We’re often told a couple that eats together stays together. But as many working adults will tell you, sitting down to eat dinner with their partner is oftentimes easier said than done. Long commutes, whacky shift schedules, and sometimes being in an entirely different time zone, can make the practice difficult. But even if they can’t have dinner together every night, many couples make their relationship work. So, we had to wonder, is eating together really that important when it comes to building a lasting relationship? Or does this sentiment play into a conditioning to desire that 20th-century ideal of the family convening around the table to enjoy a home-cooked meal (and if it does, is that so wrong)?
On October 5, Women’s Health published an article in which experts were asked to describe signs in a relationship that point to potential divorce. In the article, couples therapist and author of Make Up, Don’t Break Up, Bonnie Eaker Weil, PhD, stated, “When I talk to a couple who’s ready for divorce, I ask them if they eat dinner together.” Weil believes that when a couple refrains from eating together, they’re also refraining from connecting with each other and from strengthening a family tie.
We reached out to several relationship experts, including Dr. Bonnie, to get their opinion on the concept of “couples who eat together, stay together,” and, surprisingly, all agreed that this idea holds merit — however, they each interpret it differently.
“I completely agree [with Dr. Bonnie],” marriage counselor Dr. Danielle Forshee tells O.school. “There is research on how having a ritual of connection with one’s partner is effective in keeping the couple attuned and connected with each other, and [the ritual of eating together] creates a stronger relationship.”
But, as Dr. Forshee believes, it’s not necessarily the specific act of eating together that’s most effective in bolstering a relationship. Rather, what’s most important is how a couple spends their quality time together, which, in her opinion, is not necessarily dependent on sitting down at the kitchen table.
Relationship expert and life coach Lisa Concepcion agrees. “Quality time is what's important and each couple has quality time in their own way,” she tells us.
However, Dr. Bonnie argues that the act of sharing a meal together is the important factor in this equation. “Rituals make memories,” Dr. Bonnie tells O.school, but the “breaking of bread,” she says, is what can really make or break a couple’s relationship.
“It’s the idea of everyone coming together,” Dr. Bonnie says of the value of sharing a meal. She believes that because people are generally afraid to be vulnerable and intimate, even with those they love and trust, the act of eating together, which can be viewed as a sometimes necessary “forced connection,” effectively lowers walls and removes any fear of closeness.
In fact, it’s scientifically proven that eating with others leads to happier individuals, as this 2015 study from the Canadian Center of Science and Education found. And if the individual is happy, then they’re bringing that positivity into their relationships.
If a couple repeatedly refrains from meeting at the dining table, Dr. Bonnie notes — say, if a stay-at-home parent eats early with the kids and is in bed by the time their working partner arrives home — they have entered into a cycle of avoidance, which is only going to hurt their bond. Dr. Bonnie recommends, in this scenario, that the stay-at-home parent eats a snack with the kids and stays up to eat with their partner.
Basically, “eating together is an entree to the bedroom,” she tells us. “You have to see each other in order to like each other.” And eating is a “natural” way to convene, connect, and keep relationships strong.
Despite their conflicting stance on regularly sharing meals, the experts agree that both parties must be present and free from distractions during connection time
“I've seen many couples eating meals together distracted by their cell phones,” Concepcion tells O.school. “They're sitting together, eating in proximity to one another, but aren't connected and present.” This can be just as harmful as not having a “ritual of connection” at all, Dr. Forshee says.
If sharing a meal with your partner is absolutely out of the question due to different schedules or locations, don’t fret. Dr. Forshee notes that FaceTime and phone calls can be okay substitutes for meeting face-to-face. She recommends partaking in a ritual of connection — either over the phone or in person — at least three to five days per week.
“I have a client who is a physician’s assistant and her husband is an orthopedic surgeon. Their schedules are always out of whack,” Concepcion says. “So they have quality time through exercise, tech-free walks and watching sports whenever they have the same days off.” Both Dr. Forshee and Concepcion agree that making time to bond is what’s most important — be it over a meal or while taking a walk.
“The point here is while eating meals together is a way to connect, it's not the only way and if the couple is connected in other ways then they won't necessarily need to eat dinner every night,” Concepcion says.
The best way to figure out which form of connective ritual works for you in your relationship is to communicate with your partner to put a plan into motion. And perhaps you can get the ball rolling by having this chat over a glass of wine and a home-cooked meal.