Why Do I Always Put My Partner Down In Public?

Artwork by Anna Jay.
The other day, my boyfriend and I were out with some friends, and things were going swimmingly: the food was great, the conversation was flowing. This is what grown-up socialising looks like, I thought to myself. I’m doing a really good job of convincing people I’m a capable adult.

But then I totally ruined it. Without even meaning to. “We’re putting in this bid for this new workspace,” my boyfriend was explaining, “If we get it we’ll have to do about six months' work but then it should be ready to use.” Sensing an opportunity, I jumped in: “Oh please,” I laughed. “You are king of the pipe dreams.”

I got a muted laugh (TBF it was barely a joke). But then, after an appropriate chuckle, my boyfriend stopped laughing, his smile dropped from his face and I realised that I’d just made a joke at his expense about something he’s working really hard on – just to get some attention. In private, I would never do such a thing but in public it had seemed like fair game – why the hell was that?

Apparently, I don't stop there. "Often you'll say things about me staying in bed when you go to work and that I'm a lazy bum," my boyfriend tells me. "Even though I work just as hard as you but on a different time frame. I remember you saying that in front of other people."

Helen*, 25, does the same thing to her boyfriend. "I did it the other day in front of all of his friends," she tells me. "I was just being really mean about his hair, saying it was frizzy, and I thought I was being honest and endearing but the next day he was like, 'You were really putting me down yesterday!'"

“I don’t necessarily think it’s an indication that the relationship isn’t going well,” says Caroline Brealey, a professional matchmaker and relationship expert, much to my relief. “It could just be a sign that someone is trying to be the dominant one, that they’re trying to be funny and showy-offy, but also fit in and impress.”

Obviously this doesn’t reflect hugely well on me – I'd be mortified to be perceived as "showy-offy" – but as an argument, it makes sense. Poking fun at another person is perhaps the easiest way to get a laugh (read: social validation) and, if you’re going to pick on someone, the person least likely to disown you for publicly shaming them is your partner. Right? Right.

Oh dear.

Being British doesn’t help here, either. For most of us emotionally stunted stiff-upper-lippers, making a joke about someone comes much more naturally than praising them. “My husband is Spanish and he never does it to me,” says Caroline, by way of agreement. “He just says exactly what he thinks, in a nice way. It is a very British thing, making a joke out of things rather than saying them directly.” Perhaps making a joke about my partner’s work is proof that I’m proud of him but too big an emotional idiot to say so?

Some couples thrive on taking the piss out of each other

Anita Abrams, a chartered clinical psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, reckons that, if done in good faith, public chastising can be entirely innocent. Provided, that is, that you’re making fun of a person’s well-known 'foible' – a characteristic that’s widely known within your group of friends, and cherished. “Like if your friend is pregnant and she’s ribbing the father about how inept he’s going to be because really everyone knows it’s the opposite”, Anita explains.

However, making fun of your S.O. in public could start to be a problem if it’s happening regularly, or if the comments have a nasty undertone. “If it’s frequent and they’ve brought it up with you and you still continue then I think that’s a really serious issue,” says Caroline, adding that, deep down, you probably do know when you’re on dodgy ground. “If someone has an issue about their weight and you’re making jokes about it then that’s just plain cruel. It’s one thing to take the piss if the person does it themselves but if it’s something they have an issue with then I hear alarm bells.”

When this happens, is it time to question your relationship? Surprisingly not, says Anita. Instead, it’s time to take a long, hard look at yourself and “reevaluate how grown-up you are”. Sure, it is possible that there are issues between the two of you that need addressing, but the first step is to remember that “a relationship is fed by two people” and you need to assess whether or not you’re doing your share. “If you don’t reevaluate your strategy you’re just going to repeat it and be constantly disrupting relationships as soon as you feel the slightest discomfort.”

At the end of the day, though, it all comes down to what sort of couple you are. Some couples thrive on taking the piss out of each other, while some are more sensitive. The way to determine this is, unsurprisingly, via communication. As I get older, I realise this is the answer to nearly all relationship problems.

“Raise it properly,” advises Caroline. “If your relationship is good then you know when not to cross the line. If someone is consistently doing it and pushing buttons on purpose then there’s a chance you need to be questioning the relationship.”

So, will I continue to make fun of my partner in public? Probably. But realistically, it says more about me and my social insecurities than anything about how well the relationship is going. Added to this, people are perceptive – they're (hopefully) reading the situation in exactly that way, meaning their laughs are more to make me comfortable than to join in with the ribbing of my boyfriend.

But just to be on the safe side – and in the name of embracing communication – I should probably mention all this to my boyfriend, just to check we're on the same page. Because that, my friend, is what adulting looks like.
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