You’re not alone if you’ve exclaimed, "Hey! That’s not funny!" after bearing the brunt of a "joke" that doesn’t feel at all humorous to you. Words can injure relationships more than you might imagine. Many relationships are harmed by the long-lasting scars of verbal sparring. Often disguised as joking or bantering, derisive commentary poisons intimacy and connection. Although sarcasm and other caustic forms of communication have become acceptable in many social settings, toxic expressions are inherently disrespectful and harmful.
Indeed, they have the power to destroy our most precious intimate relationships. Like a sinister virus, cutting remarks infiltrate communication over time, raise defenses, and ultimately damage all hopes of healthy intimacy. Love and connection require kindness and respect in order to flourish.
Although segments of this article focus on sarcasm, it is important to note that toxic communication is wide-ranging in nature; sarcasm is simply one of the most common and insidious forms. Healthy and unhealthy communication patterns are learned behaviors that impact us on many levels. Some people rarely resort to toxic methods of communication; they are seemingly unaware of the harmful nature of such disrespectful interplay.
Others find sarcasm and its bedfellows acceptable—if not preferred—forms of communication. However, certain people seem to carry sarcastic, cynical commentary as part of their customary interpersonal arsenal. These folks are fairly easy to spot, for their derisive jokes and disparaging comments seem to be an integral part of their character.
Others appear affable and kind in the outside world, yet they somehow find it acceptable to be devastatingly sarcastic and disrespectful in their private realm. Regardless of the person or the situation, there is truly no upside to such toxic, negative behaviors. Indeed, when sarcasm and its harmful bedfellows are brought into the most sacred of all environments—home and marriage—disaster is on the horizon.
All too often, a sarcastic remark is defended with phrases such as, "You’re too sensitive," or "What’s wrong with you—can’t you take a joke?" Such comments sidestep the underlying issue. It’s not that the recipient of the comment is too sensitive; it is that the speaker is not being sensitive enough. It’s not that the listener can’t take a joke; it is that the speaker is disguising hostility beneath the veil of a "joke."
Those engaged in such cycles may not realize that they have become habituated to insults and sarcastic "jokes" that, although seemingly funny in the moment, come at the expense of others. When this back-and-forth occurs over time, the toxic communicator often increases the negative behavior and the recipient may respond with retreat, similar attack, or passive-aggressive behavior. Deep emotional connection—and the bonding that results—cannot grow in such an environment.
As one person told me, "His sarcasm makes him feel protected in his cage, but his sarcastic comments alienate everyone. In the end, he is so alone—he just doesn’t want to see it." Simply put, sarcasm shuts down people, it shuts down safety, and is shuts down intimate connection.
“Regardless of the person or the situation, there is truly no upside to such toxic, negative behaviors.”
You might find yourself wondering why negative, toxic communication has become so commonplace in our world. Our culture has come to accept—and even welcome—flippant, inappropriate dialogue that often degrades interactions and the people taking part in them. We consciously and unconsciously soak up society’s messages on an ongoing basis. Whether we are surrounded by positive or negative messages, we absorb much of what we see and hear.
When offensiveness and disrespect are the status quo, our personal interactions suffer. From sarcasm to mockery, it’s far too easy to let toxic messages slip into our repertoire. When we become inured to the negative cycles of communication, we can unwittingly let them rule our own interpersonal dynamics.
In fact, you might be surprised at the subtle and not-so-subtle ways negative messages consistently slip into the psyche. As you watch sarcasm-ridden sitcoms, listen to disparaging news, or read derisive articles, you might not think that such overtones affect you. You may have become used to your father slighting your mother or your brother poking at his wife. When you download with your buddies or girlfriends, you might not realize that distasteful jokes, insults, or barbed comments impact you and your own communication style. You might giggle and commiserate when your cynically hilarious best friend disses men over and over again. You might join in the laughter and sarcasm when your pals disparage their wives and girlfriends. You might think such behavior is isolated and doesn’t affect you in the long run. Unfortunately, research shows that you’re wrong.
“It’s not that the recipient of the comment is too sensitive; it is that the speaker is not being sensitive enough.”
Over time, whatever environment we are immersed in will ultimately affect us; if you repeatedly subject yourself to any behavior, you will become more accustomed to it. So, whether you’re engrossed in positive or negative interplay, you may be taking in more than you imagined.
Whatever you’ve absorbed—both currently and in the past—will affect how you interact with your friends and loved ones. When you are no longer sensitive to disrespectful communication, it can become part of your own nature.
Although toxic communication takes many forms, sarcasm is among the most insidious and destructive. In fact, sarcasm has its roots in the Greek word sarkasmos, which originally meant "to tear the flesh." When we pause to look at how sarcasm affects us, it does, indeed, "tear at the flesh" of our emotions. It makes perfect sense, then, that the use of sarcasm prevents true intimacy. Beyond being rude and disrespectful, toxic words prevent open and honest communication. Instead of providing the bonding, supple power of kindness, sarcasm and its like create an unsafe and brittle environment.
In essence, sarcasm is a highly toxic form of verbal aggression. Hostility is often at the root of sarcasm, and its effects are damaging over time. A sarcastic person may be deeply angry, sad, or resentful on an unconscious level. In many cases, unprocessed emotions and damaging patterns actually stem from childhood wounds and early hurtful relationships. Often lacking awareness, the sarcastic person may use the crude weapon of sarcasm without understanding its damaging effects. Wielding toxic verbal aggression may be the most tried and true defensive weapon available. Sadly, underneath this brutal, bullying veneer is a person who may be unable to understand or even communicate his or her true emotions.
“Simply put, sarcasm shuts down people, it shuts down safety, and is shuts down intimate connection.”
The sarcastic person has often learned to communicate harshly in order to push others away. Indeed, the technique works well to keep others a distance, for no one really feels emotionally safe when a sarcastic person is in the room. In that safety is a critical element for emotional intimacy, sarcasm and other verbally damaging behaviors make true intimacy impossible. When this type of behavior occurs routinely within a love relationship, the partners will feel distant and disconnected.
The person accustomed to sarcasm might counter, "Sarcasm doesn’t affect me at all. I like it. It’s funny. It’s great to banter back and forth." There is some truth to this reasoning, for a person who has become accustomed to sarcasm may have become desensitized to its damaging effects.
Over time, many people—men in particular—have been taught to "toughen up" in order to become ostensibly immune to the hurtful, damaging thorns of sarcasm and its like. Although someone may have become so used to derision so that it no long seems destructive, there is no getting away from its power to deaden intimacy in any relationship. Humorous repartees may have their place in a bar or wild party, but when they come at the expense of a person or relationship, they can keep love and connection at bay. In truth, sarcasm is distilled disrespect; it is devastatingly harmful to intimacy.
If you find yourself wondering how to detect sarcasm and other forms of toxic communication, here is a helpful, simple litmus test: After you hear a comment, do you feel pushed away by the speaker? Or, if you are the speaker, have you pushed someone else away with your words?
If you feel closer to someone as a result of their words, it’s most likely that their words were kind and connective in nature—the words created emotional safety. Conversely, if the words were toxic, you might feel unheard, disrespected, and disconnected—the communication created a sense of emotional unsafety.
“In fact, sarcasm has its roots in the Greek word sarkasmos, which originally meant "to tear the flesh."”
You can learn to become aware of how the words you use in your marriage can bring your spouse closer to you or—when you’re not being kind and aware—how disrespectful words can push your partner farther away.
In that communication patterns are learned behaviors, we have the power to change any unhealthy, unwanted behaviors! Moving out of dysfunctional communication patterns takes time, ongoing effort, and a deep commitment to change. The following nine steps are simple and straightforward, but you will need to strive diligently to achieve lasting change:
* Acknowledge that sarcasm and other forms of toxic communication are at play in your relationship.
* Learn to notice when you are sarcastic, rude, or derisive.
* Take responsibility for your negative actions.
* Count to 10 as you learn to control your "automatic comeback" routine.
* Wait in silence until you can hone in on appropriate words.
* Work diligently toward replacing cutting remarks with "I-messages" that reflect your own feelings.
* Allow kindness to replace your former "push-away" behaviors.
* Ask for positive feedback and reassurance from your partner as you strive to change.
* Be patient with yourself—it took years to learn the destructive behaviors, so allow yourself a bit of time as you learn a new, positive style of communicating.
As you let go of old, defensive patterns, you will find yourself enjoying a new and deeper connection with your spouse. By replacing harmful communication practices with kind and affectionate messages, your marriage will become a place of sweet interplay and safety. You and your sweetheart will be ever so glad when the days of "Ouch, that 'joke' really hurt me!" are a thing of the past. As you learn to treat your spouse with kindness and respect, you’ll find that you feel much better about yourself, too!
As a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, California, Dr. Carla Marie Manly maintains a focus on helping clients transform their lives and their relationships. Using a body-mind-spirit approach that underscores the importance of overall wellness, Dr. Manly works with her clients on a highly individualized basis to uncover the core concerns that often manifest as psychological, behavioral, and somatic symptoms. Combining traditional depth psychotherapy with somatic therapy, Dr. Manly offers her clients a specialized approach to creating passionate, joy-filled lives. Working in both individual and group settings, she strives to promote change by increasing her clients’ personal self-awareness and insight. A devoted writer, speaker, and yoga instructor, Dr. Manly is dedicated to helping others create the lives of their dreams. California License: Psy25539. For more, visit www.drcarlagreco.com and follow her on Google+.