There’s something off-putting about that title, huh?
If I said, “I love my husband,” but said it with a certain vocal tone filled with irony and distain, you would wonder whether I really meant it. You’d wonder whether we’d had a fight the moment before, if he’d forgotten something important, or if I was baiting you for a discussion about marital dissatisfaction. The tone of my voice might suggest that I want you to join me in a witty banter about how husbands are so wonderful.
If I say to my husband with that same tone, “You’re so awesome for doing the dishes,” when he didn’t, or if he says to me, “You are sooooo sexy in that t-shirt with spit-up all over it and your going-on-5-day-unwashed hair,” what are we really saying?
I’ve met countless couples in counseling sessions that pride themselves on their use of ironic humor and sarcasm as a couple with each other. Sarcasm in pop culture is held up as a standard for the extremely funny! It’s unlikely that many of us SAHMs have spent hours watching the popular show “The Big Bang Theory” between park visits and school pick-ups, but check this out.
“For God’s sake, Sheldon, do I have to hold up my sarcasm sign every time I open my mouth?”
“You have a sarcasm sign?”
“No. I do not have a sarcasm sign.”
These two roommates demonstrate the fundamental problem of sarcasm: it sabotages what I’ll call emotional congruence. Congruence (like in math) is agreement or consistency. When facial expression, tone of voice, volume, and vocal prosody (or the patterns of rhythm and sound) match the content of what’s being said, you have emotional congruency. When facial expression and vocal tone do not match the content (literally, the words being said), you have incongruence, often in the form of sarcasm. When the part of our brain in the right hemisphere that processes non-verbal cues and the left hemisphere part of our brain that processes language disagree about what is being received in communication, we get confused, leaving much of the communication that happens in sarcastic moments unresolved, and that doesn’t feel safe. Both neurologically and figuratively, the wires get crossed.
Many people who are uncomfortable with direct communication use sarcasm as a defense mechanism for protecting themselves from feeling vulnerable. Yet, marriage is the place where we each need to be loved unconditionally, in our most vulnerable states. Emotional safety comes from a wife or husband being consistently responsive to your needs, predictable and comforting. When we know what to expect from another person, we feel safe. Sarcasm in everyday life creates an environment with a shaky, unpredictable base, so in the moments when we need to know the base is firm and unmistakable, we know we can rely on a person’s directness and honesty.
If sarcasm is a pattern for your relationship with your spouse, consider a clear discussion together about changing the dance from incongruence to congruence. In a moment you feel tempted to use sarcasm, ask yourself what need it meets for you:
- Is sarcasm a habit?
- Does it shield you from having to be vulnerable or honest about a difficult subject (division of household chores, finances, parenting, alcohol consumption, sex, physical appearance)?
- In relationships outside of your marriage, does it help you feel accepted by others (because you’re funny) in moments that would otherwise be difficult for you to be genuine or have a serious conversation?