Is Sarcasm Hurting Your Family?

by | Dec 14, 2016 | Family | 15 comments

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?


Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. J. Parker

    Queen of sarcasm here, and yet I still agree that you have to be sensitive to who and how you use sarcasm with. My sons have picked up my sarcasm, one in particular, but we’ve had discussions about making sure it’s the right time, place, and audience. Sarcasm is good in some contexts, and frankly rude in others.

    I have found that sarcasm can deflate a tense situation. But if it creates a tense situation instead, it’s time to regroup and think about how you’re using what’s supposed to be a tool of humor.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yep! I find I’m rarely sarcastic about people, and maybe that’s where the difference lies. When it’s about people it can be mean.

  2. Melissa

    Ugh, sarcasm is such a complicated thing. It’s very normal in my family – normal to the point that it regularly goes too far and feelings get hurt. Whereas in my husband’s family, it’s so not normal that even the slightest little silly sarcastic thing sends his parents into an absolute tailspin. I can make people crack up with sarcasm, but I can also use it to cut people to the core, and I know it. When I get angry enough, this little swell of sarcasm will start to grow within me. And I do fight it. I know the words I want to say will cause damage. I ask myself if it’s really worth it to throw this bomb into the conflict. Sometimes I manage to bite my tongue, sometimes I let it fly. And the worst part is I know exactly what to say to inflict the most damage. I’m at a point now where I will most often apologize the moment the words leave my mouth. Doesn’t change that I said it. But I’m trying. Sometimes when things are tense I just clam up and remain silent. People think I’m pouting, but the truth is if I spoke it would be ugly. I do have a very creative mind and I’m a deeply compassionate person. I guess the flip side is the ability to wield cutting sarcasm. I have to be careful to not let the sarcasm take over as a shield to protect myself and fend others off.

    • Åshild

      YESYESYES! This is SO familiar, especially the knowledge of what would hurt and the struggle to keep it inside to a degree where it can get hard to talk about problems constructively – the main focus becomes keeping quiet. At the same time I love a good sarcastic session with my family of origin, especially over a protracted weekend breakfast – fun and funny. I think we’ve done a decent job not targeting the inlaws though…

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s great if you’re fighting it and trying to fight it! I think that means that you really are trying to get in tune with the Holy Spirit and build people up, and I’m sure God wants to help you with that struggle. But figuring out how to use dry humour without hurting others IS possible, and I hope you’ll find a solution! Because it does sound like you’re a funny person. 🙂

    • Lydia purple

      Hello Melissa, sounds like you are me… I grew up in a very sarcastic family and the jokes often went to far. I had to go through my own journey of healing from the sarcasm… But I also am still struggling sometimes to not wield the sharp hurtful comments. I know exactly what you mean about biting your tongue and people misinterpreting it but you know better not to say the hurtful things. Sometimes they still come out… This is such a deeply ingrained habit and maybe truly related to a gift of creativity. I have gotten a lot better because I lived away from my family for over a decade now and I am accustomed to a different culture now, but still… Some people really trigger my old sarcastic self and often I am just quiet around them. I also know that my sarcasm is actually often masking a real issue I may have with a person. But then my struggle against not throwing the sarcastic bomb and figuring out what it actually truly is I am trying to say and how to say it in a good direct constructive way is sometimes emotionally super exhausting. it like a storm raging in my mind. God has proven to be a great helper here, I now try to pray myself through these situations and sometimes God has given me the exact words to say.

  3. Ashley

    I’m a big fan of sarcastic, dry humor. Different people “get” different kinds of humor, and you won’t catch me being “silly.” My husband has the same brand of humor. The only time his sarcasm is a problem for me is if I’m feeling particularly crummy. Then I tell him it’s not the time. I will say that there are way more ways to be sarcastic than with playful insults, which seems to be what people think sarcasm is all about. I live in Oregon, and I’m likely to come off with a comment like, “Oh joy, another beautiful rainy day!” accompanied by an eye roll. That is sarcasm without poking fun at anyone. I’ll also say that when people are particularly mean with their words and say they were just joking, they are lying. People know when they are being mean!

    • sunny-dee

      Actually, I think you touch on something here. I think we (and I do this!) use “sarcasm” to mean “dry humor,” and they’re really not the same thing. I have a very dry (sarcastic?) sense of humor, but sarcasm is explicitly about conveying contempt — it’s intended malevolently.

      A dry humor may jump on someone’s words or have a particularly turn of phrase, but it is not mean-spirited.

      When it crosses that line into being passive-aggressive or contemptuous, that’s not humor anymore. That’s just an attack.

      I think that’s why some of the “sarcastic” people on here are talking so much about being mindful of when they says things and what they joke about. Because their point, ultimately, is to be funny or entertaining or insightful, not mean. Any kind of joking about something someone is sensitive about or that hurts another person is wrong.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Very well put, Sunny-Dee! Totally agree.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, when I’m sarcastic it’s more like that, too–not about a particular person but about a circumstance. I think when we start doing that about people it DOES get mean.

  4. Diana

    Knowing when to be sarcastic and when not to, that is the key. My brother-in-law (my husband’s sister’s husband) is an ER doc and is sarcastic to the Nth degree. He told my in-laws that a gift they gave their daughter shorted out and caused their house to burn down. That’s not even funny. Our in-laws don’t get his dry humor.
    One time my husband and I were at another couple’s house for dinner and games. The husband was very sarcastic with his wife: You are so stupid that you can’t do ______. My husband and I looked at each other awkwardly. For a husband to say his wife is stupid is not funny at all. I brought it up to them later and they both were offended that I brought it up. They said they always kid around with each other like that. If my husband ever says I am stupid, he will hear about it from me. My 15 yr old is genuinely funny. She gets humor. She gets Shakespeare and many other deep humor. But she can also be very sarcastic. I try to help her learn how to temper it and use her filter. She is a harpist so she is good at interacting with adults in a professional setting, but her sarcasm really comes out with her classmates. In my marriage of 18 years, we have gotten much better about speaking what we are really feeling. It is very vulnerable and sometimes easier to hide behind sarcasm. But we live stress filled lives. Last week I was glancing through the 31 days sex book on our table and came across ideas for having fun with your spouse. We did the one about playing naked volleyball. So much fun. We laughed so hard. Every time we lost a point, we had to take a drink of our mixed drink. That helped relax us too. I am not that happy with my jiggly body but playing naked volleyball was so fun. My husband said he loved seeing my body jiggle around.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, that’s awesome about the naked volleyball! 🙂 Yes, that’s a much better way to laugh. 🙂

  5. Lisa

    I used to be very sarcastic but I’m not any more. I’ve found it to be a barrier to real intimacy. I have only so many opportunities to speak with a person. Is sarcasm really my first choice? Not any more. My eyes were really opened when I saw my children imitating me.

    If there is a real problem, address it. Sarcasm is often a form of passive-aggressive behavior.

  6. Libl

    Sarcastic wit (humor) can be funny, but when it comes to sarcasm in general I don’t like it, probably because my husband is very sarcastic. To the point where I don’t know when he is being sarcastic or serious and it messes with our communication and my emotions. I try to extend grace and not get mad at him because his sarcasm comes from his deep seated insecurities about himself. The more he feels little about himself, the more sarcastic he gets. Sometimes I cannot even talk with him at all because he doesn’t respond in kind. He just slams out mean spirited sarcasm. I either call him out on it or I just leave.

    Unfortunately, his sarcasm is affect the children. Our oldest is becoming sarcastic and acting like a jerk to his siblings. At the same time when his father is sarcastic with him, he feels very small and his feelings get crushed. Or he gets angry and calls his father out on it and his father gets on his case for getting angry at his teasing.

    I am learning to speak up more in truth and catching myself when I slip into sarcasm. I keep hearing the verse, “let your yays be yays and your nays be nays.”

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s such a great verse!

      Have you tried talking to your husband about what sorts of people he wants the kids to become? Sometimes when we can focus on the long term goals it makes it easier to see where we may be going off kilter a little right now.

      I’m sorry you’re finding this difficult! I’d find negativity difficult, too. And it isn’t funny when it’s biting.

      I think it’s okay to tell your son that he’s not allowed to speak that way, even if his father does.


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