‘The soundtrack to my life was burping and farting’: how disgusting is your partner?
“Over lockdown, the soundtrack to my life was email notifications pinging – and people burping and farting,” says Emma, describing the unwavering “bodily expulsions” from her husband and their three children as a constant “21-gun salute”. Before the pandemic, her husband went to the office, her eldest child to school and her two younger ones to nursery, and she had the house to herself to work, think and breathe. Back then, the occasional bodily expulsion seemed comical: “When a kid does a burp at the table, especially if they’re not expecting it, it’s very funny.” But together 24/7, the humour was gone. “Not only was there no headspace, but I was having to put up with everyone just letting it fly. I was trapped in it, as if I was in a barn full of farting, belching animals. It started to make me feel a bit depressed. I thought, what has my life become?”
Emma was not the only one. During the third national lockdown, after the cancellation of Christmas lunches across the UK, Google searches for the following terms hit five-year peaks: “biting nails”, “farting”, “burping”, and “scratching”; June saw the peak of “snot”. We cannot know what provoked such searches to proliferate. But we can investigate what happened to couples when these formerly private explosions, explorations and excavations came out into the open and how different partners reacted. We can ask: what do these experiences teach us about relationships? About what it means to be human?
Sara first became aware of her boyfriend’s behaviour during a video call before the pandemic. “He picked his nose and he ate it. I was like: what just happened? I was shocked.” At first he denied it, before finally admitting: “Oh yeah, I do that sometimes.” Sara was disgusted. “I was horrified. It’s just gross. All the dirt from the outside world that your nose has filtered out – and you put it in your mouth! I thought about all the times I’ve kissed him. I wanted to throw up”. The next time, he did it in her flat – this time flicking away the pickings. “That disturbed me. I immediately got up and vacuumed, and then I mopped.” Undeniably disgusting, but I am struck by Sara’s urgent need to clean. Does she have high hygiene standards? “I wouldn’t discount that. This is also to do with your family culture. I have never witnessed such a thing in my home. It’s considered rude and uncouth – people who are civilised don’t do this. So that brings me on to farting…”
A few months in, he farted in front of her; when she asked him to stop, “he would just persist and laugh, so it felt deliberate. He would fart at will. I don’t think he needed to – he wanted to annoy me.” There were other red flags for Sara, including the derogatory way he spoke about other women. She understood all these behaviour traits as falling into the same constellation: although he had many good qualities and she remained sexually attracted to him, “there is a strong undercurrent of childishness and a ‘stuck’ part of him that hasn’t matured, that has stayed as a stubborn three-year-old”. This was a major factor in her refusal to live with him, and decision to end their relationship. “How can you rely on someone as a grownup, mature partner when they still eat their boogers and confuse what is good and what is bad? I think the disgust I felt encompasses all of this at a visceral level.”
Catriona Wrottesley, a couples psychoanalytic psychotherapist at Tavistock Relationships in London, says that disgust is often encountered in the consulting room. “It’s more than a just bodily reaction,” she explains. “It’s a bodily, emotional, psychological and relational reaction, and must be thought about on all these levels.” Disgust can signal a breakdown in communication, as it surges up “to form a protective boundary for the individual against the threat of intrusion by their partner. It may arise with a feeling that the other is not respecting us, or when there is a need to claim our separate space.” She has seen in couples therapy that disgust often shifts as understanding grows. “Understanding can bring people together, whereas disgust is about backing off from the other.” In lockdown, lack of freedom has posed difficulties for some couples, with “no opportunity to refresh the partnership by time spent apart”. Without fresh air blowing into their relationship, the atmosphere for some has grown more than stale; it’s putrid.
Paul Rozin is known as the “father of disgust”. A professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, he says: “We’re basically a package that is wrapped in skin. And inside that skin, it’s all disgusting – you know, blood, muscle and, of course, faeces. We’ve got a bag of faeces inside ourselves all the time. So we’re potentially very disgusting. Including to our spouse.” Rozin was among the first scientists to study disgust, following Darwin and Freud, and established this new research field in the 1980s. I ask him to share the most disgusting thing anyone has ever told him and he replies, disconcertingly, “That’s like asking, what’s your favourite restaurant in the world?”
His understanding begins with Darwin, for whom disgust was primarily a food rejection system with a protective purpose. The universal, innate facial expression we make upon tasting bitter food (the mouth opening, tongue extending, nose wrinkling, upper lip retracting, lower lip protruding) has an evolutionary function: these contortions combine either to expel the disgusting thing in your mouth or to stop it getting in. The word disgust was introduced into the English language in 1601, from the Old French desgouster, or distaste.
The emotion Sara felt towards her partner when he farted is “scaffolded on to this innate rejection of bitter taste”, explains Rachel Herz, cognitive neuroscientist and author of That’s Disgusting. She should know: a renowned expert in smell, she is also “nose judge” for the annual Rotten Sneaker Contest in the US. Disgust at other people’s bodily functions, however, is not innate. It is social and cultural – learned during toilet training. Rozin sounds disappointed that there are no good studies into how disgust develops in children. “Clearly, it’s effectively done,” he says. Prior to toilet training, children happily eat their own faeces and, afterwards, usually won’t. “We don’t know how.”
We do know the areas of the brain associated with disgust are the basal ganglia and the insula – a discovery made, Herz explains, after research showed that people with Huntington’s disease, who suffer a deterioration of these areas, cannot recognise the disgust facial expression and are less offended by the smell of faeces.
The question of disgust is intriguing for philosophers as well as psychologists: Slavoj Žižek writes that while we have no problem swallowing saliva that is already in our mouths, if we were to spit into a sterile cup and drink that saliva, we would find it “extremely repulsive”; he calls this “a case of violating the inside/outside frontier”. Rozin explains that for us, “the inside of the body is disgusting”, and secretions like saliva and mucous are disgusting to us “because they emanate”. “When the inside leaks to the outside, that’s disgusting.” Spitting, farting, burping, belching, nose-picking – all disgusting.
Or are they?
Lucas and his partner lived in different countries prior to moving in together over lockdown. They had a spacious apartment with separate offices and so, with no children, their situation was less stressful than it was for many. There was, nevertheless, a point of conflict: “I didn’t like it whenever she farted or burped after a meal,” he says. It gave him a feeling of revulsion, irritation. Eventually, she asked if it bothered him when her body made noises, “I found it did, and I had to ask myself why. My only answer was that it just wasn’t the done thing, which didn’t seem like a very good answer at all.”
His partner put forward her case: at home, you should be able to let your body do what it needs to do, without shame. Lucas found her argument compelling. He concluded that his disgust was more about him than about her behaviour; that he had no real reason to get angry, he was just making himself unhappy. “Once I realised that, it was easy to let it go”; he could accept his partner as she is. They now freely fart and burp in front of each other, though he emphasises: “It’s just an occasional thing, a question of not suppressing something that is coming naturally.” This was a small change, but it felt profound. “It made me realise what is important in life. It’s not this small comedy of manners, this social dance that we engage in – it’s about who we are as people; what do we carry within us? And that’s goodness and humanity and decency and love. And those things are much more important to me than whether or not my partner needs to fart in bed in the morning.”
Lucas’ reflections challenge my own sense of disgust and call into question the boundaries between what is and is not disgusting. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote in Purity And Danger in 1966, “There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder.” Liz Wyse, author of Debrett’s forthcoming guide to international etiquette, has found that what is traditionally seen as good manners in the UK can be perceived as disgusting in other countries – and the reverse is also true. In Korea, she says, you must “never, ever blow your nose in public – it is just about the rudest thing you can do”. Whereas in China, “many acts that offend the western sense of propriety are perfectly acceptable” – from burping after a meal to blowing your nose on the ground. In east Africa, flatulence in public is “considered with even more repugnance than it would be here,” Wyse says; in Eric Newby’s A Book Of Travellers’ Tales, published in 1985, the travel writer John Hatt refers to an individual in Lamu, Kenya, known as “the man whose grandfather farted”.
What we find disgusting is not an objective truth but a subjective judgment, shaped by the society and culture we live in. It’s about the breaking of a code. And who writes the code? If a couple can choose not to be grossed-out by each other’s bodily expulsions and find meaning and love in that acceptance; if different cultures deem different habits to be socially unacceptable and to different degrees; if, as a cloak for misogyny, menstruation can be condemned as disgusting, and women shamed and psychologically harmed because of it, then is disgust more about shame and power than anything else? I put it to Herz that the title of her book, That’s Disgusting, cannot really be applied to anything with certainty. “No,” she agrees, we can only say, “That is disgusting to me.”
When it comes to feeling disgusted by our partner’s behaviour, psychoanalyst Josh Cohen questions where the shame and power truly lie. He notes that “shameless” refers both to the infant who doesn’t know what shame is, as well as the adults who choose to ignore their shame and override it; he thinks we may look at our partners who “proudly let loose” in front of us with disgust, but also with envy, “because we are so stuck in our own shame”.
Rozin, on the other hand, has theorised that belching and burrowing disgusts us because it is animalistic, and we turn away from our animal nature to block our awareness that “humans, like all other animals, must die”. These behaviours are not just animalistic, but also infantile. Herz observes that children are not guided by social niceties – “we just pee, we poop, we fart, we pick”, while adults have more control over their bodies. I wonder if a partner behaving in such a childlike way might unconsciously remind us of the vulnerable, helpless, terrified baby inside each of us – the part of ourselves we cannot bear to know about, so exposed by the pandemic.
Cohen also proposes that our reactions could be rooted in the enigmatic nature of our bodily effluvia. According to the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, we live mostly in the paternal order of regularity and structure, governed by the law and language. We can think of our spontaneous bodily discharges, Cohen suggests, as “the eruptive force at the edges that cannot be represented, which Lacan called ‘the real’”. It is impossible, for example, to spell the sound of a fart or to convey the gravy richness of a profound belch, and I learn during my research that what is commonly called snot – the mixture of mucous and particles of matter trapped in it – has no official term; it is, medically speaking, unsymbolised. We can think of all these, says Cohen, as “eruptions of the real”. A novel name for a fart if ever I heard one.
Another understanding of why the personal habits and functions of partners might be so disturbing comes from the cusp of the 12th and 13th centuries, via a Latin text called Urbanus Magnus, attributed to Daniel of Beccles. Historian Fiona Whelan and colleagues were the first to translate it into English as The Book Of The Civilised Man – a sort of medieval Debrett’s guide to manners. “There’s an unfortunate trope of looking back on the middle ages as filthy and disgusting, because that’s how it’s often portrayed,” she says. “That’s not to say it wasn’t different – it was. But some things remain the same.” (For one, readers are advised against eating food that has fallen on the floor; some variation of the two-second rule has existed for eight centuries.)
My favourite advice from Daniel of Beccles is, “If you wish to belch, remember to look at the ceiling.” He also suggests that if you sneeze into your hand, try not to look at what comes out; if you must spit at the dinner table, turn around and spit behind you; and do resist hunting for fleas in your chest in front of others. But then, as now, different individuals had different approaches. According to Urbanus Magnus, “flatulence should not occur… If it happens that your intestines are caught in a windstorm, look for a place where you may relieve them in private”; at the same time, Roland the Farter was famous in the court of Henry II for passing wind on demand, which Whelan says was considered hilarious. The question dividing Emma’s family in the 21st century has roots going back to the 12th. Whelan came across several fantastic terms for fart in her research, from “crepitus” and “bumbulum” to Daniel of Beccles’ more refined “the tornado beneath your thighs”.
According to Urbanus Magnus, not being able to master your bodily functions reflected your inner soul. Whelan thinks we may not have changed much, especially when it comes to disgust: “We’ve lost the religious element, but I don’t think we’ve lost the sense that how you behave is a mirror to how you are as a person; whenever someone breaks whatever code we have, we say, ‘Eugh!’” Perhaps this explains the disgust provoked in some partners: closer to medieval morality than we think, we are unconsciously disturbed by the lowly manners, and therefore lowly soul, of the person with whom we share our bed.
It is about time that we heard from one of these (allegedly) disgusting specimens. Allow me to introduce you to Nigel. “I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” he says. “The thing is, I pick my nose. And on occasion, I’ve been known to eat it.” His reasons are practical: “I can’t believe anybody doesn’t pick their nose. It’s so annoying to have a snotty nose. The process of blowing it always makes it more bunged up, and you’re left with a disgusting runny nose as a result.” But his feasting on the pickings remains a mystery, even to him: “That is the most repulsive thing.” He cannot explain it.
He grew conscious of this longstanding habit over lockdown, after moving in with his partner. They were watching television when, horrified, she asked him what he was doing with his finger. He denied it – “I was just scratching!” – but it did make him think. “It occurred to me that there’s someone else there, someone I want to fancy me.” When this happened in a previous relationship, he felt ashamed and defensive, and did not address it; he sees it as a good sign that this time he did not perceive his partner’s comment as an attack on the core of himself, but as a reasonable reaction that required a response from him.
Although picking his nose (and eating it) takes up a very small part of Nigel’s day, addressing this is part of a bigger theme in his life to do with growing up, self-awareness, and what it means to love. He was previously untidy at home, and self-righteously so; he was comfortable with chaos, so why should he conform to other people’s values? Over the past decade, that has changed. He is now less likely to order pizza twice in a week or leave the boxes lying around, and this is all part of the process of “reaching a settlement with who you are, recognising that it’s OK to try to fix those things”. He doesn’t care about his nose-picking, he says. “I do care that my partner is not grossed out, and I can’t apply my sense of things to somebody else.”
Nose-picking is one of many examples where our sense of disgust has an evolutionary health benefit. Unlike farting, which is a sign of a healthy digestive system (within reason – we emit in the region of 15 farts a day on average, according to Julie Thompson of the charity Guts UK), nose-picking poses serious risks. Other than the obvious danger of introducing coronavirus, or transmitting it to someone else, there are risks to the nose itself. Professor Nirmal Kumar is an ear, nose and throat consultant surgeon, and president of ENT UK. At the milder end of the spectrum, he says, nose-picking can irritate the lining of the nose, provoke bleeding and, paradoxically, create more problems with “crusting”. In more extreme cases, “it creates holes in the nose called septum perforations. It is not common in children, but in adults who’ve been doing this over the years, unfortunately, all ENT doctors and clinicians have seen it.”
Nigel picks his nose less than he did – but hasn’t broken the habit, unlike Beth, who bit her nails since she “came out the womb. Not just a little bit of nibbling, but down to the nail-bed.” She had suffered from anxiety throughout her life, and this was her coping mechanism. “It was a way to calm down and self-soothe, like a baby sucking my thumb. I used to get really angry if people told me to stop.” But she wasn’t happy about it: “It was constantly painful, bloody and a proper eyesore.” Beth hated her hands and hid them at the office, and in photographs.
After moving in with her partner, and spending every day together over several lockdowns, she became more aware of the habit than ever. He asked why, if she hated it so much, she didn’t quit. She bought some bitter-tasting nail polish, set an alarm to remind her to use it, and her boyfriend obliged by pushing her hand away from her mouth when he saw her about to bite her nails. She wasn’t always grateful and accused him of finding her habit and her hands disgusting. “I think it was my own insecurities. I was being incredibly defensive – I knew this was something I needed to change, but him agreeing with me annoyed me,” she says. Together, they conquered her nail-biting, and for the past three months she has not wanted to hide her hands. After we speak, she heads off for a manicure and later sends a photo of her glamorous long red nails. What did she learn from the experience? “It made me realise that people in my life are there to help me, and I shouldn’t be so resistant to change.”
I ask etiquette expert Liz Wyse if seeing the cultural specificity of these so-called gross habits has challenged her view of what is socially acceptable. It has not. “Everyone has their cultural norms and taboos,” she says, “but what matters is respecting someone else’s if they alert you that it makes them feel uncomfortable.” This is exactly what happened for Emma and her barnyard of farting, belching animals. When she talked to her husband and children about it, she says, “I was thinking: I love these guys, and I don’t want them to feel self-conscious.” So she simply said, “Would you all mind trying not to fart and burp around me constantly, because I don’t like it.” They apologised and stopped. “It made me really happy,” Emma says. “I felt listened to.”
Surprisingly, for Cohen, a little disgust is a sign of a healthy relationship. “I think you should be able to find your partner disgusting, because that means they are ‘other’ to you, not just an extension of you,” he says. Where there is no inhibition or disgust surrounding some bodily functions, “intimacy has become a form of aloneness – as if there’s no difference between being on your own, and thinking, oh, it’s just the wife, or the husband, or whatever”. There is a danger of becoming too comfortable, of “confusing intimacy with total familiarity”; we need to relate to our partner as a separate person with their own bodily and psychic boundaries.
It occurs to me that many of us have had the experience of being loved by someone who seems to find nothing we do disgusting, who celebrates our farts and burps as if they are remarkable, award-winning achievements. This is the love of a mother and father for a new baby. As Wrottesley observes, “The intimate adult couple relationship is the first time that we experience anything that’s close to that first, mother-baby relationship, in terms of the emotional and bodily coming together.” Perhaps this is what some people are searching for from their partner, as they burp and fart and pick and lick and roll and flick, disappointed to meet only disgust in return.
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