Miller—who's seen this phenomenon among his own relatives—lists other reasons people feel the need to verbally take down their spouse. "A husband, for example, who feels very connected in private, may be afraid to let his wife relate to anybody else in public," he says. "You often see this at a cocktail party when a person is absorbed in a conversation with someone else, and the person's partner begins to get a sour, tense look around the mouth."
In other instances, those who feel smothered by their relationship distance themselves with nasty cracks. Jokes about weight gain or wrinkles, he adds, are often a projection of a person's fears of aging or insecurities about their own appearance.
Elyse Goldstein, PhD, a New York psychologist who specializes in couples counseling, calls these kinds of stealth comments "Tourette blurting," and she divides them into categories. The comments by Janet fall into the "broadcasting" group. Pointing out mortifyingly personal information about one's partner—say, telling a group that one's husband likes to wear teddy bear slippers—is a form of possessiveness. "In this case, they're proudly announcing ownership, that they're privy to a certain area of intimacy," says Goldstein.
Other clients use the "zing" as a form of competition, as if they were jockeying to be the best guest on a talk show. "Sometimes people begin to see their mate as a kind of sibling and the audience as a parent," says Goldstein. "So they're vying for attention by showing the other person up."
"Billboarding," announcing a grievance openly to get the mate's attention, is another reason for sniping, says Goldstein. "If she says, 'Don't drip toothpaste' at home and the guy never listens, then she brings it up in public and everyone is horrified. It's like saying, 'You see what you've forced me to do? Maybe you'll listen if I hold up a billboard.'"
Then There's the insensitive miscalculation, in which you breezily underestimate your partner's vulnerabilities. As an example, Goldstein offers her own husband, who told friends that it took her 45 minutes to scrape off her makeup at night. "I'm like, 'Excuse me. People aren't supposed to know I'm working hard at trying to look glamorous,'" she says.
That reminded me of a friend who recently announced that her husband was trying Rogaine, while he blushed to the roots of his rapidly retreating hairline. "Well, it's no big secret that you're going bald," she pointed out. During the hideous silence that followed, my husband examined the pattern on his napkin as if it contained a secret code, while I looked everywhere but at the poor schmo's high forehead and searched my brain for something lighthearted to say. "Think of how much you'll save on hair gel!" No. "Hey, it works for Bruce Willis!" Oh, dear God, no.
This is the problem for most of us: We have no idea how to regroup after one of these little attacks. Both Goldstein and Miller suggest the best thing to do is to minimize embarrassment and change the subject. "Anyone want a second helping?" works, "How 'bout those Knicks?" is an old standby, or my personal favorite: "Who needs a refill on the wine?"
We Hear You!