the banter trap
December 20, 2011 3:40 PM   Subscribe

How do I stop banter from killing my relationships?

I’m single at the moment but I want to avoid this in my next relationship because I think it destroyed the last one. Every relationship I’ve been in has reached a level of comfort a few months in where we develop our own banter and inside jokes. At first it feels fun and intimate but eventually it becomes predictable and boring because all we do is banter. It seems to actually erode intimacy. The banter becomes a wall, where we’re both playing a part around each other rather than being our full selves and no longer discovering much about the other person.

Can anyone relate to this? I’m not sure why this happens or how to stop it. I’m also not sure if I’m just being neuortic and other people consider this closeness.

The odd thing is the first few months of ‘getting to know you’ I’m much more myself even if there’s more awkwardness between us because we’re still feeling each other out.

I’ve noticed a lot of couples fall into this trap. You know the couples where they cutely joke around each other and have little pet names, but you get the feeling there’s no real closeness between them and sometimes the jokiness thinly veils a layer of contempt? I hate that. Is something more possible to sustain long term or do people just fall into predictable routines eventually?

Has anyone worked around this problem, and if so how?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (28 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I honestly don't know those couples. Anyhow, public displays of banter and cutesiness don't really tell you anything about what's going on behind the scenes, so stop comparing your insides to everyone else's outsides.

Going deeper with someone is hard, and it takes time. If it's too easy, then it may not be healthy or real. It sounds to me like you have a certain threshold beyond which you're not able (or perhaps more realistically, you fear you're not able) to open up to others, or a certain threshold past which you aren't ready to encourage them to open up to you.

The banter itself doesn't seem to be a symptom of anything insidious, but it sounds like you are noticing yourself stop engaging as your real self, resorting to a sort of role or character. And all I can really say to that is, stop it. When you notice yourself doing it, interrupt yourself, and then say something from the heart.

Therapy is the obvious answer, but I think this is something you can practice in your existing relationships starting now, so that you're good at it by the time you actually find yourself in a new intimate relationship.
posted by hermitosis at 3:56 PM on December 20, 2011 [9 favorites]

The banter is good in my opinion. Like you said, it's ease and comfort, two important things in a relationship. If the couple can't also have real conversations or one partner plays off real stuff they need to talk about consistently... well, that's a problem.

So are you the one playing off things you need to talk about (i.e. your feelings, dreams, conflicts), was it mutual or did that just not even come up? If it was your partner then it was his fault.

But, again, the banter is not the problem here. A couple could not have that banter, which I really love in a relationship as I think humor and familiarity are important, and still avoid emotional things they need to work on.

I come at this as an introvert, btw, whose highest compliment to a partner is "Being around you is like/better than being by myself."
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 4:03 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't necessarily think it's the banter that's killing your relationships, but that perhaps these are the types of relationships where you resort to banter because you don't have anything else to talk about. Once you find someone you're more compatible with, hopefully this won't be an issue anymore.
posted by jabes at 4:06 PM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

I don't think the banter is the CAUSE for lack of intimacy, I think it's a symptom of it. I used to do this a lot because I was just too afraid to be myself or let anyone get too close. It's a way of protecting yourself so you don't have to be vulnerable by being honest and open with your feelings.

It's hard to get past. You just have to 1) catch yourself when you're doing it, and 2) eventually you'll be able to swap out "witty comment" for "genuine thought/ honest feeling/ etc." It's hard to get started, but once you get in the habit of it, it actually feels pretty good and you'll want to keep doing it. Also, once you notice that you do it, you'll be quicker to spot the other people who are doing the same thing and either avoid them completely, or make an agreement with them to try not to let that happen.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 4:06 PM on December 20, 2011 [7 favorites]

This is a problem I am addressing, too. I am usually so happy to meet a lover/friend I can really joke with that it becomes non-stop sarcastic banter. It does get boring and tiring and I feel that it separates me from people I care about. I've found it useful to just make honest statements about how I feel about whatever happened to me that day or to talk honestly about something I/we both care about. With purposefully using little to no joking and being present in the conversation instead of hiding behind humor. Joking can be a defense and an annoying control tactic.

Of course, I haven't stopped joking and stuff. I am just more discriminate. It's helped me get closer to a few friends and I think it's really nice.
posted by amodelcitizen at 4:08 PM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Been there. Hell, might STILL be there, I'll let you know.

But what I can tell you is that a lot of soul-searching has led me down the path jabes and GastrocNemesis describe.

The relationships don't die because of the banter: the banter (dominating the relationship) is the canary in the mine.
posted by toomuchpete at 4:15 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

My experience, and that's all it is, is that healthy relationships spawn a continuous stream of in-jokes, such that you're not constantly using old, stale ones, but last week's with a few golden oldies. Sometimes, my wife uses one I've actually forgotten! Which would be impossible if we were constantly using it.

To me, the fact that this happens around the six month mark indicates that you're wanting to move from dating to a relationship, but aren't sure how to navigate that.

My suggestion is that the two of you should do stuff together that will result in deeper shared experiences than the kind you get from consuming the same food or the same entertainment. Take dance lessons together, or train for a 5K together, put together a joint New Years Eve party, learn to perform a song together on your respective instruments, etc.

Shared hardships often forge strong bonds -- not that you ever want to wish for that, but stay together long enough and something is sure to happen.
posted by kindall at 4:20 PM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]

Yes, I agree that it's fine for a fraction of the relationship but it's often 'theatre' rather than 'intimacy' if it's overdone. My partner n my relationship originated in long term friendship based on repartee and piss-take. It can't be the primary mode of engagement and I think our relationship is better for agreeing to dial back the wit in favour of the sincere, but I would never want to lose the banter entirely.
posted by honey-barbara at 4:20 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Sorry, not "around the six month mark" but "after a few months."
posted by kindall at 4:21 PM on December 20, 2011

It seems to actually erode intimacy. The banter becomes a wall, where we’re both playing a part around each other rather than being our full selves and no longer discovering much about the other person.

"No, but seriously..." {insert serious actual discussion here}
posted by pompomtom at 4:27 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

" ... eventually it becomes predictable and boring because all we do is banter"

If all you end up doing is bantering then it will get boring - anything will, if done to the exclusion of everything else. Relationships are a series of steps to a higher level of intimacy - the bantering lets you develop a sense of closeness and relaxation at one level, and the usual next step is to parley that sense of closeness into deeper feelings. For whatever reason, you're running in one place on the same step.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 4:30 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I tend to be bantery and inside-jokey with everyone I'm close to. It doesn't indicate a lack of intimacy or depth. It's when you can't talk to someone without resorting to the cute jokes that you need to worry.

I think I (and many others) do this because it's an easy, fun way to interact. If you're a regular Mefite, you might have experienced the phenomenon where you spend half an hour writing a long, compelling, well-thought-out (to you, at least) comment that gets no response, but in the next thread you fire off a silly one-liner that gets fifty favorites. It's like that. If you get a good response to your jokes, you start joking more and more often, to get that response. It's conversational junk food.

Getting past that takes practice, and sometimes it requires a little homework. Bone up on substantial things you can talk about: read the news if you don't already, read new books, go out and do "serious" things like volunteering or taking classes. Find out what your date/partner does that could lead to similar conversations. Talk about those.

And ask! Ask how their day was. What their mom's been up to. If they mention something you're unfamiliar with, ask about it. These aren't the icebreakery hypothetical would-you-rather questions, but questions about stuff that's actually happening.

It's totally doable! Just requires a little practice and letting go of trying to be fun all the time.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:37 PM on December 20, 2011 [11 favorites]

People who aren't ready for intimacy tend to adopt strategies that prevent it. I myself used to consistently get obsessed with people who were emotionally unavailable. It expended lots of energy but never resulted in a relationship, which I think was what I actually preferred. I didn't want to be tied down.

Frankly, real intimacy is scary. It requires daring to risk it. If you meet someone with whom you feel truly comfortable, someone with whom it is easy to talk about anything,, then the banter is just fun froth on the waves. The real action is the communication on all subjects, important and not.

First see how easy it is. Is the relationship a lot of work? Are there character traits you wish would change? Then the relationship is not headed anywhere, and that all you do is banter indicates no one has the nerve to acknowledge you are done.

If it is easy, if this is a person you trust and around whom you are always comfortable, then the next step, the one that takes it deeper, is the true exposure of who you really are and what you really feel and what you are passionate about. The ability to laugh together and the shared jokes that arise from a life lived as a pair will remain. But the heart of real relationships is trust, respect, and communication on a lot of other levels than humor.
posted by bearwife at 5:09 PM on December 20, 2011 [12 favorites]

Correlation is not causation. Seriously. Keep the's flirty, it's fun, it's funny. Relationships go south for all sorts of reasons, and it's never pinable to a single thing. Also, your reality may not be your partner's and you just never know. They may be thinking the banter is the best part, while at the same time you're having anxiety about it. Who knows. Just be you and work on intimacy in your next relationship, not the things that you think are signs of its failing. This is a red herring, a distraction. You're fine and somebody will find the banter just one of the many reasons you have such intimacy.
posted by iamkimiam at 5:21 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you get to a point where you neglect, but really need, real communication with your partner(s). You say that the banter covers up your real feelings... what about talking about your feeling with your partner? Do you do that, or do you just banter so you don't have to talk about how you're feeling? Because really, those talks that you have when things start to get more serious are important. They let you guys get closer, be your real self, and understand each other more. They might also show that you aren't compatible, and that's good too. But if you're using banter to hide your feelings, and then those feelings degenerate into contempt... well, that's just not healthy.
posted by DoubleLune at 5:40 PM on December 20, 2011

i know exactly what you're talking about, and i've been there. to the extent that i've been able to do anything about it, it's been by periodically saying something totally unfunny & painfully honest, that sounds to me almost like something a little kid would say - expressing an emotion without any trace of irony or humorous distance. the thing that really freaks me out about doing that is that other people don't see it the way i think it comes off - usually they completely take it in stride and respond normally and respectfully.

for me, the banter thing has always come down to a lack of (self-)respect. if i get real when i feel it's necessary to get real, instead of going back into the banter, it makes it possible for me and the other person to respect me.
posted by facetious at 5:46 PM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]

I've been happily with my partner for going on a decade. We have a whole language that we speak with each other. It's inside jokes, shorthand from our common experiences, code words (like- HELP! Get me out of this conversation!- has a code word) and genuine affection for each other. I don't think the banter is the problem. Our "banter" is intimate and brings us even closer together.
posted by kamikazegopher at 5:52 PM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]

I don't do sarcasm with people I date or want to be intimate with because yeah, it erodes intimacy in my opinion. Everything is witty and not-serious. I am painfully earnest in relationships because that works for me.

Some people love the sarcasm and banter. Me, not so much. You either.

Not being sarcastic ever is what I suggest.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:56 PM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Mr. Fingers and I are both very cerebral, verbal, bantery people who wander down this road if we're not careful. The best antidote I've found is just to shut up and go hug and kiss him, silently.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:20 PM on December 20, 2011

Describe the pattern you want to avoid, to your partner, and when you see yourself falling into it ask them to help stop, to let you change the topic to something more candid.

Clear speech takes repetition, practice and effort between people to sustain in the face of forces-of-habit, and IME can't be done single-handed. You have to have their help. If they're not helping by their nature, highlight it as something you want help with. It's ok not to be perfect, to know how you want to improve.
posted by ead at 9:18 PM on December 20, 2011

Yes, correlation is not causation, and happens to a) verbal people; b) people uncomfortable with their emotions; c) well, possibly the British (see, I can't help myself either-- it's a plague!).

Umm, what I can tell you is the difference I see between me (obsessively sarcastic/bantery/witty but then also not in some moods) is that for my friend it's theater-- that is, it's more of a performance for others rather than an expression of genuine thought-process.

This is why I get a bit irritated at people who seem to think sarcasm, irony, word-play, and wit are products of 'non-clarity', 'non-sincerity' or 'non-authenticity'. They're not-- it's just who I am, ok, leave me alone! However. It's also just something I do by myself and for myself; sometimes (when I find a fellow-banterer), we do it together, and that's awesome, but my humor is always with me (as is my angst, and also my huge back of chips over the shoulder). I do find that when I banter really well with someone, it's hard to stop. It's such a high! I get happy. Possibly a little too happy (I don't know). Well, I get a little more reluctant to say things that are 'too serious' 'cause it'd break the flow and then it wouldn't be as fun, and woe.

However! Most (actually, all) of my super-witty and bantery friends do get serious with me. All of share the personality-type where we're actually total angst-whores who see the darkness in life, the universe, existence, oh the humanity, etcetc. And because we bond on both those levels, and dig both those things-- the intensity of emotion and the lightness of wit-- we can feel 'at ease' and more deeply bonded doing either or both. I always get worried, too-- oh, wait, should I interrupt the flow with my sudden attack of Deep Thoughts??!-- but then I remember, 'oh wait, she has deep thoughts too! I wonder what she thinks of this? oh, awesome, I have to ask her!'-- and then we babble about our Deep Thoughts and bond emotionally and talk about our writer's angst and need for a cuddle (ok, not that last one).

See, so you just have to like, find people whose thoughts you enjoy on multiple levels, that's all. Sharing should be just as exciting and fun and engaging and comfortable on that level as on the other-- it's just a bit rarer to find a person who 'gets it' on the deeper level, but that's even more important in relationships than in friendships. For this reason, I tend to be heavier on the emo Deep Thoughts thing with romantic prospects, due to my wanting to build up the angst channel and feel at ease there, so that once the comfort of banter comes (as it will! if it's at all a suitable person-- because let's face it, non-witty people are Not Suitable)-- once it comes, we'll have scaled the taller mountain and be like, 'ok, let's really relax here'. And remember: Deep Thoughts (and yes, sharing feelings) is fun too. Often there can be sex afterwards. I'm just sayin'.
posted by reenka at 9:36 PM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

This reminded me of an old This American Life segment about babytalk within a relationship (episode name: High Cost of Living, segment #2) where a couple discusses how they broke their own habits of how they spoke to one another. One is a TAL producer and the other is a journalist and they speak very well about what was happening and how they changed it.
posted by Miss Matheson at 12:59 AM on December 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

I still cringe when I think about a three year relationship I was in that eventually devolved into endless baby talk and banter (he did all of the baby-talking and kept it up even when I told him to stop :x). Some joking around is good but when it starts to replace real intimacy I consider it the verbal equivalent of wearing sweatpants all the time and not bothering to brush your hair in the presence of a partner you've become too comfortable around. It's the easy, lazy way of communicating as the TAL episode linked to above aptly describes.
posted by timsneezed at 7:16 AM on December 21, 2011

No, I can completely relate to this, and agree with the people that characterize it as somewhat lazy and superficial. It's wonderful to have injokes and a regular bantering partner, and that IS a form of closeness, but I do notice in some relationships around me that people settle into that and it replaces emotional closeness. It could be a symptom rather than a cause, sure, but I think it's more cyclical and nuanced than that. And it IS boring on the long-term: you're certainly not intellectually stimulating each other anymore if this is all you do. And I *love* in-jokes. (Sometimes I would only speak in movie quotes if I could get away with it.) Which are separate from banter, I think. They are both habits that can take over when you're "comfortable," but banter is a fake, play-argument that I agree can create distance. Ugh, especially if it's often sarcastic. What matters most is what YOU think, and while many will say their banter is a hallmark of their great partnership, if you think it creates distance for you, then you learn to moderate it.
I try to use mindfulness (but not analytic all the time) to stay aware of my feelings, so I can detect when I feel too adversarial or distant after a bunch of (hilarious, awesome) banter, or don't feel physically attractive after babytalk. Everything in moderation, so as much fun as letting the banter then become a little routine in your relationship is, you balance it with lots of physical affection, and loving gestures. I find, for me, the opposite of banter is caregiving, and (enjoying both of these) my best verbal duel might be followed up by an offer to make tea or dinner, or a hug and kiss. Or I stop mid-snark and just think about how handsome he is, and you learn to be able to banter without losing romance. But try to have intellectual conversations and real communication at least as often as play-arguments. And try to be aware of his feelings, too, too... if he ends up a little on edge (not necessarily negatively, but, just a little wired) after bantering, go over and kiss him in the damn face and remind him that all is well.
posted by Sayuri. at 8:23 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm reminded of a therapist I once had, who, at the beginning of our third session together, said "So this time, how about you stop trying to entertain me?" MetroidBaby alluded to it but I will emphasize -- you may be trying to hard to be fun, interesting, upbeat, on, in it, bringing it, etc etc. Sounds like you need some space to just be yourself, and relax a little.
posted by thinkpiece at 11:49 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I feel like this is a lot like the pitfall of falling into cliche in conversations with people. With cliche you never really say what you're thinking, you just exchange codified catch phrases. This is okay for like 10 seconds. If you think you're hilarious and entertaining doing this, you can be pretty certain that someone has recently thought about how much they despise speaking with you. We are not television characters and acting that way is really out of touch with reality. This is roughly the same thing with your banter.

In a relationship there is a degree of cathexis that lets you feel comfortable just blathering on and on. You think to yourself, this person likes me, I can just not put any thought into what I'm saying. But that is the exact opposite of what you should to be doing to create intimacy. You need to represent your thoughts to your partner sincerely, most of the time, otherwise there is no relationship.

Just decide you aren't going to do it, or at the very least, notice when you're doing it and choose to limit it.
posted by dobie at 12:09 PM on December 21, 2011

There's a really great essay in this book that's about a guy who always looked for banter in his (unsuccessful) relationships, and how he moved beyond that to find a successful relationship. You might pick up a copy before it goes out of print!
posted by limeonaire at 3:57 PM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do I still banter? Yes, absolutely! But do I do it with my current S.O.? No.

Back in college I was always attracted to the glib, artsy, intellectual types. They validate how funny, smart, and witty you are. But once you establish that light-hearted, jokey dynamic, it's hard to steer conversations into the more serious, or if you do, it tends to be angst galore. Was there no middle way? Whatever happened to simple but meaningful?

Then I found a guy who speaks plainly. He says what he means, with minimal trappings. Over the past three years we've been together, this has radically changed the way I thought couples should talk. I might have cheated a bit: my man isn't a native English speaker. So between his mediocre English and my terrible to non-existent Chinese, our conversations need to be distilled to the absolute gist.

This might not be for everyone. At first it was absolutely boring. Sometimes you will feel like a part of you, the one that knows all the SAT words, has died. After years of priding myself on my verbal dexterity, I was horrified at how much I sounded like Tarzan, or a cave person, when I talked to him. (Okay maybe it wasn't that bad. But all those verbal flourishes were reduced drastically. And he, in turn, got better at subject-verb agreements.) But what needed to be said, if it was important enough, we always found a way to get across. It's like the saying "You should be able to explain it to a five year old" (or in another quote: “If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.” Supposedly by Albert Einstein.) Think of it as an exercise in zen/minimalism/brevity. Did you really need to rattle off those two paragraphs, when all that was needed to be said was "I'm sorry"? And sure, he doesn't rhapsodize about my cooking, but when he nods and smiles and says "Good", I know that translates to all the superlative adjectives I know.

Now, I still crave all those words. It's part of who I am. But if I want banter or longer conversations, I go to my friends. I love them, I need them, they keep me sharp. You can't expect one person to be everything for you. I don't know if that's that's being sad, or just realistic. Sometimes I do wish I could have both, and if you can find somebody like that, then good for you! But for now, this way of fulfilling my need for a) meaning and b) medium, from two different sources, is what works for me.
posted by pimli at 2:24 AM on December 23, 2011

« Older It's long, thin & you poke balls into holes...   |   Fixing my E-Brake for Inspection - do I really... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.