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A Hangry Spouse Can Harm a Happy Marriage

Are you getting irritable with each other? Make sure you are fed and happy.

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When people see a battery icon turn red, they look around for a recharge. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have this same indicator on everyone’s forehead? When partners are depleted, they are irritable, oversensitive, and reactive. Addiction recovery groups use the acronym HALT to remind participants that when they are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, they are vulnerable to relapse. There are a lot of ways to get depleted, but hunger is one of the most common.


Imagine what your partner would look like as a doll. Now pretend you are given this doll, along with a pile of pushpins, and told to poke it depending on how angry you are. Researchers asked a group of participants to jab their spouse doll every night for three weeks, and they found there was a strong correlation between the number of pins used and the level of the pokers’ blood sugar. In other words, a hungry spouse was an angry spouse. The researchers tested their “hangry” hypothesis by inviting the couples to their lab at the end of the three weeks. Partners were put in separate rooms and told they were going to be competing in a game to see who could push a button faster when a target turned red (the partners were actually paired with a computer). They were told that whoever “won” the round could blast their spouse’s headphones with a noise and make it as loud and long as they wanted. And—you guessed it—the lower a person’s blood sugar was when they won, the louder and longer they blew their “spouse’s” head off.

Hunger is a sneaky deception, because most people don’t realize it is changing their mood. When starving, people get annoyed at each other, but the problem isn’t the person, it’s the lack of a sandwich. Hunger clouds the judgment of even the most professional people. Demonstrating this, researchers followed a group of judges to see what time of day they were most likely to grant parole to offenders. Judges are supposed to be impartial and wise, but they were much more likely when feeling full and comfortable to grant pleading parolees a break. After a mid-morning snack, parole was granted about two-thirds of the time. Then the percentage dropped off continually until lunch, at which point it shot back up to the same happy two-thirds level.

This worked for me when I was a student stressing about a thesis deadline. I was waiting to get feedback from a professor, and to encourage him, I brought him a plate of homemade cookies courtesy of my wife. He had the draft back within a day, with glowing reports about it and the snickerdoodles. I have also heard many tales of food as marriage therapy. One couple reported that whenever they became crabby, they would stop and eat. It either solved the problem or left the pair too contentedly full to address it. In a men’s group I was involved with, one guy said the secret to life was to buy his wife candy: “Dudes, sometimes you just gotta go to the K-Mart for junior mints. It saved my marriage.”

Food is energy, and relationships take a lot of energy (This is also why bloggers frequently stop writing to get snacks). One project found when subjects were asked to interpret another’s body language, they did better after having a drink of lemonade. This only worked with lemonade with real sugar, however, and not artificial sweeteners. The calories fueled the focusing ability. Brad Bushman, one of the researchers on the voodoo doll study, has discussed how glucose is actual brain fuel, needed to control negative impulses. "Even though the brain is only 2 percent of our body weight,” Bushman said, “it consumes about 20 percent of our calories. It is a very demanding organ when it comes to energy." It may be better to ditch the diet when you are trying to improve your relationship and work things out over steak and chocolate.


Brad J. Bushman, C. Nathan DeWall, Richard S. Pond, and Michael D. Hanus, "Low Glucose Relates to Greater Aggression in Married Couples." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, no. 17 (2014): 6254-6257.

Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav, and Liora Avnaim-Pesso, "Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 17 (2011): 6889-6892.

Emer J. Masicampo, and Roy F. Baumeister, "Toward A Physiology of Dual-Process Reasoning And Judgment: Lemonade, Willpower, And Expensive Rule-Based Analysis," Psychological Science 19, no. 3 (2008): 255-260.

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