How to Deal With a Friend Who Constantly Puts Their Partner Down ‘as a Joke’

Non-stop dunking and criticism isn't cute or funny; it's exhausting.

Aug 12 2021, 5:02pm
Getting Along is a column about taking care of yourself, setting boundaries, and having difficult conversations, for people who struggle with all three.

The first time I watched John Stamos’s Architectural Digest home tour, I barely noticed his brick pizza oven and his deep love of Disney paraphernalia; all I could focus on was how he and his 22-years-younger–wife Caitlin talk to each other. The way he imitates her saying, “I think we should get married in a couple weeks.” The way she describes what his bedroom looked like before she came along. He’s making dad jokes, and she’s rolling her eyes and grinning through gritted teeth. I think they think they are “bantering,” but it reads more like she can’t stand him.  

In talking about this with several friends, I realized pretty much everyone has had to be around a couple like this at some point in their life. It’s the kind of couple that makes you think, “Do you two even like each other?” Their behavior often takes the form of “jokes” that aren’t particularly good-natured (or funny). It can also look like aggressive and frequent nitpicking, or constantly interrupting the other person to correct minor details while they’re telling a story. (On social media, where it also happens, it might look like super unflattering photos, weird subtweets, and/or “get a load of this bozo!!!” anecdotes.) One person I was discussing this with told me about a friend of theirs who gets straight-up roasted by his wife in front of their friends every time they all hang out in a way that makes everyone present clench up. But in other cases, both people do it to each other, which sort of gives the impression that they’re OK with it. And maybe they are! But the rest of us have had enough. 

I’m not trying to tone police anyone’s love or whatever, so I talked to a few experts to get a sense of why people do this, if it’s really as bad as it seems, and what, if anything, we should say to the friends who are subjecting us to their bickering, complaining, and “girlfriends, amirite???” tight fives. 

Whyyyyy do people do this?

Ryan Howes, a therapist and the author of Mental Health Journal for Men: Creative Prompts, Practices, and Exercises to Bolster Wellness, told VICE that there are a few reasons why people might behave this way with their partner, and some are more innocuous than others. 

The couple is putting on a little show for “the audience.” This behavior could be lighthearted ribbing that’s intended to display affection and communicate to others that they are actually a strong couple—“a show for the audience,” is how he described it. In that vein, Howes said this might be a way the couple is coping with social anxiety. “‘We’re going to play the roles of the dunce and the annoyed partner, kind of like you see in commercials,’” he said. “Kind of rolling their eyes, Oh, there you go again, doing your thing. The other one’s the idiot, and they both kind of collude to play that role, because it is, I guess, more comfortable than showing up for real.” 

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They want to re-litigate an argument they had with their partner. If someone brings up a topic that’s clearly a source of contention, Howes said the person might be trying to “win by committee.” Maybe they didn’t get their way when the couple argued in private, so now they are bringing the topic to the group to try to get their friends to agree with them and convince the other person—“which is really putting the group in an awkward position,” Howes said. 

Obviously sometimes it’s fun to have a lively debate with friends about a low-stakes problem at home, like “leftover food rules and norms in your respective households.” But it probably shouldn’t be about topics that are actually fraught (like if, say, the couple almost broke up over the handling of leftovers)—and if it feels awkward or intense to you, the third party, listen to your gut and disengage.

They aren’t comfortable communicating their feelings directly to their partner. People who do this might also just be fairly passive-aggressive. “Instead of the two of them fighting it out, really just dealing with their issues together, they throw each other under the bus in public—which is just a way to hurt the other person,” Howes said. “And that's, I think, the most awkward and uncomfortable one for the people around them.” 

Travis Atkinson, a couples therapist based in New York City, added that drinking can make it easier for people to say what’s really on their mind. “There can be times when maybe the person has been holding stuff in that they're resentful about, and then when they get into a public scenario, especially if they've had a little bit to drink, they start to loosen up and get disinhibited, and it just comes out in a really negative way,” Atkinson told VICE. 

The person dunking is just generally feeling really insecure. Both Atkinson and Howes said insecurity is a big reason for this kind of behavior. “There's a certain power that people have by being able to prove that they know things about the other person,” Howes said. “‘Well, you've got back hair,’ or ‘your feet smell really bad.’ ‘Other people don't know, but I want to put this out in public to show I have this power; I could divulge more.’” He said interrupting and nitpicking is often coming from the same place. “It goes back to that power play, just trying to show dominance—‘My opinion matters more than yours, so I’m going to talk over you.’”

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Atkinson said that a person who dunks on their partner might feel, deep down, like they themselves are defective. “They feel like they're not really lovable, or there's something bad or inferior about them,” he said. “Or they feel like in their career, they're not going to be successful.” He said that when people feel this kind of shame, putting someone else down can temporarily make them feel better. 

Like Howes, Atkinson said nitpicking and constantly correcting a partner could be coming from that same insecurity, but he also added that if the person does it about everything—versus just one topic that they clearly feel a way about—it might just be that they are a highly critical person. “If someone has just a general self-righteousness or a critical voice, that's kind of a separate thing,” he said. “If it's about everything, the person probably is hypercritical; they may have an over-controller mode in them, where everything has to be perfect, or they're very scolding, punitive.” 

And, ultimately, the people just might not realize they are doing it, or how it comes across. After decades of Bitch & Dope in the Mid-Size City–style sitcoms and endless lists about how Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively "troll" each other and it’s sooo cute, it’s not surprising that people don’t really give much thought to this dynamic. 

Do the people who do this think it’s cute and funny? *Is* it cute and funny?

I tend to think this kind of couple behavior is most often the result of someone trying to pass off being a low-key asshole as a sense of humor. But to better answer this question, I talked to my friend Josh Gondelman—a professional comedian, author, and writer/co-EP for Desus & Mero. Gondelman also, famously, loves his wife; he literally has a (very funny!) stand-up set about how great Maris is. 

Gondelman told me he’s definitely observed couples dunking on each other in a way that feels bad. “It’s for sure something I’ve seen in the real world, and it’s a bummer to me,” he said. “I definitely feel uncomfortable witnessing it. I do think that it’s fun when both people clearly think it’s a sweet and funny story, where one person maybe goofed up or did something lightly embarrassing. But when it’s one-sided it’s very awkward for me to watch!” 

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“It feels like a familiar mode of humor,” he continued. “And I’m not saying never to tease a romantic partner. That feels like an un-fun way to live. I tease all my closest friends!” Still, he said, both onstage and off, “there’s a way to do it that’s fun and inclusive and teasing, and a way that’s like… one person belittling another (or two people belittling one another) to seem cooler/better.” 

While Gondelman said he thinks there’s probably less of the “take my wife… please” comedy than there used to be, it still happens. “It depends on what room you’re in, honestly,” he said. “With some crowds there’s still a pretty healthy appetite for the kind of stuff that plays on familiar tropes. And then other places, it lands with a little more of a thud.” 

In terms of the comedic value of dunking on your partner, well… Gondelman is way too nice to knock other people’s sets, but he did say why he personally avoids it: “Part of it is very simple, which is that I like and admire my wife a lot, and I come home to her after my shows every night (or after a stretch on the road), so why would I want to sell her out to an audience of people I may never see again?” he said. “It’s also like… a more open lane! From a practical standpoint, there has been so much less comedy made over the years about how people think my wife Maris is cool and good, so it automatically feels a little fresher. People often put a premium on ‘honesty’ in comedy, but they sometimes exclude that kind of honesty.” Gondelman also pointed to a very funny I Think You Should Leave sketch—“Jamie Taco,” Season 2, Episode 4—that is rooted in the idea of someone deeply regretting making fun of his partner just to go along with the boys. 

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All this to say: there’s definitely humor in adoring your partner and thinking very highly of them! It’s worth trying! But also, it’s fine to simply… not be the funniest person in the room. 

If people dunk on their partner all the time, is that, like…. cool and good for the relationship?

“It’s almost certainly a negative,” Atkinson said, pointing to John Gottman’s research on contempt in couples. “One of the predictors for separation or divorce is if it's someone that's feeling criticized a lot. There's no real way around that—that's gonna have a negative effect. And especially if it's more in a contemptuous way, it’s going to be pretty destructive if they don't change that.” 

Talking to Atkinson reminded me of John Gottman’s 5-to-1 “magic ratio”—basically, for every one negative interaction in a relationship, you want to have five positive ones to balance it out. So if the criticism and dunking isn’t balanced out by a lot of compliments and affection, it’s probably not great for the couple as a whole. (And if all you ever see of a couple is the negative interactions, it makes sense that you’d start to wonder if they’re in a good place.) 

Ummm… if I’m reading this and wondering if my partner and I do this, what should I do?

Howes said that, to start, you should listen to what other people are telling you. So if another friend has asked you if everything is OK with your partner, or mentioned that they don’t really like how your partner talks to you, don’t dismiss their concerns or insist it’s fine. “If this has been a habitual thing for a long time, you might just blow that off and go, ‘Oh, no, that's just how he is. We're fine,’” Howes said. “But you might want to step back and try to listen to that feedback and go, Hmm, maybe this is something I need to take a look at. This is how people see my relationship—what's going on here?” 

If you’re not getting this kind of feedback from friends, it doesn’t necessarily mean no one has a problem with you and your partner’s behavior, so it’s still worth doing some self-reflection. Howes recommended putting yourself in other couples’ shoes to try to figure out what your identity as a couple is. Imagine you’ve gotten a group of five couples together for a dinner party. Then ask yourself questions like, What is our contribution to the group? Are we the funny ones? Are we the annoying ones? Are we just the audience? If the two of us showed up to the party, would I want to talk to us or not?

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Gondelman suggested asking your partner how they feel about your dynamic instead of assuming it doesn’t bother them. “Just checking in with a partner about where their boundaries are can be so helpful,” he said, “because sometimes it’s not where you think they’ll be. But reading the room is important! If someone seems upset, they’re probably upset, whether you think they should be or not!”

If my friend and their partner behave this way, should I say anything to them about it?

Everyone I interviewed for this article was in agreement: Yes, you should say something.  

In the moment, when it’s happening, make a point to visibly not participate in the dunking, even if one of the people is desperately trying to enlist you to dog pile on their partner. “Then we've got a whole group jumping on this person, and you never know what kind of impact that's gonna have on somebody,” Howes said. “Don't engage with that, even if it seems like it's just ribbing, because you never know what that person's really experiencing.” Gondelman suggested being extra kind to the person on the receiving end. “Usually what I do is try to gently redirect or support the person that’s getting ragged on like, ‘Hey, that doesn’t seem like that big a deal. Anyone could make that mistake!’” he said. 

Howes said if the couple’s conversation is feeling particularly contentious, you could try to change the subject. If that doesn’t work, you don’t have to stick around for more. “Again, I think some of this is for the audience effect,” he said. “They might be airing this stuff in public for a reason. And if you don't give them that audience, that kind of diffuses it.” If it’s really bad, you might say, “Hey, guys, looks like you're having a moment, you two need to talk, so we're gonna take off.” 

But in general, Atkinson and Howes both said bringing up your concerns with your friend in private later is the best way to handle this. So, you might say, “Are you two OK? You seemed pretty angry with Alex earlier” or “You seemed really hurt by what Kyle was saying about you.” Howes also suggested doing some problem solving with them, e.g., “Have you tried couples therapy?” And if it seems really concerning, Howes said you might ask, “If this is how things are in public, how are things at home?” You could also try “this seems really unhealthy,” or “this seems like it’s not working for you.” 

Atkinson said if you’re closer friends with the aggressor, you should still give them the benefit of the doubt, and do what you can to let them save face. So you might say, “You may not realize this, but it felt like you were being a little harsh on Tyler. Has Tyler ever said anything to you about it?” 

But if things aren’t getting better and you just don’t want to spend time with the couple anymore, Howes said “it’s fine to lose their number.” If they keep trying to to make plans with you, he said you could say something like, “Honestly, we’re a pretty low-conflict, peace-loving couple, and you guys bring a lot of tension, so our hangouts aren’t always the most relaxing” or “We love seeing you guys, but you two can also be intense, and on vacation, we just like to chill.” Ultimately, remember that you have some autonomy here; you aren’t conscripted to play a supporting role in Bitch & Dope in the Mid-Size City forever. 

Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.

Tagged:

Dating, couples, Getting Along

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