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Couples who eat together may not stay together

[NEW YORK] 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 Ms 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, Ms 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 Mr 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 terrorized 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," Ms 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.

The state of epicurean unrest in the Andrews-Miller household brings to mind Glennon Doyle, author of the recently published "Untamed" (Random House) and wife of soccer star Abby Wambach.

In a recent Instagram post, Ms Doyle waxed somewhat despairingly over Wambach's assault on popcorn. The two women had been sitting on the couch, when Ms Doyle "looked at her with rage and contempt and scorn and fury," Ms Doyle wrote. "Abby was scared and surprised, because we've only known each other for four years and I have been pretending to be nice that whole time. So Abby asked me to apologize for trying to kill her with my eyeballs."

Ms Doyle did not apologize. Instead, she demanded an explanation for the earsplitting munching. Ms Wambach, in turn, asked Ms Doyle why she felt the need to leave the cabinet doors open all the time.

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 programme at a large nonprofit organization in Seattle, Ms 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.

Since quarantining, and eating three meals together on a daily basis, the tension has gotten worse. In the past, the couple could tune out the aggravating things about each other — especially the food-related ones, "by not eating all of our meals together due to work, school and sports schedules, and being out and about in the world and living our lives freely," Ms Olins said. But it's a different scene now. Any annoyance is intensified by the amount of time the family spends together.

Not that all of the meals are unpleasant. Many are fun, filled with laughter. But others, she said, are "a grind."

"We are fortunate to have enough to eat, a roof over our heads, and to be healthy, so we try to remind ourselves of that when we are just sick of each other," Ms Olins said. "Sometimes it works, sometimes not. I annoy John with my chewing and then I get annoyed with him for focusing on the negative when we need to try our best to be kind."

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, Mr 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," Mr Gambino said. "It's liberating."

As for Ms Andrews and Mr 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."

And he can be rather snobbish in his food choices.

"Just yesterday I was looking inside the fridge at the out-of-date jars," she said. "Jonathan was horrified to see Thousand Island dressing and only suffers ranch dressing as I like it."

Mr Miller is well aware of his foibles. The other day, his wife came home with a selection of candy bars. Mr Miller grabbed a Snickers bar and placed it on the countertop above the knife drawer. His daughter asked what he was doing.

"Marianne signed wearily and said, ‘He's going to cut a slice of it. It'll take him a week to eat it,'" he said in an email. "True to form, more than half is still in its wrapper, hidden from greedy hands and greedier palates, one end neatly cut away as if by the hand of a fantastically skilled mohel."

NYTIMES

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