The Significance of Food Sharing and Feeding in Romantic Relationships

By Emily Whitcomb
Edited by Laura Durr

Food, the cure to all problems in this world, turns out to be more than just something that satisfies our hunger and aids our bodies with survival.  The act of food-sharing and feeding is a big indicator for the level of intimacy within romantic relationships.

According to researcher Paul Rozin and colleagues from Columbia University, there are four different levels of food sharing that express to observers how romantic you are with your significant other: no sharing, sharing voluntarily, sharing with consubstantiation (situations in which your partner eats food that you have already touched) and feeding.

Rozin and colleagues had participants view different sharing scenarios between couples. They were then asked to rate the intimacy level of the couples based on how they felt when they viewed the four different levels of sharing. For example, not letting someone have your food at all, voluntarily letting someone eat your food, letting someone have food that you already touched and lastly, physically putting food into your partner’s mouth.

Rozin found that the act of sharing food is a sign of social intimacy. The initial nonverbal communication of letting someone else eat off your plate shows a deeper connection than one you would have with a stranger.

Sharing food that has already had physical contact with someone else increases the romantic judgment from 74 percent to 90 percent. Lastly, feeding shows the strongest sign of intimacy within couples and will lead observers to the assumption of romantic involvement.

So, as Tom and Lucy are sharing some cheese fries, they may not be thinking anything other than how amazing cheese fries are. But in reality, they are creating a stronger, more comfortable bond with each other that has potential to evolve into a more serious relationship.

Once you are involved in a serious relationship, sharing your belongings with your partner comes as second nature. You share a house, a bed, insurance, etc. You share basically everything. Once you are in that position in life, it is hard to think of what the first thing you shared with each other was. Well in most relationships, the act of sharing food with your partner was the first thing that was considered a “shared” item.

Rozin and colleagues wanted to see if men and women felt differently about the intimacy levels with food-sharing and feeding.

When comparing genders, feeding and sharing food with consubstantiation has a broader meaning for women than for men. This is because, for women, feeding may more strongly imply care-taking, while for men feeding may more strongly imply romantic involvement. The participants of the research viewed the act of care-taking to be more significant than a simple romantic gesture.

In simpler terms, if Lucy and Tom were sharing food with each other at dinner, Lucy would feel more intimate towards Tom than he would towards her. She would feel as if she was taking care of him and that makes her feel more connected to Tom. Tom on the other hand would simply just feel that they were sharing food as a simple romantic gesture.

So why is the behavior of sharing food viewed as an indicator of intimacy within relationships? How did this assumption even come about? The assumptions of intimacy from food-sharing and feeding is linked to and passed down from the transfer of food that started at a young age between a parent and their child, suggests researcher Wulf Schiefenhövel, founder of the Human Ethology Group in Seewiesen, Germany.

Wulf describes food sharing as the unresisted transfer of food. He focuses on the transfer of food between a parent and its child and how that relationship proves why people view the process of food sharing and feeding in couples to be an indicator for intimacy.

The food transfer between a parent and its child can simply be explained in terms of biology and natural phenomenon. A parent naturally buys into the well-being of their children on the grounds that they carry 50 percent of their parent’s own biological genome. There is an unexplainable connection between a parent and their child. The natural tendency of feeding your children shows a strong bond. It is natural to share food with your blood relatives, but studies have shown that if you share food outside of your bloodline, whoever that person may be, you see them as someone significant to you.

Think about it, when we were babies, one of the most significant nonverbal communication tactics we had with our mother was the direct transfer of food into our bodies through breast feeding. This created a physical and mental connection with our moms. As we are older, the same idea of the transfer of food signifies the intimacy with our significant other.

So, 10 years in the future when Tom and Lucy are happily married with children, they probably won’t go back and think of the things that they have shared prior. They won’t know it, but the cheese fries that they shared at dinner were a stepping-stone in their relationship. Eventually the cheese fries turned into a shared Spotify account, which lead to a shared apartment, which eventually led to a shared last name.

Rozin and Wulf are not saying that once you share food with your boyfriend or girlfriend that that automatically means you are taking a massive step in your relationship and you are going to get married. What was highlighted in both of these studies was that the simple transfer of food resembles a lot more than you may think. The sharing or feeding of food is a small but monumental sign of the intimacy of your relationship.