I had forgotten all about The Blonde Club, until Dolores reminded me.
“Whenever I went away on a trip without my husband, I’d quip that I didn’t have to be lonely while I was away because he’d be having fun with “Dolores” – his make-believe girlfriend,” writes Vikki Stark. “To me, that was a riot – that my husband could ever possibly have a girlfriend was so far-fetched, I thought it was a really funny joke,” she wrote in her book Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife’s Guide to Recovery and Renewal.
As you might guess from that title, this funny joke turned out to not be such a riot. Her husband really was having an affair, which led to the sudden dissolution of their marriage.
After her experience, Stark, a therapist, started to study the phenomenon of apparently-happy husbands who don’t just stray, but simply walk away from their long-term marriages. Ultimately she looked at four hundred examples of this strange behavior, which she calls Sudden Wife Abandonment Syndrome. My own divorce fit the characteristics of this phenomenon so neatly, that I almost wondered whether my ex-husband had actually used it as a checklist.
But I had to put down the book when I got the part about Dolores. This was just getting creepy. For many, many years, my then-husband and I joked about “The Blonde Club,” an imaginary call-girl service he would patronize when I was out of town, or out with friends, in any event, not around.
I first remember it as The Blonde Club of Ithaca, which would mean that this joke started very early in our relationship – either when we were in college, or immediately after we got married. As we moved from city to city, the joke would be adjusted for geography. The Blonde Club of Rochester. The Blonde Club of Delaware, New Hampshire, and finally Manhattan. He would make the joke, or I would make the joke, I think we both genuinely thought it was funny. Obviously not a real humdinger, but at least worth a chuckle.
It immediately struck me that couples just don’t make jokes about Dolores and the Blonde Clubs when infidelity isn’t a concern, on a deep and unvoiced level. (In fact, after I became aware of an actual instance of his infidelity, I don’t recall either of us ever making that joke again.) It also occurred to me that when we joked about The Blonde Club over the years, what were really saying to each other was something like this:
Me: “Hey, you know what? I don’t trust you. Although I could never say that out loud.”
Him: “I realize that you don’t trust me. You probably shouldn’t. I don’t know how to talk about this.”
Fucking hilarious, really.
The moment where I could have made something meaningful out of the Blonde Club jokes is, of course, over. But since the family Stein is legendary for its humor — especially in our own minds – this made me realize that I need to look more carefully at the many times that I tease or am teased, make or hear jokes, particularly in an important relationship. And perhaps you, dear reader, should as well.
First, I should say that I don’t want to ruin humor. It really is the good stuff in life. Smiles are how we show pleasure, laughter is smiling, escalated and reliably provides more pleasure. Sometimes being funny is just being funny. A joke is sometimes just a joke.
Teasing, especially, has an important function in relationships, writes Robin Kowalski in her book Complaining, Teasing and Other Annoying Behaviors. Teasing, is always about confronting another person about some aspect of his or her identity. (“Identity confrontation couched in humor,” Kowalski writes. As opposed to bullying, which lacks humor.) The focus of the tease can be physical appearance – like wearing glasses. It can be a lack of skill – oh, just picking from my own long list of failings, a tendency towards being late, or getting lost. It could be a customary way of doing things, like for instance, how I always leave just a little bit of coffee in the cup.
Teasing requires knowing something about the person – you can’t really effectively tease someone you don’t know; you can’t really be teased by someone who isn’t paying you close attention. So it establishes camaraderie and conveys some degree of intimacy. This is why it can sometimes feel good to be teased and to tease.
Behind this knowledge, though, is also some degree of hostility. And humor is also a way of being hostile. This is not necessarily a bad thing. People that you interact with regularly, no matter how much you love them, can be annoying. Making a joke about some grating aspect of their behavior lets you voice that annoyance without elevating it into a “we need to talk” moment.
And actually, humor is an incredibly elegant way of handling the smaller challenges in a relationship. It allows you to give voice to some part of your experience that you’re not able to utter directly. It gives you some cover, in case your observation cuts to close to the bone. (“Jeez, can’t you take a joke?) And you get the relief of having expressed the truth “even though it had to be done through all sorts of roundabout ways,” Freud wrote in Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious.
Also, you’re able to get the other person on your side, at least at the moment of their laughter. “The listener will be induced by the gain in pleasure [from laughing] to take part, even if he is not altogether convinced,–just as we on other occasions were fascinated by harmless witticism, were wont to overestimate the substance of the sentence wittily expressed. “To prejudice the laughter in one’s own favor” is a completely pertinent saying in the German language,” observed Freud.
To cite a rather extreme example, Freud recounts story told about the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, traveling on a train car filled with pro-slavery ministers. One approached him and asked: are you here to free the niggers? When Phillips said he was, the minister suggested that he leave the state. Phillips responded like this:
“Excuse me, are you a preacher?”
“I am, sir.”
“Are you trying to save souls from hell?”
“Yes sir, that’s my business.”
“Well, why don’t you go there?”
The car erupted with laughter – laughter from the other racist ministers – and the one who’d questioned Phillips hurried from the car in embarrassment.
The point, Freud said, is that the minister was obnoxious in his approach, and Phillips, being a classy guy, didn’t want to respond in kind, but nor did he want to just let it slide in front of a group of other preachers. So he used humor, which enabled him to “fascinate” the other clergymen, and for a moment brought them to his side.
That’s a slightly different application of humor, obviously Phillips and the racist preacher weren’t in association with one another, didn’t have an ongoing relationship to consider, weren’t going to be sleeping together that night.
But it’s easy to see how this would work in a close relationship — that if you can get your significant other to laugh at some aspect of their annoying behavior, for that moment, they recognize it and agree with you. For instance, I’m a person who is prone to being a little spacy – I am capable of walking many times past some piece of detritus on the floor and not seeing it. My then-husband would often tease me about this, and I would laugh. A lot happened in that moment of teasing: a slightly annoying behavior of mine was brought to my attention and in the moment I laughed, I acknowledged its annoyance. We had a shared experience of warmth and laughter, and I even would stop and pick an errant sock up off the floor from time to time.
So humor discharges negative energy, which is sometimes exactly what’s needed. But that becomes a problem when the joking and the teasing are about something very important, even fundamental. Like trust. Like fidelity. Or a career change, or an important interaction with the in-laws, or child care issues, insert-your-important-issue-here. Joking about it makes you feel like you’ve handled it, you’ve brought it up, you’ve come to a resolution. It’s like a more enjoyable form of denial.
Humor also might be the only way that you can first bring up a difficult topic if you’re joking about something important, you many not even be consciously aware of how much it is actually bothering you, it may be the joke itself that gives you the hint.
So the trick it seems to me, isn’t to stop joking and teasing in close or romantic relationships. It’s deciding when you need to keep talking, once the laughter stops.