Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Are Bad Table Manners Ruining Your Marriage?

Maybe we've gotten it all wrong. What if it isn't all about sex?

We are so accustomed to thinking that good sex will solve all marital problems, that we have overlooked a more obvious component of a good marriage: harmony at the dinner table.

A good marriage, to say nothing of a good family life, is more surely enhanced by regular family dinners than by great coitus. Of course we would wish that all marriages had both, but it would be short sighted to ignore the first and assume that the second is always going to bail you out.

As Confucius might have put it, human life revolves around social rituals, not your private behavior.

Yesterday Elizabeth Bernstein focused our attention on married couples that have made a complete mess of their interaction around food issues. Link here.

She does not claim to know how prevalent these bad behaviors are. Her article wants to draw our attention to a different and highly salient aspect of marital relationships.

For my part I hope that the couples Bernstein describes have the world's greatest sex, because their table manners, their food preparation, and the way they interact over dinner leaves me feeling that they are not even couples.

Many of them sound like people who live in separate, wholly autonomous kingdoms where they can do what they want, when they want, as they want... regardless of how offensive, insulting, disgusting, or provocative it is.

I am in awe of Jocelyn Breeland's stoic fortitude. She has been married for 23 years to a man who: "slurps sauces, sucks on bones, smacks his lips and licks his fingers while eating."

Apparently, this was the way people ate when Ben Breeland was growing up, and, he is enough of a multiculturalist and a nonconformist to refuse to give up his childhood toys.

Ben understands that his table manners are making his wife sick. He observes his wife's discomfort and feels "like the worst person ever." Still, he makes no effort to change his behavior. In some way he must be proud of his behavior, because he has allowed it to be highlighted in a national newspaper.

However badly he feels, I would say that he doesn't feel anywhere near badly enough.

How has Jocelyn Breeland learned to cope with this daily assault on her sensibility: "Now she drinks wine to calm down, dines in another room or rushes through her own food so she can get away from his noises as quickly as possible."

Can we excuse Ben Breeland by saying that he is, as Bernstein suggests, asserting his identity, or expressing his feelings, or living life with gusto? Certainly not.

There is more to the dinner ritual than table manners. In some families every aspect of food preparation seems to have become an opportunity to bicker and fight.

If couples counselors and marriage coaches want to help their clients to improve their marriages, they should be spending less time asking them to express their feelings and more time showing them how to organize their kitchens.

How bad is it? Bernstein reports: "Couples squabble over everything from how much mayo to put into the tuna salad to whether to order in or go out for dinner. Meat lovers vs. vegetarians? Organic vs. junk food? A spouse 'gently' telling you to put down the Chunky Monkey Ben & Jerry's? The possibilities for food to go bad in a relationship are endless."

And the possibilities for a relationship to go bad over food are equally endless.

Some people insist on a fair and equitable division of labor in the kitchen. In some marriages, this works like a dream. In others it descends into constant fights about territory and authority.

Some people consider food to be the basis of their primary religious experience. They feel that they have the right and duty to attack their mates for colluding with the destruction of the planet or the murder of innocent life. And they feel compelled to criticize their spouses for eating too much of the wrong foods, because this is going to compromise their health, produce excessive medical bills, and shorten their life span.

Some are so consumed with righteous zeal that they do not ask themselves whether constant harassment is the best way to get someone to change behavior.

But this is all just the beginning of the opportunities for conflict in the kitchen. People fight over who is buying the food, what food they are buying, who is preparing the food, how it should be prepared, who is setting the table... it goes on and on.

As Bernstein said: "When I asked people about the food fights they'd had with their spouses or romantic partners, stories poured in. There were disputes over shopping lists, how closely to follow directions on a recipe and exactly how brown a banana has to be before it becomes officially inedible."

Whoever gave these people the idea that marriage should be a constant struggle over power and territory? Whoever told them that it was good to fight, to clash, to have impassioned conflicts?

And why have they never learned that marriage requires effective organization? Or that it involves the production and observance of harmonious social rituals.

Why do two people who have different preferences for when to eat dinner dig in their heels and decide to fight it out? What ever happened to negotiated compromise?

Try this one: "Heather Hills likes to eat dinner at 5 p.m. Her husband, James, wants to eat later, around 9 or 10 p.m. Making matters worse, the two differ in their cooking styles: He loves to take his time creating beautiful entrees, with special sauces and carefully chosen side dishes. She throws ground meat, frozen vegetables and cream of mushroom soup into a casserole."

Do you think that Heather and James should keep fighting it out? Would it be too much to ask them both to try to split the difference and have dinner together at 7? And if he likes to cook more than she does, then perhaps he can be charged with food preparation and she can be charged with other aspects of the dinner. It's called a division of labor. If James cannot manage to get a meal together by 7 then he should go to cooking school and learn a few shortcuts.

By now everyone knows that family dinners are a good thing. They are good for children and good for everyone else who participates. Now that childhood obesity is a national concern, why not recommend a harmonious family dinner as a way to help children redefine their relationship to food and even to control their appetites.

You cannot police what children eat. You can make the ritual of family dinner into a positive experience for them.

Bernstein does not mention whether the offending couples in her article have children. But, can you imagine what will happen to the growing psyches of children when they are thrown into the middle of the chaos that is produced when two perfectly independent self-actualizing autonomous beings are each trying to assert themselves and express their feelings over the issue of how much oregano to put in the tomato sauce?


benb said...

Hi there,

Some good and honest commentary in your blog post. Thanks.

ben breeland

Anonymous said...

That's a great post and a great subject. We eat a lot of dinners together. The kids love it. Sometimes it is nice to snack healthy and "free-feed" too.

Oh, boy do I have a story about that. Apparently I had a habit of eating popcorn in a noisy fashion (I just love popcorn).

When we were freshly married, my wife remarked, crossly: "I can hear you enjoy popcorn a lot...."

She went on to explain that she hates it when people crunch and smack when they eat.

I felt embarassed, but had the wit to remark, laughing: "Hey! I can hardly hear myself eat over all the bitching!"

Oh! I got the steely glare for that! I eat popcorn very quietly now. It's not a issue.....

A sense of humor goes a long ways. Being a grown-up goes a long ways. Knowing when you are wrong goes a long ways....

Passive-aggressive behavior is cowardly and destructive.


Anonymous said...

Oh, furthermore:

If it is a fight worth winning, just be aggressive and win. You'll be more respected and everybody can deal with the problems in the open.

Passive-aggressive behavior is neither respectable nor effective it is man-boy behavior and every woman hates it, as they should.

It reminds me of the joke: "I went to say 'please pass the potatoes', but I accidently said 'You ruined my life, bitch!'"


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, Ben and Gray, for the great feedback.

irmik said...

Good post and funny subject to me. I agree there should be compromise when it comes to time of dinner and who will cook. As far as the eating habbits go... it is very interesting to me... For a couple of 23 years... I would assume I would get used to my partners table manners and would have either mentioned it long time ago while dating or started to ignore it. There are certain things I would have to say that would annoy me.. chewing with an open mouth or slurping coffee so loud that I can't hear myself think. I believe when you are at home you will enjoy your food differently then when you are out in public. Now if you eat with your fingers in public and feel the need you have to lick your fingers that would be differentin my eyes but at home... hmmmm. Again we all have our own way of eating and I think we either accept the fact of our partner or will compromise in some ways.. there are worse things to worry about in life then how a person eats at home.

pheromone cologne said...

Most of the relationships start because marriage is not possible or not desired at that point of time, but living and exploiting someone only for fun is not called for at all.


Ilene said...

So, I don't actually suppose this may have success.

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This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ase said...

There is something deeper going on. Didn't the breelands eat together before getting married? What changed after marriage to make her not like it? It's important to respect someone before getting married and not be overwhelmed with other feelings

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, my spouse is about self righteous as a male can get about food also includes OCD and narcissistic behavior

Unknown said...