"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."
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.
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?"
I myself have been guilty of zinging. Once, at a family gathering, I was telling what I thought was a knee-slapping story of how my husband and I met: He had been terribly quiet but doggedly followed me around a party while I ignored him. I imitated his clumsy attempts at conversation, complete with stammering. "So, then, ah, wh-where are you, um, where are you from?" I stuttered, while my family chortled away.
Later he pulled me aside. "You're an outgoing person, so you think that shyness is charming," he said. "It's called 'painfully shy' for a reason."
Goldstein says he has a point. "You were trying to make yourself look good at his expense by showing that you were pursued and the life of the party," she says bluntly. And you know what? She's absolutely right. If we're starkly honest with ourselves, most of those little zings can be boiled down to the most childlike of impulses: "I was showing off" or "I was mad because she gets more attention" or "I know him better than anyone else."
Once I became aware that I was fricasseeing my husband for a few laughs, I stopped. It dawned on me that couples are privy to tender information about each other, and, as Goldstein says, a mate is supposed to protect that knowledge, not employ it as a joke or a bludgeon.
That's the ironic thing about those stealth humiliations. When someone needles her partner, her hope is that others will rally to her side. Remember my friend Janet, the one who said her husband got his jollies from phone sex? She did it expecting we'd all be clucking in sympathy. But when we were heading home that night, it wasn't his bad habit that we were talking about.