When Verbal Abuse Is Disguised as a Joke

July 18, 2017 Emma-Marie Smith

Abusers disguise verbal abuse as jokes, but even if the joke makes the abuser (and others) laugh, it's not funny. You're not too sensitive. It's verbal abuse.

How can you recognize verbal abuse disguised as a joke? Here's the thing: a loving partner will never call you ugly or stupid, even as a joke. A respectful husband or wife won't ever deliberately put you down in front of other people for a laugh. That's because it's not funny, it's verbal abuse thinly disguised as a joke.

Verbal Abusers Disguise Abuse as Jokes

One of the reasons verbal abuse is so insidious is that the abuser goes to great lengths to disguise his behavior as normal by saying hurtful things to you with a laughing or joking tone. By making jibes about your appearance or calling you stupid "for a joke," he can convince you that the abuse is all in your head, while still managing to belittle you into submission. Over time, you'll start questioning your own judgment. You'll put your trust in him rather than trusting your intuition. As a result, things will always end up being done his way. However, if he were to act this way explicitly, he risks being called out on his behavior and having his dominance undermined -- the very thing an abuser fears the most.

That Verbal Abuse Wasn't a Joke, and You're Not Too Sensitive

Disguising a hurtful comment as a joke is one of the many signs of verbal abuse, but I didn't know this at the time. Like many others, I believed I was just too sensitive; that if I wasn't so insecure I could handle his "banter" and we would get along just fine.

It's important to remember that a verbally abusive partner behaves this way so he can assert his control and influence over you. If you realized how great you were and how much better you deserved, you might not be willing to put up with his "jokes."

Identifying a pattern of abuse is half the battle, but it's up to you to break the cycle.

APA Reference
Smith, E. (2017, July 18). When Verbal Abuse Is Disguised as a Joke, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 17 from

Author: Emma-Marie Smith

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May, 29 2023 at 10:19 pm

Is it normal for a dad to say that he's going to hit you as a joke or purposefully scares your pets? He hits our dog and my cat is so scared of him. I don't know what to do. My dad says he's going to hit me and my sister as a joke and he's said this since we were little. He used to slap our butts he still does it to my sister, but he stopped on me cuz I started crying about it. He's hit me once because I sweared. And he always threatens my sister cuz she's always been more disobedient. He's never hit her though. I try talking to about it but he thinks it's all a joke.

July, 19 2022 at 11:39 pm

Hi my dad is an alcoholic.
I’ve gone away with him and my mum because they were going away with other family members including my cousins. He has been physically abusive in the past but he’s showing signs of being abusive again. Him and mum had an argument and my mum was in wrong but my dad snapped back with calling her a stupid birch which triggered me as that is what he used to say to me so like no reason when I was growing up. Last night he did this ‘joke’ that he has said in the past and said that my mum deserves a slap…. Trying to make is funny I said something about it and he shot me down for it instead of just apologising. Which is so scary and just so disgusting. :(

January, 30 2019 at 1:00 pm

Hi, my boyfriend and I have a lot of what you would call “banter” and he is very funny, loud and outgoing, as am I, so we share this sense of humour. I have spoken to him countless times over the past couple of years about some jokes going too far and no longer being funny, and making it very clear by not laughing when I find his remarks hurtful and also by telling him. I am very careful not to just expect him to guess my feelings as some people do, as I want my message to not be mistaken, so I am very clear when his jokes are hurtful to me.
Looking back, he has undermined me by saying things such as “you’re not funny” and making jokes about my appearance eg “you’re so pale” or “you’re ginger” when I had dyed red hair, or something that I don’t think is incredibly offensive, it could be seen as “teasing”, but it was relentless.
I am so incredibly sick of explaining to him what I find hurtful and he still so often responds with blaming me for being inconsistent in my reaction, saying that sometimes I laugh and other days I’m upset, and that it is a joke. I believe that in the past I have perhaps been inconsistent in my reaction, and more recently I have been very explicit when he says anything insulting within a jokey context. We have had many big conversations about this issue, where I’m so frustrated I get very upset and cry. I enjoy most of all when we hang out in a group of friends which happens rarely, as he is good fun, displays he cares about me in front of my friends (I have been ill for a while, so he shows to be caring) and he is funny and banters in a way that is not too far.
I’m concerned that this is all for show, but on one hand I see this as being normal to behave as your “best self” around other people and be more relaxed one on one?
But he still does the stuff described above trlling me it’s a joke and whilst it has improved, it still hurts and I feel undermined, disappointed and disrespected.
I don’t know what else I can do to get through to this person?

April, 22 2018 at 11:14 am

What about when he says things he thinks are amusing or exciting to him, but they're not to me? Is that the same? My boyfriend thinks it's exciting and "fun" to think of others, male or female, hitting on me. I find it annoying most of the time. He will go on for days about the same thing even though I tell him to stop. He says, "I'm just having fun." I can't even go to dinner with a high school friend without some stupid sexual comment from my boyfriend. You'd think he was a teenager instead of the 56 year old he is.

November, 5 2017 at 3:36 pm

What about jokes to kids saying you will gut them like a pig or cut their ears off, as a “joke” if they don’t do what they are told? Or banging your hands on the table as a “joke” and response to your kid who has the beat in his blood and can’t stop drumming?
My husband has done both this weekend. And when (Eye) confronted him, he blew it off as jokes. Especially the first one bc he said he was just recalling what was said in a movie. No doubt a violent movie at that. He did watch The Hateful Eight on Friday. Maybe that awfulness got into his head. Am i being over sensitive as a woman? He said the boys knew he was joking. But they’ve also been conditioned some too.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

November, 8 2017 at 8:35 am

Hi M,
You're definitely not being over-sensitive. I would be horrified if anyone said those things to my child, so you're right to call him out on his behavior. Watching violent movies is no excuse -- he's not a child. It's isn't an issue of gender, either.
The conditioning you refer to is worrying. Is there anyone you can talk to about what's happening in your home? If you feel that you or your children are threatened in any way, you should contact the Child Abuse hotline or the Domestic Violence hotline, both of which can be found on our Helplines and Resources page.
Good luck, and please visit this page for information and support whenever you need it. Emma x

July, 31 2017 at 7:37 pm

Agreed, nothing at all funny about it. It's all abuse no matter how you stack it all up. It's hurting someone, and making "that someone" dislike themselves only because of someone's need to feel better about their miserable self.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

November, 8 2017 at 8:22 am

I totally agree, Nancy. Thank you for reading :)

July, 18 2017 at 3:44 am

Thanks again, I am frequent reader of this blog. And each time i get something worth to read. Thanks Emma.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

July, 19 2017 at 3:00 am

Hi Neha,
Thank you for your comment. I'm glad you find the blog helpful :)
You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter for regular posts on this topic. Hopefully, if we can create enough of a conversation, we can help end the stigma associated with verbal abuse in relationships once and for all.
Emma-Marie xxx

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