Mealtimes can be a huge point of contention in an abusive relationship.
Mealtime is a time of day where there is hope for togetherness and harmony. An abuser does not want this; they want you to feel hopeless, and they want to have control - of you - and of every situation. The abuser can use mealtime as a weapon to exert power and instil fear, and this abuse tactic is relentless in its daily occurrence – every dinner, every breakfast, every lunch.
The victim often ends up caught in a cycle of trying to please the abuser with how they want mealtimes to be, but the goalposts always change and nothing will be good enough. This creates feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, despair, confusion. And high levels of anxiety.
Here are just some of the ways an abuser turns mealtimes into a nightmare.
High expectations of children’s table manners
The abuser will expect a toddler to have the table manners of a twelve year old, or a twelve year old to have the manners of a young adult. If a toddler is at the table, they are expected to sit still, hands on the table at all times, to ask politely for the sauce to be passed or their drink to be refilled.
If these requirements aren’t met, the abuser may or may not explode and berate the child and berate the victim for not teaching the child better, but there will be an air of tension because the victim will know that the abuser may explode at any moment.
The child will then also begin to become anxious at mealtimes, not understanding what they are doing wrong but knowing that they can’t seem to behave correctly. This kind of negativity at mealtime is a very unhealthy connection to make, as it potentially becomes a negative connection with food.
Children are expected to eat what, when, and how much they are told
The abuser will not tolerate a child ‘wasting’ food. If they feel that a child has been ungrateful or not eaten enough, it is not beyond an abusive person to force a child to continue eating or force a child to drink more than they need to, to the point of being sick.
Similarly, if a child asks to try something new but decides they don’t like it, the abuser may use it as an opportunity to exert control and insist the child eat the whole of it, causing destress to the child and also the parent victim, as they know if they intervene the abuse will probably escalate.
You have to guess what time they will be home
The abuser expects to have a warm meal after work, but the time they come home varies significantly and they don’t inform you what time they will be getting in at the end of each day.
So you’re left trying to guess each day what time they will be home, and prepare the meal so that it’s warm. It’s a situation where the victim is set up to fail. On the days where they don’t get the timing right, the abuser will show their disappointment - that you can’t get a simple thing right like making a meal on time.
This is another crushing blow to the victim, who may have spent hours worrying and trying to figure out what time they will be home, only to have it all dismissed as a failure.
A new recipe every day
An abuser will expect ‘decent food’, but their definition of decent may change and be hard to keep up with. No meat… only white meat… fresh food… why have you put them on a diet?!...
The victim will be forever trying to make meals to the specifications of the abuser and not ever managing to quite get it right. More and more of your day with revolve around trying to plan meals, think of new meals, find recipes, buy ingredients, frantically trying to cook a meal that is deemed satisfactory.
It seems crazy, but the abuser has made you believe that this is your duty and the minimum of what can be expected of you as a partner, so you also feel like a failure and worthless every time you get it wrong – which the abuser will make sure is often.
They cook meals for you… and sabotage it
The abuser doesn’t want to give you any ammunition for saying they are less than perfect. So they will ‘fake’ cook a nice meal from time to time. This is so that you have no right to complain that they aren’t doing their fair share.
What they will do however, is purposefully sabotage the meal so that it tastes awful – put in a full head of garlic for example. When you are unable to eat the inedible meal, they will rage at you in offence and tell you never to expect them to cook again because you are so ungrateful.
They may also force you or the children to eat the food as punishment; firstly for expecting them to cook, and secondly for not appreciating the meal. This whole episode is enough to make the victim try to appease the abuser by continuing to cook for them and try to meet their ever-changing expectations around food without bringing it up again.
Although less common, some abusers may do the exact opposite of this - whereby they believe they are a masterchef in the kitchen and will not allow you to cook anything. Any time you attempt to cook they will put you down with condescending comments or insults about your abilities, or your naivety about cooking, to the point that you eventually give up. They will then criticise you for not doing your fair share of the cooking.
Jibes to isolate you from the family
Mealtime is supposed to be a time of togetherness and family bonding. Yet, the abuser may use this time to further isolate you from the family and make you feel isolated from the children.
The abuser will make jokes at your expense and bring children unwittingly into the jibes so that they are laughing – at you – along with the abuser. This is to cause you pain and make you feel worthless and isolated within the family unit - at a time when you should be feeling bonded and connected. It is deeply wounding.
They won’t sit to eat with you
If you have made a point of preparing a meal so that you can sit down together to eat, the abuser will make a point of not eating it with you.
Whether it be that they find a reason to be offended by something you’ve done, so that they can justify eating the meal in the kitchen without you, or whether it be they eat their food whilst you are still dishing up yours, only to tell you how sensitive and needy you are if you expect them to sit and let their food go cold.
They will not allow you the pleasure of eating together if they see that’s what you crave. Again, the effect of this is to make the victim feel insignificant and cripple their self-worth.
Explosions at dinner time
The abuser may choose any time to fly into an explosive rage, and mealtime is as good as any for impact. The possibilities of knocking plates, spilling drinks, flying food and creating mess for you to clean up are there for maximum impact.
Some abusers don’t even need to go there, the cutting words, insults, threats, swearing, shouting and looks of anger are enough to turn a potentially peaceful mealtime into a moment of sheer panic about how the next minutes, hours and days will now unfold. The victim is left in a state of shock and confusion, trying to understand ‘what they did wrong’ so that they can try to avoid doing it again.
Judging your eating habits
The abuser will makes constant little criticisms about your eating habits, ‘do you really think you should eat another one?’, ‘Didn’t you say you were on a diet?’, ‘Wouldn’t you like to eat fresh food sometimes?’, ‘is that your second glass of wine?’
The abuser will tell you that you’re too sensitive or can’t take a joke if you tell them it’s upsetting you. The result is the victim begins to become self-conscious about their eating habits and question their choices around food.
This can be detrimental to mental health – potentially either aggravating or instigating the development of an eating disorder. The victim will become very nervous and anxious every time it comes to eating a meal or having a snack, because they can’t seem to ever get it right.
It’s important to remember that an abuser may not do all of these tactics around mealtime – or they may not do any tactics at mealtime – however, it does not lessen the abuse experienced. Each abusive relationship is different, but there are commonalities that can be shared amongst survivors to bring and maintain clarity of experiences.