My new partner has some habits I find intensely irritating
Q: I’m 55, and have started seeing a woman. We are compatible on most levels, and I see the potential for a long-term relationship. We’re from different cultural backgrounds, which we both find appealing. However, she has some eating habits I find intensely irritating – slurping her food, eating quickly and urgently, and talking with her mouth full. I’m worried about the impression she’ll make on my family and friends. I suffer from a degree of misophonia, and am not able to tolerate some sounds. I don’t want this to be a deal-breaker. What can I do?
A: Everyone is different, but these differences can be marked between cultures. Some cultures think eating in the street is gross. Some insist you remove your shoes at the front door, while others eat with the right hand and wipe their behinds with the left, so the left hand is considered unclean. In some, hawking and spitting in public is commonplace, and in others belching at the end of a meal is a sign of appreciation. Anyone who travels overseas knows that it is important to be aware of cultural mores, so that you do not cause offence.
The secret to working through these differences is to communicate, with mutual respect. It is not that my way is the right way, and I need to tolerate other people’s weird ways. There are many ways to be right. It is important that you approach this touchy subject in a non-judgmental manner if you hope to avoid insulting this woman, or causing her to become angry and defensive.
It might be a good start to have a conversation about cultural differences in general. You might ask her if she finds any of your behaviours disconcerting or off-putting.
The particular behaviour that you find irritating could be cultural, or merely personal. It might signify that she is relishing her food, or it might be a sign that food was scarce, or that it had to be competed for, when she was a child. I have noticed rapid, urgent eating habits in people who have come from large families.
A person can develop habits of which they are not aware. My partner alerted me to my distracting habit of scratching my head when I am a little anxious. I was happy to be told about this so that I could try not to do it in public. It is like seeing a woman with the back of her skirt tucked into her knickers, or someone with their fly down. It might be awkward telling them, but they would far prefer to know. Your friend’s eating habits are seen as bad manners in this society, and she might not realise what she is doing.
When you want to have a difficult conversation, it is helpful to frame your comments as "I" statements. Avoid saying, "You eat too quickly," or, "You always talk with your mouth full." This can feel like an attack or a judgment, which can cause the other to put up a defensive wall. It would be less confronting to say, "I suffer from a level of misophonia, also known as ‘select sound sensitivity syndrome’ or ‘sound rage’. This causes me to have a strong negative response to some noises."
It might be helpful to accompany this explanation with more information from the internet. Once she understands this, explain to her that the sound of someone eating is one of the sounds that causes you distress.
I suggest you focus on what it is that you find irritating, which is the sound. Eating quickly, but quietly, might be OK. You could have another conversation about the benefits of slow, mindful eating another time.
In any relationship, it is wise to deal with issues promptly. Do not hold back through fear of offending, or losing, your partner. Biting your tongue out of fear only entrenches the problem, and increases the risk of an angry outburst when it all gets too much. It would be sad if mentioning this is a deal-breaker, but it is better to find that out sooner rather than later.
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