The Party

Sally Quinn's Party: Couples should separate at dinner parties to meet people

Dining partners: Contrary to Washington tradition, some couples were seated together at the state dinner.
Dining partners: Contrary to Washington tradition, some couples were seated together at the state dinner. (Susan Walsh/associated Press)
By Sally Quinn
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In the week since we opened the e-mail inbox for this column (see below), two women wrote that they would be inclined not to accept an invitation to a dinner if they thought they would not be seated next to their husbands.

The fact is that, in Washington, couples are almost never seated together. I was surprised to see that at the White House state dinner last week for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that some couples were seated together including Colin and Alma Powell and David Geffen and his partner Jeremy Lingvall. The Obamas, however, sat at different tables as did the prime minister and his wife, Gursharan Kaur. So the question this week is: Should couples be seated together at dinner?

My answer is emphatically no. Here's why: The whole point of going out to dinner is to meet people, make new friends, see old friends, learn something, make connections and share something of yourself with others, not to mention having fun.

It's very hard to do this if you are sitting next to your spouse. I find that it saps the energy from the table when spouses are practically in each other's laps. (I'm not talking about a small dinner of eight, for instance, where there is group conversation, although even then I separate couples.) If it's a large dinner and couples are seated at the same table, that's fine, but they still shouldn't be right next to each other.

I would like to say for the record that I am madly in love with my husband and I have evidence to suggest that the feeling is mutual. But both of us agree that it is much more stimulating and fun to sit next to others at dinner. If you're with your loved one, you tend to talk on another level. Did Johnny do his homework, did you take the dog to the vet, did you get the tickets for the vacation, did you have a lousy day at the office?

If you're sitting next to someone else, you're going to learn something about that person, his or her ideas and opinions, information, and you're going to engage in a very different way. It's a challenge, an opportunity, an occasion! It totally changes the dynamics and it electrifies the table to have two people who don't know each other or don't see each other that often sit together. They have so much more to talk about.

If you're sitting next to the one you came with, that leaves only the possibility of three-way conversations with your spouse and the person on the other side. It's almost as if you are monitoring the other's conversation.

Frankly, I think it's much sexier to sit apart. That way, you can flirt with your partner across the table or across the room. You both will have discovered intriguing people and, on the way home, you will have something to share with each other about the conversations you had and what you learned. I always try to seat my husband at our dinner parties with beautiful, sexy women. He always has a better time and is in a particularly good mood at the end of the evening.

I have never understood the Hollywood custom of seating couples next to each other. We occasionally go to Los Angeles for special celebrations. We sit on the plane together for 3,000 miles and then get to the dinner with a lot of fabulous people we would like to meet or get to know better and then there we are, right back next to each other. (I apologize to my L.A. friends who have so graciously invited us. Please, don't stop.)

I've often asked my friends in L.A. why they do this and they say it's because Hollywood wives don't want their husbands sitting next to beautiful young starlets. Parties are about fun, not fear! Anyway, whatever the reason, it doesn't work for me.

Marriages are in trouble in this country. Some 50 percent of couples divorce. Megachurch pastors are openly encouraging their congregants to have more frequent sex -- at least once a week -- to save the marriage. I would venture that sitting apart at dinners is a marriage saver. Just think if your husband or wife or partner is sitting next to somebody who finds them attractive. It only makes you more attracted to them to see them through someone else's eyes. Anyway, who wants to be the warden? A little independence is a good thing.

Some religions understood this. For instance, orthodox Jews have laws of family purity. The ritual is, during that time of the month for a woman, husbands and wives are not allowed to touch each other or sleep in the same bed. The custom is called harchakot, and many Jewish couples find it to be incredibly tantalizing and it only makes them more turned on to each other when they can finally reunite. My feeling is that seating couples apart at dinner is a social form of harchakot.

I have to say I felt a bit sad for the two women who wouldn't attend a dinner if they knew they weren't to be seated next to their husbands. It's too bad; they need to get over it. They don't know what they're missing.

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