Oedipus Prex

pburkehillaryfreudfinal1 Oedipus PrexOn a recent evening, Eric Tate and Allison Kramer, urban professionals in their 30’s, were entertaining another couple in their apartment in Astoria. They had little reason to think that the evening would be anything less than Rachael Ray-perfect: a nice lasagna, a bottle of wine …

And then, halfway through dinner, the topic of the Jan. 3 Democratic caucus arose. The guests mentioned that they were supporting Hillary Clinton; the hosts revealed that they were backing Barack Obama; and before they knew it, their chummy little party had taken on the tone of a World Wrestling Entertainment championship match. Tempers soared. Voices barked. An elbow jutted dramatically into the salad bowl. During one particularly heated moment, the other couple’s male half even wagged his finger in Mr. Tate’s face, accusing him of being “judgmental” and “unfair to Hillary.”

“We were like a tag team when we were fighting,” said Mr. Tate, 34, referring to his and his wife’s debating prowess, as they hovered in the relative calm of a Union Square Starbucks several days later. “It’s like you feel like you’re prepared for battle.”

Battle is the byword these days among New York’s chattering Democrats. On one side, there’s the Hillary supporter who feels that she is the most pragmatic choice for the job; on the other, there’s an Obama believer whose misty-eyed faith in the senator is exceeded only by his (or her) penchant for criticizing Mrs. Clinton. “I have been involved in literally almost every presidential primary in New York State since 1968,” when Robert F. Kennedy faced off against Eugene McCarthy, said Ethan Geto, a veteran political operative and gay rights activist who ran Howard Dean’s New York campaign for president in 2004 and is currently supporting Mrs. Clinton. “And since 1968, I have not seen this kind of emotional intensity.”

The dueling partisans may function remarkably well in their daily lives as lawyers, bankers, dog walkers. But mention their candidate’s name in passing—simply start to form the breathy openness of the letter H!—and strange, Pavlovian things begin to happen. They snarl at each other in restaurants, snipe at each other over e-mails, bloviate on sidewalks and generally behave as if this endless nomination process were in fact an extended group therapy session, a wild free-for-all for their ids.

“My friend started asserting that Hillary’s probably going to win and that she’s tremendously experienced and qualified, and I kind of just lost my shit,” said a political insider in his late 20’s, who wound up in an hourlong sparring session with two female friends shortly after the New Hampshire primary, and who asked not to be identified for fear of offending the Clinton campaign. “I just became irrational and insane, denigrating this woman. … I haven’t gotten into a political argument in, like, five years!”

‘A Phallic Woman’

It’s when Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama clamber into bed between couples that things get really ugly. One minute you’ll be lying next to each other, innocently discussing preschools or gym memberships and the next—stony silence! The disagreements might be substantive, delving into the minutia of Mr. Obama’s Social Security rhetoric, or the implications of Mrs. Clinton’s vote to label Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps a “terrorist organization.” But then there are the endless rounds regarding “experience” and “charisma” and “tears” that make couples who only months earlier vowed to love each other “for better or worse, richer or poorer” suddenly start to wonder whether they shouldn’t have added a clause about “for Hillary or Obama, New Hampshire or Iowa.”

“Watching the results come in of the New Hampshire primary, I was despondent, and my wife was overjoyed,” recalled a 30-something, pro-Obama journalist named Andrew, who lives near Gramercy Park with his Hillary-lovin’ bride, and asked that his full name not be used because he sometimes covers politics. “It was one of those moments where we looked at each other, and it felt as though maybe we didn’t know each other quite as well as we thought.”

For Andrew and his wife, who have been married roughly a year, the essence of this conflict boils down to the fact that “she really thinks he’s a cheap huckster, and I think that Clinton is a cold-fish manipulator,” he said. Sometimes, he confessed, this has made him wonder whether he harbors a latent “discomfort about the idea of a woman president,” which, in turn, makes him “really uncomfortable.” On one occasion, all this agita spilled over into a drunken yelling match. But mostly, he said, it just hangs out on their couch with them, “a generalized kind of tension every time the TV’s turned to MSNBC.”

It was MSNBC that pitted renowned race scholar Michael Eric Dyson against his wife, the preacher and political commentator Marcia Dyson, on Hardball With Chris Matthews late last August.

Professor Dyson is an impassioned Barack booster who has spent the past few months penning odes and essays to the man he hopes to call president. Ms. Dyson is a Clinton backer of such ardor that she preached her way through the country last fall as part of a pro-Hillary “faith tour.” They began their confrontation civilly enough, but within minutes, he was talking over her, punctuating his points about Mr. Obama’s prescience about the Iraq invasion with a sharp up-down gesture. Meanwhile, she was calling him “Michael” with the unmistakable tone of annoyance particular to wives asking their husbands to do the dishes for the 1,000th time.

“I don’t want you two crazy kids coming back here and getting into divorce court next week,” said Mr. Matthews, whose more recent comments about the role Bill Clinton’s philandering played in catapulting Hillary to where she is today spurred such outrage from feminists that he was all but forced to offer a public apology. “Are the two of you going home together?”