People Who Needle People

A female friend overheard me on the phone with my boyfriend and became concerned. He and I tease each other relentlessly, calling each other mean silly names, but it’s all in fun. Though we have a very loving relationship, she thinks the teasing is a sign of submerged anger. Is she right? And are we doing something damaging?


Yesterday, on the phone with my boyfriend, I had to ask him to repeat something he’d just said because I’d become briefly mesmerized by a big fern shimmying in the breeze. No, sadly, I wasn’t all “Sorry, I missed that bit because my couch caught fire.” The man was competing for my attention with a plant.

It isn’t that he’s boring. I have ADHD — attention-defici…sorry, what was I saying? And in our relationship, as in yours, teasing plays a big role. So when my boyfriend has something important to tell me, he’ll sometimes prepare me (with a line that always makes me laugh): “Do I have your divided attention?”

Teasing like this is what social psychologist Dacher Keltner calls an “indirect, playful way to negotiate conflict.” This is especially important in a relationship, where there are many conflicts and annoyances you’ll never resolve. In mine, for example, in addition to my midsentence day trips to the Baltics, there’s how my boyfriend seems to have attended the Jackson Pollock school of culinary arts. Or, as I put it — while cupping an ear theatrically and looking upward: “What’s that? … Um…honey, the ceiling says it ordered its sauce on the side.”

Teasing is like bullying, Keltner explains — in that it’s something you say or do that’s intended to provoke another person. However, teasing includes clues that what you’re saying isn’t to be taken literally — and that your intent is playful, not hurtful. These playfulness signals are called “off-record markers” and include laughter, obvious exaggeration, a jokey tone, mimicry, and contorted facial expressions.

As for the concern that your teasing is endangering your relationship, on the contrary, Keltner and his colleagues found that “couples who playfully teased, as opposed to resorting to direct, cogent, but ultimately hackle-raising criticism, felt more connected after (a) conflict and trusted their partners more.”

And the reality is that only two people who truly love each other can get away with trash-talking each other in extravagantly awful ways. This is an example of what behavioral ecologists call a “costly signal” — one that, through its expense or riskiness, tells you it’s more likely to be for real. Conspicuous consumption is an example — signaling that you’ve got money to burn by shelling out $8K for a Rolex when a $50 Swatch tells the time just fine. So, sure, there are many ways to express romantic appreciation, but it’s nice to opt for something unique, like “What a wonderful love note — made all the sweeter by handwriting that looks like that of an 8-year-old locked up after multiple disappearances of neighborhood pets.”

Splendor In The Crash

My boyfriend recently got laid off and lost a bunch of money in stocks. Yesterday, feeling blue, he said, “Can’t anything good happen for me?” (Gee, thanks. Guess I’m nothing good.) I know he’s talking about financial and career stuff, but we have something pretty special together. Why is he focusing on the bad stuff and not appreciating the good? Money isn’t everything.


A guy likes to have a way to buy his woman dinner that doesn’t involve a ski mask and a sawed-off shotgun.

No, money isn’t everything, but that can be difficult to remember while panicking that you’ll soon be raiding the market share of the wino on the corner begging for change. Also, because women evolved to go for men with status (a cue for the ability to provide) and men coevolved to recognize this, it can be especially hard on a man when his career trajectory goes from riches to rags.

However, emotions are — at root — behavior management tools, and the feel-bad that comes with a loss in status pushes a man to go out and get a new job and make new investments. Without that motivation, that couch in Grandma’s basement can start looking like an extremely attractive place to be from 9 to 5. And 5 to 9: “Yo, Gram, can you throw down another bag of Doritos?”

What you can do is be fierce in telling your boyfriend why you believe in him and about all the things you respect and admire in him (especially those that employers will also respect and admire). This is the sort of “appreciating the good” that he needs — especially if he gets to the point where he’s driving a brand-new Tesla but only until he gets a $2 tip for bringing it back to the guy who owns it.

Categories: Advice, Advice Goddess