Couples who eat together may not stay together

World's oldest living married couple Masao Matsumoto and Miyako Matsumoto eat lunches at a nursing house in Takamatsu, Kagawa prefecture, Japan Sep 4, 2018. Reuters
Since the global pandemic lockdown began, Marianne Andrews, Jonathan Miller and their two teenagers have been eating dinner together every night, and sometimes lunch.

It’s been a bit … fraught.

Andrews is forthright about her distress.

“Jonathan’s eating habits have irritated me for years anyway and have only been exacerbated during the last six or seven weeks of him working from home,” said Andrews, 53, a stay-at-home parent who lives just outside London, in Surrey.

Where to begin? Oh, let’s start with breakfast.

The problem, Andrews said, is that her beloved, to whom she has been married to for more than two decades, inhales his morning coffee. The brew is “too hot to sip, so it just gets sucked up,” she said. “Not gulping, more a sucking sound.”

Then there’s the matter of the molar implant that Miller, 55, the head of English at an international school in London, has been awaiting. Because of the lockdown, his appointment has been cancelled, so he’s been forced to chew his food in a lopsided fashion, which has terrorised his wife.

But the most egregious transgression, at least in her opinion, is his postprandial habit of chomping and crunching on nuts.

“We will be sitting down to watch TV and he’ll come in with a bowl full of cashews or worse still, pistachios, which he kind of hoovers up from their shells with a smacking sound,” Andrews said. “Despite years of remonstrance on my part, he still commits this offense.”

Similar for his chocolate consumption.

“He will make a small square of chocolate last a very long time,” she said. She hears him “slowly masticating.” This displeases her.

In the annals of divorce court, food probably doesn’t rank up there with, say, an affair with a spouse’s best friend. But what and how your significant other eats often has deeper meaning and can cause real problems. For some people, food is about power and control. For others it’s an expression of love. Still others see it as a sign of compatibility.

And so the question remains: Can this union be saved if she’s got a thing for Almond Joys and he’s allergic to nuts? Or if she’s following a gluten-free vegan/pescatarian/paleo/keto/diet, while he’s Fred Flintstone, salivating over brontosaurus burgers? Or what about the foodie/nonfoodie divide — which is to say, when one party derives deep meaning from razor clams and courgette flowers, while the other’s a serious biohacker, alternating several days of “normal” eating with prolonged fasts?

These issues can be even more pronounced when you’re living in isolation, eating three meals a day together, sometimes for the first time in years.

“Food can bring us together, but it can also be a real source of anxiety between people and a source of conflict,” said Abby Langer, a registered dietitian in Toronto who has worked with couples and families. “If one partner is following a certain diet and the other isn’t, this can be a source of conflict — especially during quarantine.”

This also doesn’t take into account the crunches, lip smacks, cutlery scrapes and sated aahs so many people find so excruciating. But in many instances, the complainers are not just being ornery; they could have a condition called misophonia, in which one experiences strong negative feelings to specific sounds — like the proverbial nails on a chalkboard.

This is something Alex Olins is grappling with, not on her end but on her husband’s. The director of an employment and citizenship program at a large nonprofit organisation in Seattle, Olins, 49, is often on the receiving end of her husband’s ire, specifically as it relates to her chewing.

“I don’t think I chew loudly,” she said. “No one else has ever mentioned this to me.”

Except him.

Although her husband, John, was never diagnosed with misophonia, she believes he could have it.

“It seems to me to justify or at least explain his irritability and sensitivity about this issue,” she said.

Clearly, happy eating clans do exist. Some couples and families bond over simmering pots of chili, and ladle with love. Others handle their differences in other ways.

Naomi Cahn, 62, a law professor at George Washington University, is a vegetarian. Her husband, Tony Gambino, also 64, is “a pork-loving meatatarian.” One daughter is modified paleo; another has mastered a slow-cooker.

Even before COVID-19, their different habits posed a slight challenge. Until recently, Gambino, a consultant for a nonprofit group, had a voracious appetite. For him, cooking was about shared intimacy.

“I used to love to cook for other people and for myself,” he said.

But that has changed now that the family is on different schedules. Family members are responsible for their own meals. If they’re in the same room at the same time, they will sit down and eat together.

“We can cook and eat separately and that’s fine,” Gambino said. “It’s liberating.”

As for Andrews and Miller, they’re both vegetarians, which is one less thing to worry about. He’s also a “talented intuitive cook” and has been pursuing his pastime quite a bit since he’s been home. But, his wife said, “He demands much praise and gets very huffy if anyone diplomatically says they prefer another dish to the one he has made that night.”

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