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“Can’t You Take a Joke?”: What to Do When Teasing Hurts

Jenna and Bill are finishing up a dinner date. As they are walking out of the restaurant, Jenna starts to rifle through her purse to find her keys. After a few moments, Bill says, “Come on, Messy Bessy, we don’t have all night.” Jenna feels her cheeks flush and her eyes fill with tears. Seeing that she is getting upset, Bill comments, “Come on. Can’t you take a joke?!” Now, in addition to feeling embarrassed, Jenna also feels invalidated. A cloud of tension hangs over them, and one thing is clear: these two are not going to end the night in each other’s arms!

I have been working as a couples therapist for twenty years, and I know how many fights begin because someone “can’t take a joke.” Let’s unpack the role of humor in an intimate relationship. The basic recipe for relational health is this: do more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff. The good stuff includes deep conversations, fun times together, laughter, and play. These build a cushion of positivity, warmth, and trust between partners. That cushion softens the blow when the inevitable moments of misunderstanding and frustration hit.

Teasing each other can increase closeness. Teasing can be a potent form of flirtation and seduction. Teasing can reflect how well you know your partner. Teasing can be a shared little world of private jokes, silly characters, and inside jokes. How ironic that teasing is something that can both enhance connection and sever it. To understand why that is, we need to look at a distinction I use all the time in my clinical work and teaching: intent versus impact.

Questions for the Teaser:

  • How did your family of origin “do” teasing? What I often see is that the teaser grew up in a family that used sarcasm carelessly and thoughtlessly, perhaps even emotionally abusively. A little person who is growing up in a family like this cannot say to the big people who hold all the power, “Ouch. That hurt my feelings!” The only choice then is to thicken up your skin, to detach from your authentic response in order to survive.
  • What is the concern or yearning that hides out behind your teasing? Sometimes we use humor because we feel unsure how to raise a concern. In a healthy intimate relationship, part
  • When your hurtful comment is pointed out to you, do you respond with apology or defensiveness?

Questions for the Teased:

  • What would it be like to talk with your partner about why their joke felt so bad? Willingness to be vulnerable is essential for a healthy intimate relationship. Relationships thrive when partners can expose their tender underbelly and have their sharing met with kindness and care. For Jenna, being called “Messy Bessy” touches a tender spot that dates back to her childhood. Her family struggled financially, and she felt shame about her ill-fitting hand-me-downs clothes and worn-out shoes. I want Jenna to be able to talk with Bill about that vulnerability. Opening up to him about why his comment hurt gives her the opportunity to collect some really important data: Bill’s reaction. Once she has shared the story behind the reaction, she needs to
  • Can you stand up for yourself without putting your partner down? When you feel hurt by
  • Are there ways that you use teasing too? One of my clients shared with me a story about her feelings getting hurt by something her boyfriend said. We started to talk about times that she pokes at him, and she reflected, “I can dish it out, but I can’t take it!” I appreciated her willingness to practice self-awareness and humility. She identifies that she carries a gendered double standard—women can tease men because they are “tough” but men can’t tease women because it’s cruel. Gendered

I love this saying: An intimate relationship is improved by the two or three things we don’t say each day. View a fight that stems from an ill-fated joke as a vehicle for intimacy, as it gifts you access into your partner’s interior, their map of pain points and insecurities. Treating those tender spots with reverence and care deepens trust and creates healing. Being on your partner’s team is the best place to be!