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Meals with exes leave romantic partners stewing, study says

La Citta Vida/Flickr Researchers have found that meals between people have more meaning than other forms of meeting, such as coffee or phone calls. 

According to new research, lunch is never “just lunch.”

Take, for instance, the following scenario: You find out your partner had an hourlong meal at La Boulange with his or her ex.

Now compare that with the following: You find out your partner had an hourlong coffee get-together with his or her ex at Philz Coffee.

Scientists at Cornell University have found that the first scenario causes more jealousy in the stay-at-home party than the second. And they say it has everything to do with the fact that the partner and the ex were eating together.

"Given the tradition and fashion of food sharing among co-workers, family members and friends, our findings are notably consistent with the idea that eating together has importance beyond nutritional factors," said co-author Kevin Kniffin, an organizational behaviorist at Cornell. "By applying a functional view of jealousy, our studies yield the inference that people think meals can be more than just meals." 

The research appears in this week's journal of the Public Library of Science.

Kniffin and co-author Brian Wansink were interested in how food affects social relationships. Several studies in the past several years have highlighted the importance of meals in cementing relationships. For instance, researchers have found that meals are integral aspects of courtship, and regular family meals provide emotional and psychological benefits to children.

So, how, they wondered, do meals and eating fit in with jealousy in romantic relationships?

If a meal is more than just a meal – if it promotes bonding or affection – then it should provoke more of a jealous response than other, non-food related, modes of discourse.

To test it, the researchers rounded up college students and presented them with a series of hypothetical situations involving their romantic partner and their romantic partner’s ex.

The six situations, which were presented in random order, went something like this: "Recently, your (romantic partner) was contacted by his/her ex-(romantic partner) and she/he spent approximately one hour (1) corresponding via email, (2) talking on the phone, (3) meeting for late-morning coffee, (4) meeting for a late-morning meal (or Lunch), (5) meeting for late-afternoon coffee, and (6) meeting for a late-afternoon meal (or Dinner).”

Then the respondents had to rate their jealousy, on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being not very jealous and 5 being very jealous.

The researchers found, not surprisingly, that a phone conversation sparked more of a reaction than emails. Coffees caused the same amount of angst as phone calls, and morning coffees were less troublesome than either lunch or late-afternoon coffees.

But meals topped the list.

Realizing that the respondents, sensitive to the bad connotations of being jealous, might muffle their responses, the researchers then asked another group to consider how jealous their best friend might be if their best friend’s romantic partner were to do all of the same things with his or her ex.

The order remained the same, but as expected, the intensity of the reaction increased.

“It’s exactly what we thought we’d see,” Kniffin said. “They were playing down their own reactions.”

What did surprise the researchers was that there was no gender difference in reactions.

Many evolutionary psychologists argue that jealousy is an evolved or adaptive behavior, because it guards against cheaters. They also argue that men will be more sensitive and jealous about physical dalliances, while women will be more upset about emotional ones. The fact that both sexes felt the same way about meals indicates that there might be something both physical and emotional about sharing food.

“This suggests that sharing a meal is a hybrid of both physical and social activities,” Kniffin said.

Kniffin is now investigating how sharing meals can function in an organizational or work environment and its function in facilitating work relationships.

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