Married people often make jokes at the expense of their partners to the point where the comedic trope of marriage is two people who seem to hate each other. This form of humour is often dubbed harmless, but it has a real impact on relationships and people. In this piece we discuss how attacks on your partner under the guise of humour are harmful to relationships.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
When you’re a kid who goes around telling everyone that you will never get married, people have a lot of advice to give you. My favourite, I think, has always been the one where they tell you not to say “never” because you don’t know what you might want later in life. Funnily no one contests the term “never” when I said “I will never murder anyone,” in that case I guess they knew what I will want later in life. The one thing they don’t do, however, is ask why the annoying little kid keeps announcing her intention to never marry. You’d think I would have had reasons based in feminism or the laws that govern marriage, but those developed later as rationality did, my first and most important reason for being so staunchly against marriage was very simply based on the observation that —
Married people seemed to hate each other.
A lot of bullshit about marriage is normalised but none of it carries the toxicity of the heterosexual trope that married couples hate each other, criticise each other constantly, wish to die out of their relationships, consider marriage a huge mistake and somehow find all of that rather humorous in public settings. Men make jokes about how they can’t do anything in life without permission from their wives and how much these women endlessly talk and shop. Women make jokes about how men don’t listen and are so absent-minded and unavailable to their families. The new line of joking is how everyone is on their phones all the time. The classic one is about how boring or unexciting spouses are to one another, and how we’re so excited to plan activities that deliberately exclude them. Men make jokes about how stupid their wives are because they don’t like cricket and Mann Ki Baat, and women taking shots at loyalty and the lack of “alpha” traits in men. These jokes don’t just insult the people in the relationship, they are also reductive in their view of gender roles and love. When people make these jokes, they call them harmless (and the people who object to them are just no fun), but the same people are also deeply hurt by them.
I know because I’ve been asking people this question my entire life. This is what I do, I have a singular interest in life when it comes to social relationships, and that interest is people’s stories. I am greedy for information about the lives of human beings. If I don’t have a continuing access to strangers, I start to lose it a little. I don’t want to know about weather or the coffee you drank this morning, I want to know about your experiences, what moved you, what strange image scares you, what smell excites you, the strange and unique way in which you organise your night-stanf and I am good at that. A wise woman once told me that the first step to female liberation as an individual is to take credit for things you are good at without second-guessing yourself. I am good at getting people to share their “non-instagram” lives with me. If I meet you out somewhere and we smile at one another, you will be telling me your entire life story in an hour, thirty minutes if we meet in a bar, five if it’s raining.
I’ve had many women tell me, from my mother to a former professor, that being in a relationship where your intelligence and lifestyle are subjects of light social ridicule, especially when, as women, they have compromised so many of their dreams to be wives, is demeaning to them and damaging to their self-esteem. I see the impact of this in women all around me. From the homemaker who thinks she has to be brilliant at everything to the one who believes posting her whole life to social media will get her the validation she needs. I’ve had various men admit that they cannot stand the idea of being intimately vulnerable with their wives because they feel every aspect of their being will be criticized in a public (and private) roast at Saturday night dinner with friends. It’s not harmless. It also normalises things that we shouldn’t consider normal like minimising women’s financial contribution to marriages and the fact that fathers are expected to only make cameos in the lives of their children. The idea that love only exists until marriage makes marriage seem like a nightmarish proposition. The notion that people stop being attractive to one another and in general after they get married makes marriage seem like death. The idea that marriage is only about responsibility and compromise makes it feel like going to an abandoned amusement park. Why would anyone do it if this is what we teach about it?
Part of the problem is that we measure marriage in its extremities. We measure in strife. We measure according to how much pain we would bear for our partners. What all we would sacrifice or compromise for them and it creates the idea that if you would suffer endlessly for a relationship, it must be because of a love or sentiment equally intense. If not strife, we measure marriage in memories of intense joy. We measure the success of the marriage by the fact that we were together for it, we had children within it and by the number of years we have spent within it. These measurements if not entirely inaccurate, are at least woefully incomplete. The temptation to denigrate our own relationships into casually hateful humour, indicates that you are not happy in your relationship. If you are trying to measure your happiness in your relationship, that is not best measured at extremes, it is best-measured on a Wednesday evening. If on a rainy Wednesday evening when the gym is closed, you aren’t thrilled about the fact that you get this extra time with the person you live with, that means something. If you’re downright indignant that you have to spend this extra time with them, that definitely means there is a problem in the relationship. Problems often manifest in strange ways and humour is a particularly effective one because it is both manifestation and coping-mechanism wrapped up in one.
Whenever I discuss how this brand of humour is damaging, there is always someone who makes the argument that I need to lighten up and it’s okay to joke about things because that’s how humour works. I get it, you’re wrong, but I get it. There are certain privileges that extend to humour that don’t to other things, but even comedy has a methodology that may seek to offend, but not hurt an individual. This brand of marital humour hurts individuals. Just like we wouldn’t make a joke that singles out a particular community by associating a hurtful sterotype with them, we shouldn’t attack our spouses with hurtful stereotypes about gender roles in marriage either. That doesn’t mean you cannot joke around with the person you love but if the intention of your joke is to attack, that shows. For instance my partner makes fun of me in a rather over-the-top rendition of how it takes me a moment to go from happy, joyous and butterfly-chasing to outraged and trying to sue someone. I can do it mid-meditation. However when he jokes about it, he celebrates my personality as something he likes about me as opposed to mocking it as something he wishes would be gone. That’s a joke. When you say your wife is too stupid to understand GST, that’s an attack. Attacking your partner under the garb of humour is not healthy relationship behaviour no matter how many times you tell me to lighten up. It doesn’t hold a candle to the impact of being in a truly supportive and constantly loving relationship.
What it does is that it makes marriage seem horrible. It makes love and happiness seem like they are not important to marriage, and honestly, if you aren’t looking to be happy in life, what are you even looking for? It’s not rocket science this “answer to life” thing. It damages the self-esteem of both people in a relationship. It makes households a tense, uncomfortable and hostile space of living. It impacts children because they learn toxic relationship norms and witness constant bickering. It perpetuates stereotypical gender norms. It gives marriage itself a bad name (but many other things do that too so let’s not hold it solely responsible). Ultimately, it’s not harmless at all, because it hurts real people in real ways. It makes two unhappy people in every relationship. And two unhappy people cannot make a happy relationship. It’s not two wrongs make a right. It’s not two negatives make a positive. It’s just two unhappy people who have to choose whether they prioritize happiness or social expectations.
Because if you’re unhappy in your relationship, you’re unhappy. Making a joke at the expense of your partner won’t fix that. No amount of catty Saturday-night laughter compares to the joy of being content on a Wednesday evening.