“Can’t You Take A Joke?”: On “Humor” In Relationships

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I rarely advise people to make fun of their boyfriends’ dicks… but this was kind of a special case.

It was a joke, you see.  All in good fun.


When we first got married, I used to joke about my wife’s age.  She was eleven years older than I was – which I found funny, because I rarely felt that gap.  We had the exact same sense of humor, she was still whiplash-sexy, and if anything she had more of a thirst for adventure than I did.

The age thing cropped up so infrequently that it felt ridiculous that it existed at all.  So I mocked it, by mentioning her lumbago or asking what it was like to ride velociraptors.  Nothing much, just little jokes scattered throughout the week.

After about two years, Gini asked me to stop.  “It makes me feel old when you do that,” she said.  “It’s not funny any more.  I don’t know that it ever was.”

So I hugged her.  And I stopped.

Because I didn’t mean the joke.  Not that way.

And if my wife wasn’t laughing, what was the point?


“He’s a good boyfriend, I guess,” my friend said.  “It’s just that, you know, he keeps making jokes.”

“Jokes,” I said solemnly.  Because my friend didn’t seem like she was laughing.

“Yeah, tiny barbs here and there,” she told me, folding her hands in her lap.  “Little observations about how scatterbrained I am, or snide comments about how I’m slow to catch up with him.  It makes me feel shitty.”

“Have you told him that you don’t think it’s funny?”

“I have! And he gets sullen and says, ‘Well, I don’t wanna have to walk on egg shells around you.  It’s just a joke, can’t you take a joke?’  And you know me, I take lots of jokes, but these – well, they don’t feel – “

“They don’t feel like jokes,” I finished.  “They feel like he’s making secret complaints about you.”

She hung her head.  “…yeah.”

“Well, my advice is to make fun of his dick.”

Her head snapped up.  “Pardon me?”

“I know you’ve complained how your sex life has dropped off recently.  So joke about how his dick doesn’t work as well that it used to.  How you could get way better and more satisfying dicks out there.  It’s funny because it’s true!”

She frowned.  “I don’t think he’d like that a whole lot.  He’s… sensitive about that.”

“I bet he wouldn’t.  But do you have to walk on egg shells around him?  Can’t he take a joke?”


She didn’t actually make fun of his dick.  Because she’s not a jerk.

I would have, but I’m kind of a notable asshole.


But I think about jokes in relationships.  And sometimes jokes are highlighting something that’s ludicrous to you – like for me, that weird dysjunct when Gini and I would discuss the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion only to discover how I was in high school while Gini was long-married and pregnant with her first child, and how could that be when we feel like we should have been teenagers together?

Absurd.  I should make a joke about that one.  To take the edge off.

And then there’s other, darker absurdities, like how ludicrous it is that your partner can’t remember to pick up the damn prescriptions from the store after work, or how they’re too slow to follow this simple plot line in a movie.  And then you make a joke about that, because seriously, this is stupid, the only way to deal with this stupidity is to highlight it.

But who is your joke mean to amuse?  You, or your partner?

And if your partner’s not laughing, what’s that joke really for?


Truth is, a lot of so-called jokes are meant to remind someone that they’re inferior.  And not all those jokes are bad; my wife occasionally makes jokes about how I cannot follow directions, even ones on iPhones, and I laugh because yeah, man, I cannot do that.

Those jokes are shared.  She thinks I’m incompetent at finding my way around, and man, I know I am.

But there are jokes that are actually complaints buried in a razorblade chuckle.  Those jokes are intended to remind other people what a pain in the ass they actually are, and that maybe if you stopped being such a massive disappointment I’d stop jabbing you with this so-called humor.

Because that humor’s not actually that funny, or clever, when you analyze it.  It’s usually an excuse to take a pot shot at someone’s foibles, wrapped in the convenient excuse of “It’s just a joke” if they take offense.  Which, honestly, they should, because you’ve just called them dim or unreasonable or both.

And the great thing about that masked humor is that you never have to own up to it.  “I’m not saying you’re stupid!  It’s just a joke!  A joke I will continue to make long after it has ceased to amuse you in any way, a minor disrespect I will trot out time and time again until you stop doing the thing I deem to be a pain in my ass!”

Basically, those jokes are the coward’s way of telling someone how you feel without ever having to own up to it.  You don’t have to have a big fight because honestly, who wants to keep dating someone who openly thinks you’re intellectually inferior to them?  You can just keep sliding that inference right in.

It’s a good way of making someone feel continually shamed.  And it’s all in good fun.


http://www.theferrett.com/ferrettworks/2018/01/how-to-make-fun-of-trumps-tiny-shrivelled-penis/(For the record, I’m generally not down with dick-shaming, because dicks come in various sizes and you can’t really control whether they work the way you want.  As I’ve mentioned before, shaming people for their penises is kind of a shitty thing to do.

(But that’s the other problem with these sorts of jokes – they’re not nuanced.  The dick joke is a quick substitute for a far more complex conversation which would sound something like “I know you’re not always in the mood, but I still want to feel desired – so even if you’re not up for orgasmic sex on any given night, what compromises should we make so I can feel more of a sense of satisfaction?”

(But me, I’d probably make the dick joke.  Because when I’m in a snippy mood because someone’s taking potshots at me, I tend to return fire via the method I was shot at.  It’s a weakness.  I’m not proud of that, but man I wish I was as perfect as some of my essays make me sound.)


My wife and I are not without these bits of humor ourselves, you realize.  Occasionally we take cheap shots at each other.

“Am I really that much of a pain in the ass?” I’ll ask after the more edged kind of joke.  And she’ll stare at me with that steely gaze of hers, and nod.

“Yep,” she says.

“Righty-O,” I say, and either decide to change my behavior or live with her disapproval.

We’ve got a system.


But I think of my friend’s boyfriend’s jokes, and mine.  I wonder who it was making laugh.  Because when I discovered my jokes were no longer making my wife laugh but instead distressed her, making her feel old when that was not my intent, I stopped in a New York minute.

And I wonder whether my friend’s shame when her boyfriend “jokes” with her is the intended effect.  Because I suspect it is.  I suspect his jokes are his way of letting off steam by venting right in her face, and if she stopped being scatterbrained in the ways that annoyed him, those “jokes” would have fulfilled their purpose.

Which doesn’t make them seem like jokes, but more like whips to goad her into better behavior.

And when you contemplate the way he denies that he thinks any less of her, they’re just jokes, can’t you take a joke, it seems not only like whips but a kind of secretive, manipulative whip.

This behavior, by the way, is not reserved for folks who identify as male – I’ve dated women who had caustic humor to highlight my shortcomings.  And there are whole families who communicate largely through sarcasm and buried resentment, their banked anger jetting out in quips and mean-spirited stories told before as large an audience as they can collect.  “This person is inconvenient or inept,” is the moral of the tale.  “And I hold no hope they will ever improve.”

As it is, I have a friend who has an awkward talk to have – about what jokes are for, and whether they’re worth telling if nobody, not even the joke-teller, is truly laughing.  To discuss whether this is a communication pattern she’s willing to live with, to discover exactly what he thinks of her, to figure out whether this person is truly willing to change their behaviors or whether they just want to justify them.

And I’ll be honest: it’s probably better that she doesn’t make fun of his dick.  It probably wouldn’t get the point across, it’s unwarranted body-shaming, and as noted, it’s not really addressing the fundamental point of her complaint.

But I bet he wouldn’t think it was funny.



  1. Violet Helix
    Feb 21, 2018

    I’m a little flighty and scatterbrained. A friend once referred to me as “the smartest ditz he’d ever met” and I embraced this label, because it was the first time I really understood that my ditziness did not mean I was stupid. But that’s not the story I came here to share.

    One night, early in our relationship, as we lay in bed, my boyfriend took a poke at some silly thing I had done. I laughed, because it whatever it was WAS true, and I could sense by his tone that he didn’t mean it as a jab.

    But then something strange and wonderful happened. He paused and said “You… you now I didn’t really mean that, right?” sincere concern in his voice. I reassured him that I understood, that I wasn’t offended, and that he was absolutely right. He relaxed, we cuddled and I fell even more in love with him as we drifted off to sleep.

    It is definitely all about the intent.

    • Anonymous Alex
      Feb 21, 2018

      I respectfully disagree. Communication is a two (or more) party process, and I would say it’s about equally on both sides. Which can make it difficult when it isn’t your intent–one tends to take miscommunication as a comment on one’s intent, and therefore a personal attack–but in an ideal world that’s what clarification is for.


      • Violet Helix
        Feb 23, 2018

        You make an excellent point, Alex. In my attempt to find a succinct final statement, I drastically over simplified and in fact, contradicted the entire point of Ferrett’s essay.

        What I was trying to say was “In this case, it was all about the intent for me.” But your point has made me realized that even this isn’t the full story.

        In this case, it was abut both his intent and my ability to to accept that he meant no harm. As you said quite well, communication is a two party process. I am more than a little embarrassed that I am only starting to fully understand this at the ripe old age of 48.

        • Anonymous Alex
          Feb 23, 2018

          Nothing to be embarrassed about, IMO. What people (and I don’t except myself) typically forget is that while it’s true that a communication failure can arise from either side (or both), in one important sense it doesn’t matter. If you’re the communicator, your goal–by definition–is to impart an idea to another person. If that fails, does it matter whether you did a poor job of transmitting the idea or the other person received it differently? No; you’ve still failed in your goal. And considering your audience is part of your job as a communicator.

          So if you’re “joking” with someone, what’s your intended message? If it’s one of camaraderie, then you should WANT to correct any misunderstanding. If it’s nasty, then you’re being a dick.

          So yeah, now that I think it through, “it’s all about the intent” is actually right. I’m gonna Emily Littella this one.


  2. Gwyna
    Feb 21, 2018

    My husband and I used to call these “joking with the truth” — essentially what you describe, a truth or complaint disguised as a joke. Neither of us liked them, and at some point, we made a pact to stop doing them to one another.

    These days, in relationships where that happens, a person is asked to stop, and pretends to not understand, I’d call it *verbal abuse*. And the person continuing to do it should knock that shit off immediately or prepared to be dumped unceremoniously.

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