Hearts fighting
Photo: Greg Miller
I'm at a small dinner party. The wine is flowing, the mood is festive. A beaming couple are telling the guests about the joy their newborn son has brought them. "It just opens up your heart in ways you can't even imagine," said a friend I'll call Janet. "We don't even mind the drawbacks, like no sleep."

"Or no sex," her husband chimed in. We all laughed.

Janet raised an eyebrow. "Well, does phone sex count? On our last phone bill, you all would not believe how many calls were to 900 numbers."

Whoa.

We all froze, smiling awkwardly, until someone mercifully changed the subject. After the party, Janet's surprise jab continued to bother me. Here were two people who were incredibly affectionate, but every once in a while, they couldn't resist sticking it to each other.

They're not the only couple I know to do this, and I don't mean just the Bickersons of my acquaintance—duos who regularly enact scenes from Jerry Springer every time we get together. I'm talking about the hand-holders who sentimentally proclaim that they're best friends yet will occasionally blindside their partner with a lethal, zinging comment.

A week after our dinner, Janet and I had lunch. "Is everything okay between you two?" I ventured. "That was a pretty serious swipe at your husband."

"Oh, please," she said, waving her hand dismissively. "He knows I'm just kidding."

It certainly didn't seem that way at dinner, when his face turned a distinct shade of garbage-bag green. Michael Vincent Miller, PhD, author of Intimate Terrorism: The Crisis of Love in an Age of Disillusion, doesn't buy the whole "I'm kidding" defense. I had called Miller to ask his opinion of this particular brand of couples interplay. "I can't help remembering Freud's famous comment when he said that there are no jokes in the unconscious," he says dryly, and adds that zinging is a distressingly commonplace phenomenon. "I suspect it's an unfinished bit of adolescence, the mixture of need and resentment popping out." That makes a certain sense to me, given our prolonged youth culture and the preponderance of 30-year-olds dressing and acting like teenagers.

I tell Miller about a recent dinner in a restaurant with another couple. A man I'll call Pete was telling a story and said, "For all intensive purposes, I was..."

His boyfriend hooted with laughter. "What? What did you just say? Hello. The phrase is 'for all intents and purposes.'" Throughout the evening, the boyfriend kept dropping the phrase "for all intensive purposes" into the conversation.

"That's pretty sadistic," says Miller. "It's a clear-cut power relationship—one person making himself feel large by reducing the other."

When I asked Pete's boyfriend about it later, he explained that he felt completely comfortable showing us their "real" relationship because we had all known one another for a decade. In his own misguided way, he thought that his joking around was somehow a sign of our closeness.