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Do your relationship a favour - give up sarcasm!
April 2016  Issue #53

Today's Topic:  Take the "no sarcasm" challenge

Dear friends,

I am always a little amazed at the sarcastic level of discourse that characterizes politics.  However perhaps it isn’t so surprising, given that sarcasm is often present in our most personal relationships too.
 
If we’re honest, I think most of us have been guilty of employing sarcasm as our “weapon of choice” on occasion. However we can make a different choice. It may not be easy to give up sarcasm, however I believe it is definitely a goal worth striving for. Read on to learn more.

All my best,
Shirley

Something to think about


I have noticed that nothing I never said ever did me any harm.
                                                   --- Calvin Coolidge


The cost of sarcasm

Have you ever gotten into a conflict with your partner and found yourself defensively resorting to the use of sarcasm?  Do you sometimes use sarcasm to make a point or express your dissatisfaction with your spouse?
 

  • “Maybe if I was as perfect as YOU, we wouldn’t be having this problem!”
  • “I’m sure you would do a MUCH better job than me, so why don’t YOU fix it!”
  • “If you’re so smart, then I shouldn’t have to explain it, should I?”
 
Does any of this sound familiar?  Perhaps like me, you have cringed at the words coming out of your mouth at those times when your frustration morphed into sarcasm.  However sarcasm has a cost.  And if you care about the health of your relationship, then it’s a cost you may not want to pay.
 
Time to stop
 
A few years ago I made a conscious decision to give up the use of sarcasm.  I didn’t know if I’d be successful, however I committed to giving it a shot.  Given what I’ve learned, I have to say that it is one of the better decisions I’ve made – for myself and for my relationship with both my husband and my children. 
 
Why sarcasm?
 
I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly sarcastic person, however I began to notice that I sometimes responded sarcastically to my husband – especially if I felt really angry or exasperated with him.  Not surprisingly, he would sometimes respond in kind.  When that happened, it wasn’t pretty.  And it never resulted in a satisfying resolution of whatever was bothering me. 
 
Like many people, I viewed sarcasm as a somewhat harmless brand of humour – as long as it wasn’t taken too far.  However I no longer see it that way.  In personal relationships, sarcasm can mask all sorts of covert resentment and criticism – and it hurts.  It’s anything but funny.
 
Sarcasm is a subset of contempt
 
All this came to my attention through the work of John Gottman, marital therapist and researcher.  As I have shared in other articles, Gottman identified the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – the four behaviours that contribute to the break-down and break-up of relationships: 
  • Criticism
  • Defensiveness
  • Contempt
  • Stonewalling
According to Gottman’s research, these four behaviours are very predictive of divorce.  (Learn more about the Four Horsemen.)
 
I was sobered to discover that sarcasm is actually a subset of contempt. In fact the dictionary definition of sarcasm is: the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.  It comes from the Greek word sarkazein which means “tear flesh”!  Irony isn’t a problem in and of itself – in fact much of our humour is based on irony – however sarcasm uses irony to do damage. This is not harmless humour. 
 
What is really going on?
 
So I began to observe myself -- and my use of sarcasm -- and I became aware of some interesting things:
  1. I was always in a reactive state (emotionally triggered) when I resorted to sarcasm.
  2. I became sarcastic when I felt angry or hurt.
  3. Saying something sarcastic was a way of  “striking back” when I was feeling powerless.
 Trying something different
 
As I saw how my sarcasm was fuelling the fire of conflict, I was even more motivated to give it up.  So the next time I was tempted to respond sarcastically to a perceived criticism by my husband, I held my tongue instead. 
 
That was a creative moment! Without the option of a sarcastic retort, there wasn’t much else to do but tell my husband how I felt.  I shared that I felt angry and hurt in response to his comment.  He quickly acknowledged that it hadn’t been his intent to be hurtful or critical – and with that admission, both he and I softened.  We soon sorted out what he really meant and we were back on track in a positive way.
 
I was amazed!  What could have been an angry exchange dissolved almost immediately when I shared how I felt, rather than responded sarcastically.  Sarcasm is so often a cover for anger and hurt -- however those feelings can’t be resolved without bringing them out into the open.  Sarcasm only begets more sarcasm.
 
Something else emerged
 
After more experiences with refraining from sarcasm and dealing with my emotions directly, I was feeling pretty good.  Then I discovered something even more surprising! The next time my husband expressed something sarcastic to me, I didn’t react either!  I was able to say clearly,  “That sounded sarcastic and I don’t want to hear sarcasm.  I want to know how you feel.” 
 
This changed the tenor of that exchange as well.  My husband revealed the feelings underneath his sarcastic comment (he was feeling angry and hurt by something I’d said) and we were able to sort it out.  I was now more able to refrain from sarcasm AND to protect myself from being on the receiving end of it.  Wow!
 
No sarcasm = big benefits
 
Perhaps you are game to try the “no sarcasm” challenge in your relationship.   If you do, I predict you will experience the following benefits:
  1. You’ll discover the feelings that actually underlie the sarcasm.
  2. Your focus will shift from “getting back at” your partner or “being right” to sharing your feelings and resolving the issue.
  3. You’ll be empowered to ask for what you really need.
  4. You’ll open a space of collaboration, in which your partner can become your ally instead of your enemy.

You have the power to stop a powerful source of toxicity in your relationship by committing to give up sarcasm.  In so doing, you can set the stage for open, honest and caring communication.
 
Invitation to action
 
I invite you to experiment:  Give up using sarcasm with your partner (or your children, your co-workers or other significant people in your life).  Notice what happens when you refrain from this reactive response.  What benefits do you experience?
 
And if you’re sceptical that this is worth trying, then I invite you to simply observe when and if you use sarcasm.  Notice:  What are you feeling when you use sarcasm?  And what impact does your sarcasm have on the other person? 
 
Shirley’s Update:
 
Last issue I tackled the topic of Why we procrastinate.  Thank you to my friend Jane for sending me this wise and very entertaining Ted talk Inside the mind of a master procrastinator.  I think you’ll enjoy it!
 

Shirley Vollett BSW PCC is a Life and Relationship Coach, with over 25 years of combined experience in counselling and coaching. She delights in helping pro-active individuals make positive changes in their lives, their work and their relationships. Her Conscious Dating Program helps single and divorced individuals improve their relationship skills, avoid past mistakes and make healthy dating and relationship choices. Contact Shirley for a complimentary intro phone session. If you are experiencing a challenge or are eager to make some changes, explore how coaching works and how she can help. Visit her website.
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