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Why "It's Only a Joke" Is Often a Cover for Controlling Behaviour

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

Humour is a powerful tool that can bring people together and create a sense of camaraderie. However, there are instances when the phrase "It's only a joke" is used as a cover for controlling behaviour. This phrase can be a manipulative tactic employed by individuals to dismiss or justify harmful actions. In this article, we will explore why "It's only a joke" is often a guise for controlling behaviour and the potential impact it can have on relationships.

Understanding Controlling Behaviour

Controlling behaviour refers to actions or attitudes aimed at exerting power, dominance, or influence over another person. It can manifest in various ways, such as manipulation, coercion, or emotional abuse. Controlling individuals may use different tactics to maintain control, including disguising their behaviour as jokes or playful banter.

The Power of Humor

Humour can serve as a social lubricant and bring joy to interpersonal interactions. However, it can also be used as a tool for manipulation and control. Controlling individuals may use humour as a way to mask their true intentions, deflect criticism, or invalidate the feelings and experiences of others.

Minimising Valid Concerns

When someone uses the excuse "It's only a joke," it can be an attempt to downplay the impact of their words or actions on others. By dismissing valid concerns under the guise of humour, controlling individuals avoid taking responsibility for the hurt or discomfort they may have caused. This behaviour invalidates the feelings of the person on the receiving end and maintains a power dynamic that favours the controller.

Undermining Boundaries

Controlling individuals may use "It's only a joke" to push boundaries and test the limits of their control. By disguising their controlling behaviour as humour, they can manipulate and gauge the reactions of others. When the recipient of such behaviour expresses discomfort or tries to set boundaries, the controller may dismiss their concerns, insisting that they are being overly sensitive or lacking a sense of humour.

Gaslighting and Manipulation

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which the abuser makes the victim doubt their own perception of reality. Using humour as a cover for controlling behaviour can be a way to gaslight the person on the receiving end. By making them question their own feelings and interpretations, the controller maintains power and control over the relationship.

Impact on Relationships

The phrase "It's only a joke" can have significant consequences on relationships. It erodes trust, diminishes the autonomy and agency of the person being controlled, and perpetuates an unhealthy power dynamic. Over time, this can lead to emotional distress, low self-esteem, and a sense of being trapped or powerless within the relationship.

Recognising and Addressing Controlling Behaviour

It's crucial to recognise the signs of controlling behaviour and address it proactively. If you find yourself on the receiving end of controlling behaviour disguised as humour, consider the following steps:

1. Trust Your Feelings: Trust your instincts and acknowledge your feelings of discomfort or unease. Your emotions are valid, and it's important to take them seriously.

2. Set Clear Boundaries: Clearly communicate your boundaries to the person exhibiting controlling behaviour. Express how their words or actions impact you and assert your right to be treated with respect.

3. Seek Support: Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, therapist or coach who can provide guidance, validation, and support as you navigate the situation.

4. Communicate Effectively: Clearly express your concerns and expectations in a calm and assertive manner. Use "I" statements to communicate how their behaviour affects you personally.

5. Consider the Pattern: Reflect on whether the controlling behaviour is an isolated incident or part of a larger pattern. Patterns of controlling behaviour may require more significant intervention or potentially ending the relationship.

6. Prioritise Self-Care: Take care of your emotional well-being by engaging in activities that bring you joy, seeking professional help if needed, and surrounding yourself with a supportive network.


Using the phrase "It's only a joke" as a cover for controlling behaviour is a harmful tactic that undermines trust, autonomy, and healthy relationships. It's crucial to recognise the signs of controlling behaviour, set clear boundaries, and prioritise your well-being. By challenging and addressing controlling behaviour, you can create a healthier and more respectful dynamic within your relationships. Remember, humour should never come at the expense of someone else's well-being or sense of self.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How can I differentiate between harmless jokes and controlling behaviour disguised as humour?

It's essential to consider the intent behind the humour and the impact it has on you. Pay attention to patterns of behaviour, the consistent dismissal of your concerns, and whether the humour is used to manipulate or maintain power dynamics.

2. What should I do if someone continues to use "It's only a joke" despite my discomfort?

Express your feelings assertively and set clear boundaries. If the behaviour persists and your concerns are not being respected, consider seeking support from a trusted friend, family member, or therapist to help navigate the situation.

3. Can controlling behaviour disguised as humour be unintentional?

While some individuals may use humour unintentionally in a controlling manner, it's crucial to address the impact it has on you. Open communication and setting boundaries can help create awareness and foster healthier dynamics.

4. Is it possible for the person exhibiting controlling behaviour to change?

Change is possible, but it requires the willingness and commitment of the individual to recognise and address their behaviour. However, it's important to prioritise your well-being and safety, and if the behaviour persists, it may be necessary to reconsider the relationship.

5. What are some healthy alternatives to controlling behaviour in relationships?

Healthy alternatives include open and honest communication, respect for boundaries, equal decision-making, mutual support, and empathy. Healthy relationships prioritise consent, autonomy, and the well-being of both individuals involved.

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