As we constantly look for ways to improve our relationships, some of the most obvious may slip past our awareness. For example, you and your partner may grab food on the go, as both of you try to get through the necessity of eating as quickly as you can. Your breakfast may consist of, perhaps, a bowl of cold cereal and some coffee, both consumed with one eye on the clock. When dinner time comes, the situation isn’t much better. One or both of you walks in after a long day and a long commute, and no one feels particularly inclined to relax over a quiet meal, a glass of wine, and candlelight. The next morning will come all too soon, and you’ve got to be ready to head out and start the routine all over again.
If this scenario describes your life, you may be feeling like you and your partner are drifting apart, without being able to identify exactly why. Or worse, you may find yourself arguing over the slightest difference of opinion. You think your partner is being overly critical but your partner, in turn, says you’re too controlling. Even the slightest chore, such as washing up after that hurried evening meal, becomes ground for contention.
Relationship experts warn against these typical, everyday occurrences and suggest that you find better ways to communicate your thoughts and feelings. Having more pleasant experiences together is one way to build the bonds of intimacy. Couples may also seek counseling as a way to regain their lost sense of togetherness.
You don’t have to wait for your relationship to reach this level of concern to stem the tide of rising resentment and misunderstanding. According to a study by a team of Dutch and Canadian psychologists (aan het Rot et al., 2015), the simple act of eating a meal together may be all it takes to bring you and your partner to an emotionally better place.
For a period of nearly three weeks, the aan het Rot et al. sample of nearly 100 30-something adults recorded every social interaction that lasted for at least 5 minutes, whether in person, over the phone, or via Internet chats. Participants rated each interaction along scales recording their interpersonal behavior, their perceptions of their partners, and their mood. They described what they did, who they did it with, when and where it occurred, and whether the interaction took place over a meal.
The finding that eating meals together can improve relationships comes from the ratings participants provided of their interpersonal behaviors along the dimensions of agreeableness, quarrelsomeness, dominance, and submissiveness. For agreeableness, for example, they rated the statement, “I listened attentively to the other.” Ratings of quarrelsomeness included statements such as, “I discredited what someone said.” Dominance ratings came from statements like, “I set goals for the other(s),” and for submissiveness, statements like, “I spoke only when spoken to.” To assess the impact of the interaction on participants, the researchers also asked them to rate their mood, ranging from pleasant to unpleasant.
To keep participants from blindly checking off the same responses to the same items, given the arduousness of the task—imagine rating all your interactions—the research team mixed up the statements from one rating form to the next. Of the 12 items for each dimension, participants rated 3 on any given occasion, and there were 4 forms of the rating sheet.
While they were busy rating themselves, the participants in the study also checked off ratings of their interaction partners. These ratings included perceptions of their partner’s affiliative tendencies (agreeable vs. quarrelsome), and status (dominance vs. submissiveness). A partner who gives you praise would be, in this system, agreeably dominant, and one who goes along with your feelings would be agreeably submissive.
The participants didn’t exactly rate the quality of the intimacy with their partner. The interaction forms were a one-size-fits-all measure that could apply to any social situation, from a phone call with a business partner to a chat with a stranger while waiting in a check-out line. However, if we use the perceived affiliation and mood as ways to assess relationship quality, we can make inferences from this study to the behavior of intimate partners.
Consider, then, that the researchers had three weeks’ worth of data from nearly 100 people, and you won’t be surprised to learn that there were over 11,500 events in the entire data set. About one-third of these were reported to occur at home, one-third at work, and one-third elsewhere. Of the over 2,000 events occurring over a meal, nearly half occurred at home. Outside of work, 25% involved a meal with a romantic partner.
Across all meal-sharing conditions, compared to all other social interactions, the preponderance of data showed that participants felt both more agreeable, more pleasant, and less dominant and submissive. (In other words, the power dynamics were negated.) Not only did they feel that they were behaving more agreeably, but participants sharing a meal also felt better about their partners.
You might suggest that people pick the partners with whom to share a meal, and so it makes sense that eating together should promote positive feelings. However, the mood-boosting effect of a shared meal occurred across romantic partners, friends, family members, and co-workers. Even within romantic partner pairings, meals produced more positive effects on mood and agreeableness than non-meal interactions.
The effect of meal-sharing on relationships only manifested for lunch and dinner, not breakfast—but participants also rated their alertness as lowest during morning meals. On the other hand, people found an evening meal more beneficial for their mood and relationship ratings than "other non-meal events" (p. 106), whatever those might be.
As much as shared meals benefited partners in couples, having more people around had an even more positive effect. The research team pointed to this finding as support for the advantages to families of eating together: “Shared meals, routine conversations, and family rituals may promote a sense of closeness, connectedness, and stability.” Many family experts recommend having dinner together with your kids to benefit their mental health. This study supports that advice.
The next time you’re ready to reach into the fridge, throw a plate in the microwave, and grab dinner on the run, consider making the time and effort to involve your partner or spouse in a shared meal. Based on this fascinating study, even a five-minute dinner—as long as you're together—may help you build more a more filling, and fulfilling, relationship.