Just Kidding

Kidding is defined as, “being playfully or teasingly deceptive.” The Oxford English Dictionary says that it is to “make a kid of,” someone, by fooling them using their innocence and trust.  

Kidding In Relationships

The foundation of any healthy relationship begins with trust, both in action and word. As a counselor, I’ve seen how “kidding” can harm a relationship, and that the “harm” is often permanent. Since I’ve had several clients come in with issues revolving around the act of kidding, I want to address what happens to the brain when it experiences being kidded.

Word Trauma

Thousands of books, studies, and almost every other Psychology Today magazine tell you that words change and restructure your brain. For example, verbal abuse is the act of using words to alter someone’s brain into a negative state. This type of abuse is often considered worse than physical abuse, and has long term side-effects, especially since memories store emotional pain, but not physical pain. These types of emotional memories play an important part in why kidding can be traumatizing. 

This is because kidding is verbal abuse in disguise. It is often delivered with a lighter change in tone. This is supposed to alert the receiver that what is being said should not be taken seriously. Kidding can also be delivered with no change in tone. This is to upset the receiver for the speaker’s amusement. After the receiver is upset, and the negative effect has been observed, the speaker will then say, “Just kidding.” 

Someone married to, or dating, a kidder often finds themselves experiencing emotions similar to those in a verbally abusive relationship. This is unfortunate if the kidder really is “just kidding.” If the kidder is not kidding, then it is verbal abuse. For this blog we will assume that the partner is tying to be funny, not abusive.  

What Is Happening To The Receiver? 

Every healthy relationship is built on trust. This is because “trust” allows you to let down your walls. Your “walls” are barriers between the external world and your brain, like a filter. For example, if you work for a verbally abusive, neurotic sociopath, and you don’t wish to leave your job, then you can protect yourself by filtering what your boss says through your “he-or-she’s-an-insane-sociopath” filter. But, putting up walls takes a lot of energy to maintain. Walls can drain you, plus they don’t always work. This is why anyone who uses walls to get through their day needs a safe space to recharge.  

For many , their home is their “safe space” –a place where they can let down their walls and recover from the day. For a space to be safe, there must be trust that anyone in the space will cause no intentional harm. This is one of the reasons why kidding can be damaging to a relationship, because the speaker’s words cannot be trusted. Therefore, the receiver must put up a wall when around the speaker. if not, they risk experiencing the side effects of being kidded. The longer the relationship; the more the kidding; the bigger the wall becomes. The wall then turns into a wedge that separates, and often ends, the relationship—since it is only by removing the speaker that the receiver can experience peace.

Side-Effects Of Kidding

There are a number of negative side-effects caused by kidding. First, any kind of word trauma causes the release of a dozen stress-producing hormones. This affects the brain’s ability to function. Negative words are also remembered, as are the feelings they create. The role of the brain’s amygdalae is to store “memories associated with emotional events.” Research shows how one negative word can trigger a reaction within the amygdalae to create a memory of the event. This is why negative words that cause harm are likely to be remembered, like trauma. Over time the actual word may be forgotten, but the emotional memory remains. 

After the memory is created, the amygdalae can take the process a step further. It assists the brain in associating the traumatic memory with other traumatic memories. This is to help the receiver avoid similar traumas in the future. If the associated word traumas are caused by a romantic partner, the brain conditions itself to see the partner as unsafe. This is to protect the receiver from the speaker, since prolonged kidding can cause a list of psychological and biological issues like increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. 

“I Was Just Kidding!”

When the receiver tells the speaker that the kidding hurt their feelings, or made them feel anxious, or “wasn’t funny,” and the speaker says, “I was just kidding,” it does two things. First, if invalidates the receiver’s feelings. Second, it can keep the receiver from pointing out their feelings in the future, especially if the speaker makes the receiver feel foolish, or gets upset at the receiver for not being able to “take a joke.” If the speaker continues the kidding, the receiver may try to brush it off, feeling like they should be able to take a joke and that they are being too sensitive. This takes a great deal of thought and energy, and often doesn’t work since the receiver is simply repressing the feelings created by the speaker to avoid upsetting the speaker (in the same way a verbal abuse victim avoids angering the abuser).  

“I feel sad now.” “Another day ruined.” “My partner will get upset and make things worse if I say anything.” Thoughts like these are what push the receiver away from the speaker, and eventually lead to resentment and anger. Even if the speaker apologizes by saying something like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” it may calm the receiver’s brain and reduce the emotion, but it does not remove the memory. If the speaker continues to kid the receiver on other occasions, and apologizes each time, the apology often produces the opposite effect of soothing.  

The Receiver’s Love Language

Love languages are one of the primary concepts I use when helping couples understand each other. If the receiver’s love language is words of affirmation, then it means that, when a word enters the receiver’s brain, it has a profound effect on the receiver’s state of mind. When a speaker uses positive words, the receiver feels loved. When the speaker uses negative words, the receiver feels the opposite of love. It’s that simple. 

Kidding also affects other love languages. It ruins quality time, because the body and mind are spending that time recovering from the word trauma. It ruins physical touch, because anger and anxiety can disrupt the body’s ability to become aroused. Acts of service is affected because… who wants to do anything for someone they’re angry at. Gifts…. well, there are only so many times the speaker can use that love language as an apology before it’s no longer affective.

The People Pleaser

If the receiver is also a people pleaser (someone who never wants to upset anyone), and the speaker pretends to be upset as a form of kidding, then it creates a great deal of anxiety within the receiver. Even if the speaker says, “I was just kidding,” the receiver will often panic and question the speaker to make sure the speaker was kidding (and may never actually accept that the speaker was kidding, especially if the speaker becomes frustrated for being repeatedly questioned).

Before You Kid Your Partner

I realize a lot of this may sound like it’s blown out of proportion, but I have seen the effect of long term kidding on relationships. Long term kidding can cause physical illnesses, increased levels of stress and anxiety, depression, and a host of other issues within the receiver. Overtime, even if a couple seeks help, and the kidding is stopped, the relationship may be past the recovery stage, and poised for separation. 

In short, if your partner says, “Stop kidding me,” then stop. It’s not funny to them, and it could end your relationship. It helps to realize that it’s not a matter of the receiver “learning to take a joke.” It’s a matter of trust and safety. If you are the receiver, then explain to the speaker what kidding is doing to you mentally. If the speaker continues to say that you should just, “toughen up,” then perhaps it’s time to get a new speaker. 

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