Dear Dr. Yael,
I am writing to you about my husband who jokes around a lot with me and the children. He thinks he is being funny, but these jokes are usually aimed at hurting my feelings. When I get upset, my husband often tells me that I have no sense of humor. His jokes often make fun of me and the children. For example, my husband was in aveilus and I went to a wedding alone. When I came home, I was in a very good mood because my friends told me that I looked like a teenager. I came in and told my husband. “I had such a great time. My friends said that I looked like a teenager” He burst my bubble and said “Your friends must really need glasses.” Sometimes the children get upset with his jokes as well, but they mostly ignore them.
I know that his parents always made fun of him growing up, but I do not appreciate these jokes and I do not want to raise my children with them. My father-in-law still makes painful jokes, but I try to redirect the conversation so no one feels hurt. Please help me understand why he feels the need to constantly put me down. Also, what can I do to change this situation?
A Wife in Pain
Dear Wife in Pain,
Thank you for your letter. Your husband’s jokes sound like they are passive-aggressive, which is likely why none of you think they are funny. Jokes that are painful are generally not funny. Passive-aggressive behavior is when someone is acting aggressive in an indirect manner. Instead of saying “no” to a request or a demand, passive-aggressive individuals will often procrastinate, do it grumpily, or act stubborn. Your letter only mentioned hurtful jokes, but does your husband do these things as well? Does your husband communicate with you when he is upset or does he pretend that he’s not upset and says he is fine even if he is noticeably furious?
You mention that your husband was raised with these same painful jokes. Perhaps he was raised in a family where you were not allowed to discuss feelings, so he found a way to express his anger and frustration passively. Additionally, being assertive and expressing your emotions in a healthy manner is hard, especially if you were never taught to do so. Sometimes, people take the easier way to deal with their emotions and act out in a passive-aggressive manner instead of confronting the source of their anger. Thus, your husband’s “jokes” may be his way of expressing his feelings without being able to do so appropriately.
Perhaps when you came home from the wedding happy, he felt bad that he missed out or that you had fun without him. Maybe he felt you were happier that he wasn’t able to come, which hurt his feelings. We cannot know what he was actually feeling without him telling us, but it was obviously something negative or he would not have had to put you down. It is possible that because he has a hard time expressing his emotions, he acts in a passive-aggressive manner instead. Regardless, his putting you down comes from a place of insecurity and it would be helpful to see a professional to help him build his self-esteem and teach him how to communicate his emotions in a healthy manner.
Now that we somewhat understand why your husband is putting you down, I will give you a few tools to help you when you are in these types of situations. If your husband makes a “joke,” you can intuit that he is feeling insecure about something and you can point out his feelings in a way that is non-judgemental. Going back to your wedding example, instead of getting angry or hurt at your husband’s joke, you can say something like, “it seems like it was hard for you to stay home alone. I know how hard aveilus is for you.” Obviously this will take a lot of inner strength, but if you can work on changing your perspective and realizing that your husband is not trying to put you down, you may find the strength to do so. In the wedding example, you can even say something like, “Even though I had a nice time with my friends, I missed you and wished you were able to be with me.” Of course this takes super human strength as this person just put you down; however, working on changing your perspective will definitely neutralize the sting somewhat and enable you to respond in a way that can foster better communication.
Instead of taking what your husband says personally, you can work on realizing that his “jokes” mean he is hurting in some way and it has nothing to do with you. It is possible that you changing your reaction will change how your husband treats you, but if not, it is definitely prudent for you to encourage your husband to seek professional help as suggested above. If he refuses, you can seek your own professional help to help you change your perspective and the way you respond. If you decide to go for your own help, please seek a psychologist who will help you and not encourage you to leave your husband (unless that is something you want, but that is not the impression I got from your letter). Hatzlocha with this challenging situation!