 14, 2022
Wikipedia tells us that the word comes from the Greek sarkasmós which is taken from sarkázein meaning "to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer". That doesn't sound very funny does it? So is sarcasm humor? Psychologist Clifford N. Lazarus describes sarcasm as "hostility disguised as humor". While an occasional sarcastic comment may enliven a conversation, Lazarus suggests that too frequent use of sarcasm tends to "overwhelm the emotional flavor of any conversation". So does using sarcasm damage relationships? Relationship researchers would agree, the answer to that question is "Yes."
Sarcasm, in general, is indirect, underhanded and subversive. Sarcasm is used to facilitate a dramatic reaction from the recipient, or bystanders. Sarcasm is a favorite tool for bullies trying to get a rise out of people they want to bully. Of course sarcasm can have different effects depending upon the intention of the person who is being sarcastic. Maybe someone is simply trying to be funny. I am all about the benefits of laughter in relationships. What complicates the use of sarcasm in romantic relationships is that sarcasm is often considered an cloaked and "more acceptable' way to criticize or belittle someone. Sarcasm is not acceptable at all to someone who is more warm and sensitive by nature.
Individual differences impact how sarcasm affects people
Consider the personality of the recipient
How your partner, (or another recipient) perceives sarcasm plays a major role in how sarcasm affects them. If the recipients are naturally sarcastic like people with strong orange color personality tendencies, they might react to the sarcastic comment positively, and give back to you an equally sarcastic response. If they do not appreciate sarcastic humor, then they might instead take the comment as a slight, and even as an insult.
The impact of sarcasm on a romantic relationship
Sarcasm might seem clever. We are introduced to it when we are in middle school and at that age we think it's cool. There are times it might make you laugh. But after middle school, and especially within an intimate relationship, words spoken with a sarcastic bite can trigger a loved one’s insecurities. Sarcasm isn't designed to encourage. It is designed to be a 'funny' way to demean, embarrass and even condemn another person.
Sarcasm is the opposite of choosing to appreciate your partner. Sarcasm focuses more on exposing the negative traits and tendencies of a person rather than appreciating the positive ones. Even scriptures warn against the dangers of sarcasm:
“Laughter can conceal a heavy heart, but when the laughter ends, the grief remains.” Proverbs 14:13.
"Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs." Ephesians 4:29:
"Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity." Proverbs 21:23:
"The tongue has the power of life and death." Proverbs 18:21
"The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing." Proverbs 12:18-19
James also tells us that the tongue steers everything. It’s like the rudder of a boat. So, in marriage, how you speak will steer your marriage toward joy and peace, or pain and chaos.
Why sarcasm is most often detrimental, than positive for relationships:
1. Sarcasm is nothing more than a thinly-veiled insult
Sarcastic jokes that feel like insults can damage relationships. Is there such a thing as a healthy dose of sarcasm? I am not sure. But, an overabundance of sarcastic comments usually impact relationships in negative and damaging ways.
2. Sarcasm reduces trust and confidence
A sarcastic remark here and there may be funny, especially if there is a great deal of trust established in the relationship. But sarcasm over time, ruptures trust and begins to tear at the fabric of the connection within a relationship.
3. Sarcasm is a tool built for shaming
Many consider that sarcasm a passive-aggressive behavior in relationships.
Hurtful humor cause a lot of disharmony in your relationship. When your witty remark doesn’t incite laughter but shame instead, then it simply becomes a cloaked dagger into the heart of someone you purport to care about. Sarcasm can actually be a cause of stress in your life. There is a difference between guilt and shame. Shame serves no positive purpose. 4. Sarcasm is often used as a means to manipulate and control
Sarcastic comments can easily become weapons. They are like firing a gun with a silencer. If you are shot, the bullet still does its damage whether you use a silencer or not. Over time, your partner has to tune out or ignore your sarcastic comments in order to protect themselves. Sarcasm's passive-aggressive tones often are associated with shame, harmful thoughts, and guilt, which moves them to behave according to your wishes. However, this robs your partner of their agency, and they become a puppet in your hands.
5. Sarcasm can foster feelings of crippling self-doubt
Using sarcasm often is a bad habit, and it pushes our fears of the relationship onto our partner. That is why many consider sarcasm evidence of self-doubt. Bullies use sarcasm to make others feel small so they can feel big. This is narcissism at its best.
6. Words can and do have a huge impact
People might forgive, but it is difficult to forget a joke that broke your heart. It might take years for your partner to get over the emotional pain that that one sarcastic remark created.
7. Sarcasm is an obstacle to intimacy
Loss of trust is, unfortunately, a common consequence of the frequent use of sarcasm in romantic relationships. Sarcasm used on an intimate partner can increase the distance between you and your partner. Sarcasm breaks trust and causes confusion about your true feelings for someone you love.
8. Sarcasm impacts self-confidence
You should make a mental note of all the examples of sarcasm that you are guilty of. Sarcasm can allow haunting feelings of self-doubt to attack your partner.
How does sarcasm affect your relationships?
Sarcastic comments, especially an overdose of the same, can have a lot of negative impacts. These include:
Sarcastic comments prevent people from trusting you Some personality color tendencies find it extremely tiring to be around sarcastic individuals. Is your beloved one of them? Your partner might lose faith in your genuine love and respect if sarcasm becomes your fallback form of communication.
Excessive use of sarcasm is a boot camp for training yourself to be cruel The reason I call it a boot camp for cruelty is because we learn to use it when we are just teenagers and teenagers can be very cruel to one another. Just remember that sarcasm is a veiled form of contempt. So, sarcasm in a relationship is an indirect way to express your contempt towards your partner.
How to effectively deal with mean sarcasm?
There are ways to deal effectively with mean sarcasm. This especially applies to sarcastic comments from your partner. Below are some suggestions for dealing with sarcasm in relationships:
1. Avoid giving a sarcastic remark meaning
Just try to respond to content. If you find that you are taking sarcasm personally talk with your partner about how you feel.
2. Try to understand the underlying feelings
Our intimate partner's often need the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes your partner can be sarcastic because he or she does not know how to express their feelings. Strengthen you relationship with active listening and encourage your partner to communicate in a more direct, honest and vulnerable way.
4. Help them understand
Sometimes when people show sarcasm in relationships, feel that they are just being funny. Explain to them that their humor might feel hostile to people, although you completely understand that they do not intend to be so.
Sarcasm adds nothing positive to your relationship so why incorporate it? If you have a more sarcastic tendency, watch for it and attempt to curb it. Save it for your sarcastic friends that don't take it personally and think sarcasm is funny, but keep it away from your intimate relationships because you can cause hurt and harm and not even realize what you are doing.
Dawn is the executive director of the luxury RelationshipHelpResort.com in Arizona where she hosts private couples therapy retreats and intensives to help people strengthen and heal their relationships. Dawn is also the architect of the Primary Colors Relationship Personality Tests and Insight Tools licensed and used by relationship experts around the nation.