When romantic relationships are at their best, they are often playful and lighthearted. Many couples are able to gently tease each other, riffing lovingly on their partners’ traits, habits, or behaviors. But for other couples, teasing is fraught. If you and your partner tease each other successfully, without hurting each other’s feelings or creating tension, keep doing what you’re doing and enjoy the playful energy. But if teasing is a hot topic in your relationship, read on.
First, consider what exactly happens when teasing goes awry. Couples I work with commonly experience three different types of difficulties with teasing:
1. The overall tone of the relationship is poor, so the couple does not have the rapport and trust for teasing
If your relationship is struggling in general, teasing will land like an attack. Perhaps you and your partner used to successfully tease each other when your relationship was less conflicted. If so, you might be confused why the same types of jokes that used to land well are now being received like a punch.
Teasing requires a basic amount of trust that your partner loves you and likes you. If you are worried that your partner thinks you are unintelligent or unworthy, jokes about how you can’t do math don’t feel funny. If your relationship is tense in general, even playful jabs will hurt.
2. One or both partners enjoy teasing but does not enjoy being teased
If you like teasing but don’t like being teased, your partner may accuse you of having a double standard. They may ask why you get to tease them and they’re not allowed to tease you.
But for most people who like teasing their partner but are not comfortable being teased, what’s going on is actually more complicated than a double standard.
When you tease your partner, you know your own intentions. You can sense internally whether you’re coming at the interaction with a kind intention. You feel playful, generous, and relaxed, so the interaction feels comfortable. But then when your partner teases you, you feel tense, attacked, or hurt.
If this describes you, imagine for a moment what it would be like if when your partner teased you, you knew for certain that they were doing so with love and kindness. Would that change your reaction? If so, then you don’t have a double standard but a discrepancy in the amount of information you have depending on what seat you’re sitting in. Your partner may tease you with sweet intentions, but if you don’t know that’s where they’re coming from, the teasing still hurts. So the issue is not that you are hypocritical and only like to “give it” and never “take it” but that you lack the information you need when being teased to feel safe and playful.
3. One partner dislikes all forms of teasing (both teasing others and being teased)
Are you someone who just doesn’t find teasing funny? Some people don’t like being teased or teasing others, period. If teasing in general just leaves a bad taste in your mouth, this might be you. You might have been teased a lot as a kid, so “teasing” just feels like a euphemism for bullying. Or you might have come from a family that just didn’t play this way, so pointing out others’ flaws feels socially unacceptable and mean. If your partner feels ok with teasing and you don’t, it may become a sore spot in your relationship.
How To Get Out Of Teasing Gridlock
So, how can you improve the way you and your partner navigate teasing? You might say, well, if one of us doesn’t like teasing, let’s just stop. You can certainly aspire to that, but many partners struggle to simply put a blanket ban on teasing, which is often a subtle, nuanced behavior not easily defined or eliminated. But short of never teasing each other again, there are some steps to try.
Diagnose The Problem
If you and your partner struggle with teasing, it may help to figure out together which of the above three difficulties you fall into. Is your relationship in a tough spot, so teasing just isn’t fun right now? Do one or both people dislike receiving teasing because they don’t sense the other’s good intentions? Or does one person find all teasing uncomfortable?
Knowing what specifically gets you stuck can help you avoid debating unhelpful topics like whether your partner just isn’t funny or whether you are too sensitive. Whether or not your partner has a great sense of humor isn’t really the point. Funny jokes have as much capacity to hurt as doofy dad jokes. Similarly, the question of whether one person is “too sensitive” leads the conversation in unhelpful directions without accomplishing much. If you happen to be a more sensitive person, being told you are too sensitive is unlikely to change that trait and will probably just intensify your hurt feelings.
Couples often try to fix their teasing problems by making rules about what is and isn’t ok. But these rules often backfire. Why? First, for some partners a hard line just makes it even more tempting to joke around. If you have a partner who is a bit of a rebel, telling them “never ever tease me about my driving” functions like placing a delicious treat in front of them and telling them not to eat it.
Additionally, rules often don’t work because they are so subjective. What counts as a joke? Is it ok as long as it’s funny? What counts as funny? I have seen couples get into prolonged debates about the semantics of humor. By trying to pin down exactly what is ok and what is not ok, you are more likely to start a fight and unlikely to actually put a stop to specific behaviors you don’t like.
Teasers, Share Your Intentions
If you’re the teaser in the relationship, you can experiment with buffering your playfulness with genuine expressions of affection. Add a hug into your joke, giving your partner a quick squeeze before ribbing them. Or offer a quick affirmation to the banter, expressing love alongside the comedy. Teasing yourself alongside your partner may also generate comfort and ease, so that your partner sees you are not only picking on them.
When Teasing Hurts, Notice And Express
If your partner teases you and you feel a sudden well of hurt swelling up inside you, take a beat to identify that you’re having a feeling. “Oof, that hurt,” you might say to yourself. If you have already identified why teasing is tough for you, you can circle back to the explanation that rang true. For example, you might remind yourself, “teasing hurts because I don’t know for sure that they mean well.” Once you’ve identified and noticed what’s happening, you can let your partner know. This might sound like:
“I know you’re just playing around, but that actually hurt my feelings.”
“Oof, that stung. Can you remind me that you love me and are only joking?”
“I see that you’re teasing me and don’t mean to hurt my feelings, but I don’t think I have the bandwidth for that type of play right now.”
The key to letting your partner know how you’re feeling is to avoid blaming them. The goal in this interaction is to bring them toward you, not push them away. Rather than focusing on how their comment was not ok, focus on what you’re feeling and how they can help.
As I noted at the start, teasing is not a problem for many couples! If you and your partner love playful banter, keep it up and enjoy. But if you keep getting stuck in a teasing debate, understanding more deeply what is actually going on and how to interrupt it can help you move through hurt feelings and reconnect after teasing flops.
If you want to dig deeper into the patterns of your marriage, couples counseling is the perfect space for this exploration. I am here to help. Reach out today.