My eyes spotted the bowl of pho emerging through the kitchen doors, leaving a tail of fragrant steam as it floated past a dozen diners and settled gently on the table in front of me. In that moment, I forgot what my girlfriend and I were chatting about — it was time to dote on the noodles. I caressed them with my chopsticks, teased a spoonful of broth and rapidly decorated the bowl with chile sauce, basil leaves and a thicket of bean sprouts.
Finished with the foreplay, I grabbed an inch-wide cluster of noodles and greedily slurped it into my mouth. Perfect, I thought, pinching more noodles and inhaling them like I was a drowning man who had just tasted fresh air. Shhhhhlllluuuuurp.
But then I felt a gaze on the top of my head. I looked up and was greeted by my girlfriend’s face, contorted into a look of disgust and perhaps a touch of pity.
“Eddie,” she deadpanned.
“Slurping noodles is respectful and totally normal in a lot of other cultures,” I sputtered.
“You know it drives me crazy,” she replied.
This, in our sixth month of dating (with just as many noodle-slurping incidents), I couldn’t deny. It drove me nuts that she, an otherwise wonderful (white) girlfriend, would be bothered by something so minute — and an act rooted in my Asian heritage. The annoyance didn’t quite dissipate when I remembered how much of a waste of time it would be to argue. I sat there, silently biting my noodles, wondering why the heck I was capitulating. Satisfied, her attention returned to her bowl, but I knew those ears were waiting to catch another slurp.
Being Korean-American, I grew up used to certain sounds and gestures of eating good food: Sucking on bones, crunching through cartilage, sharing from communal pots of stew and slurping up noodles with earnest gusto. It didn’t take much time in adulthood to discover most of my romantic interests weren’t accustomed to that, and my puzzlement at their lack of “cultural acceptance” has faded into a sort of shrugging, I’m-still-right-but-whatever deference to American norms on polite dining.
Of course, couples bickering over their eating habits is an old punchline, whether it’s because their tastes are naturally different or one person can never seem to pick a place. On first glance, this may seem like a small speed bump amid other questions of personality, fidelity and life goals. But many people discover that what began as a simple fight at the grocery store or some teasing about a favorite dish can grow into an existential crisis — one that makes you wonder whether a person’s “worst” eating habits reflect something intrinsic about them, and therefore, their compatibility with you.
“I’ve seen people that are so different on the spectrum, and they end up with a broken relationship because there’s no compromise. They pretty much have separate lives because of food, and it eventually creates a lot of resentment,” says Amie Leadingham, a master-certified dating coach based in L.A. “It starts building some resentment in your soul because of the fact that you’re not connecting to your partner the same way.”
For Christa Sonido and Tobi Vollebregt, who live together in San Francisco, the act of eating didn’t seem like a red flag early in their courtship — going out on dates meant eating out at restaurants, which offered plenty of choice. But when they moved in together after a year, they discovered sharp differences in the way they treated food.
Sonido had grown up in Hawaii, with a food-obsessed Filipino family and a local cuisine that favored big portions and intense, multicultural flavors. The Netherlands-raised Vollebregt, meanwhile, was accustomed to a much more austere diet, viewing food as sustenance rather than pleasure. Every day as a child, he ate a simple breakfast and lunch (a bowl of cereal and a cheese sandwich, perhaps), plus a balanced dinner cooked by his mother. Sonido, meanwhile, ate more frequently at restaurants and at much more indulgent group outings.
“There are certain things that I’m predisposed to eat as opposed to what he likes. I’m really picky with my vegetables — don’t like cooked ones, and I have an aversion to certain kinds — so I tend to eat around them or refuse them outright. For someone like Tobi, this can be hard because he could live plant-based if he was forced to do so,” she says. “Growing up in Hawaii with a big extended family meant there was a huge social component to food, as well as the enjoyment of the way food tastes. In other words, I’m a foodie. Tobi wasn’t.”
An endocrine issue messes with her hormones, which also cause intense cravings for salt and sweet — things that Vollebregt never really wants. Living together also meant their budgets became intertwined, and the couple fought most intensely about what to buy and how much money to spend on food. “Given my cheaper food choices and me being our main source of income, I didn’t like to see all our funds going to food,” Vollebregt says. “We also fought about what to make. I primarily want to go for recipes that are easy to cook, one pot for example. But Christa goes by flavor and variation.”
Food is often the issue that highlights the chasm between two people’s upbringings, often with regard to religion or ethnic culture. Two Muslim friends of mine chimed in by noting that the issue of pork became a flashpoint in their relationships with non-Muslim women: “I mean, we’re talking an hours-long debrief after a fight about bacon, and why my religion has to shut down her ability to eat bacon,” says Raheem, a 24-year-old in L.A. “I ultimately realized her lack of compromise on this — despite me suggesting she cook things in separate vessels and the like — said more about her than me.”
And Mark, a 28-year-old Chinese-American living in Seattle, found similar issues when trying to share the spicy, offal-heavy Sichuanese foods he grew up loving with a black girlfriend, whom he dated for six months. “I guess I thought, Y’know, she’s probably more accustomed to spice and off-cuts of meat because she’s from a big family in the South. But even if she didn’t love it, I thought she’d have a lot of fun exploring the things that I think are most delicious, that make me happy,” Mark tells me. “But instead, I felt like I just got ripped on for being Chinese. She didn’t think of it that way, and she never said anything actually offensive, but she never wanted to embrace this part of me. And, looking back, it turned me off.”
The most emblematic food fight of 2018, however, may be that between the vegan and meat-eater, especially as plant-based diets have risen from obscurity to mainstream acceptance in the last decade. For most people, veganism is a choice made in adulthood, and the fact that many vegans adhere to the diet for ethical reasons also brings the opportunity for baggage. As one Reddit user in a three-year relationship with a two-year vegan asked in r/Vegan earlier this year: “Have you been in a successful relationship with a person that eats meat?”
“She does not want me to eat meat in front of her. She has said I’m never allowed to have a steak or a burger when I’m with her. Nothing with bones on, either. I know it hurts for her to see meat being eaten but I feel like she is pretending that I’m something I’m not and not really accepting me for what I am,” he wrote. “She very often shows pictures of food or recipes that she feels sound delicious. I could never do this since she would be very hurt about it.”
“My husband is a meat eater, I’m vegetarian/plant-based. I wouldn’t suggest a relationship that has such a fundamental difference in lifestyle. It’s damn hard,” replied another user, solemnly.
Is such an impasse worth overcoming?
In theory, yes: Behavioral research agrees that conflicts about diet are “solvable” rather than a “perpetual” issue that may never get fixed in a relationship, according to Carl Sheperis, an expert in social services at Walden University. The caveat is that you need the right tools, adds Leadingham. Many couples view their diet as intrinsic with their identities, meaning they’re prone to digging in their heels rather than viewing dinner in the same way as any other compromise.
“I go to sports events because my husband loves sports. I’ll go with him and I’ll find something to do and I’ll find a way to watch it. But do I sit there and get excited to watch the Cubs play? You know, it’s just alright,” Leadingham says with a laugh. “And, for him, does he like going to some of my concerts? No. We both find ways to compromise to make each other happier. It’s no different with food.”
The tricky part is that eating is a far more frequent activity than going to a ball game, meaning couples must constantly revisit the issue. It’s a journey that Dana Hunnes, senior dietician at the Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center, is familiar with. She does have an ethical issue with meat consumption, and wishes “the whole world would go vegan.” But she has also recognized that pushing someone like her husband to turn vegan ASAP, despite their instincts against it, is a losing game.
“For most people, going vegetarian or vegan is a journey. I had to nudge my husband, but if I’d nagged, it wouldn’t have happened. Now he actively chooses the vegetarian choices at restaurants,” Hunnes says. “You have to know when to push and when to nudge. It was a journey, but we got to a good place. That’s why I say compromise on what you can, like side dishes. When you’re open to that, it’s much easier than if you say, ‘Forget it, you’ll never get there.’”
Counseling experts suggest a variety of techniques: not storing up negative emotions to throw in a heated argument, but rather softening the questions or concerns about diet. Giving and acknowledging “repair attempts,” like physical touch or a kind word, to lower the anger level. Dropping the subject if it’s not productive in a particular talk.
That’s the slow, boring process that Sonido and Vollebregt had to navigate when they realized how different their tastes were. He, being the main earner in the household, felt upset that she was so willing to spend on snacks and higher-quality ingredients. She couldn’t figure out how he could live with such a stale, unsatisfying diet. Today, however, their arguments have settled into a treatise thanks to the realization that they can’t coexist without compromise.
“The fights have helped us understand each other, as well as our various cultures better. With what I know now, I would have tried to handle the money stuff relating to food earlier on,” Sonido admits. “We still definitely have things to work on, but by talking about it and appreciating each others’ differences, we’ve figured out a system that works for us.”
What you need to look out for, Leadingham notes, is manipulation. “I remember one of my clients noted that her boyfriend would say, ‘Yes, I’ll go with you to a vegan restaurant,’ but just as they were about to leave, her boyfriend would fight with her or cause something to stop them going out,” she notes. “That’s a serious red flag. It’s not just about diet at that point, and the couple probably needs additional help through counseling.”
But even if it is just about the diet, research suggests that couples who have similar dietary habits, on average, fare more successfully than those who don’t. Real compromise, in other words, is a serious virtue. And experts say it needs to happen before the conflict rises to a personal level and colors all other interactions between the couple.
So I’m happy to stop slurping my noodles when I’m eating with my girlfriend, even though the old me probably would’ve treated it as a slight (and just continued to slurp, as a sort of rice-noodle screw-you). It turns out that food is just like all the other incompatibilities that come up when you begin dating someone: You hope it’s all worth dealing with now, for some kind of stability in the long run.