Table Seating Arrangements
In a long-term relationship, partners are not recommended to make a habit of sitting opposite each other during meals or when talking. It may have been appropriate and romantic in the beginning of a relationship, but it will be disruptive in a long-term relationship. The partners should face the same direction—sitting together next to each other—if they want to enjoy a harmonious relationship. When people sit facing each other, there is a natural tendency for the tension between them to rise, making their entire communication rather confrontational.
In the beginning of a relationship or for a candlelight dinner, it is normal and desirable for tension to rise, which is why sitting opposite each other works. This tension is then usually discharged during intimate moments through sexuality. Beautiful intimate moments are, of course, essential in couple relationships; however, the mounting tension during a candlelight dinner leading to beautiful fireworks is counterproductive in the daily routine. When partners sit facing one another over the long term, tension levels frequently change into relationship stress.
It is also not recommended that warring parties sit facing each other, especially when tensions are running high. This only exacerbates the situation, making it more difficult to find solutions acceptable to both parties. If on the other hand, they sit in a semicircle, the situation is normally perceived as less offensive and less reproachful because there is no direct confrontation. This makes it easier to discuss problems and find solutions together.
-Every position or stance that we take toward our partner has a different emotional value and therefore creates a different emotional response.
-How we position ourselves (literally) with respect to our partner creates our (relational) reality.
This is not something I made up; it has become clear from numerous constellations.
Try it yourself with these simple exercises in two parts. Ask a friend to do the following exercise with you. It is not recommended you do the exercises with your partner or spouse, because you know each other too well, and that could impede the ability to perceive freely.
In the first part of the exercises, your friend just stands on one spot and opens up to possible perceptions, while you take on different positions relative to him or her. Stand for a moment to his or her right and carefully observe how that feels for you. Then swap places: stand in front of your friend, and observe what changes for you. Then move again and stand to his or her left and observe again what has changed for you.
Do you feel something different in the three places, or does it all feel the same?
Which position feels better in relation to your friend? Share your observations with your friend, and swap roles. Stand still on a spot and carefully note any changes in yourself while your friend occupies the positions described previously. What do you feel now, and what changes? Which position that your friend adopts in relation to you feels better now?
Continue on with the second part of the exercise, and imagine now that your friend is your boss and therefore hierarchically above you. He or she stands still. This time you approach in a calm manner, first from the right, so that you end up to his or her right. Then you stand in front of him or her before finally moving left so that you end up on his or her left. Make a mental note of how you feel when approaching each position. Is there one that feels better, more enjoyable, or safer for you? Share your observations with your friend.
Do the exercise again, but now you are the boss and your friend approaches you from different directions. Do you feel the same or different with the three approaches? What differences can you observe? Which direction of approach is most pleasant? Try to look at your perceptions without judgment. Do you feel more energy or safer in any particular location? Which location or direction of approach allows you to communicate more easily?
I’ve been through this exercise with hundreds of people during training sessions and seminars with very similar results. In the first part of the exercise, the vast majority of participants say that standing to the left or to the right of someone is much more pleasant than standing face-to-face with them. In general, most people feel confronted when facing another person.
After the second part of the exercise, most participants indicate that approaching a person of a more senior position (higher up hierarchically) is generally easier when you do it from his or her left. Approaching face on was also experienced as confrontational and from the right as disrespectful.
This is a simple demonstration of the fact that systemic laws play out in all our relationships (see in chapter six Systemic Family and Relationship Laws). Knowledge and application of these laws create more harmony in all our relationships and even more so for couples. More harmony comes about when these laws are applied on a family level. The easiest way to do this is to ensure a correct order of hierarchical placement at mealtimes and other gatherings where members sit around a table.
The “Right” Table Positions
Just like the hierarchy in family systems, the proper (best and most harmonious) seating arrangements are governed by hierarchy in a clockwise order. This means that a person to the right of another is hierarchically more senior. It is very important to note that it is emotionally stressful for children to sit on a hierarchically higher place than their parents. Table positioning works best like this:
Parents come first, and they determine the order between them themselves. The children follow on to the left according to age, oldest to youngest. So, the oldest child sits to the left of his or her parents followed by the second, then the third child, and so on.
Again the order of hierarchy occurs in a clockwise fashion. Parents take up position on one side of the table or on each side of a corner but never opposite each other. The children are positioned across from their parents according to their age and in a clockwise way as in a round table situation, from old to young.
Very young children may sit between their parents or between a parent and the oldest child as long as they have not yet learned to eat independently. Once this happens, they move up to their proper place in line.
Children should not be seated at the head of the table, because it is too “heavy” for them. A nice exception to this rule occurs during celebrations, like birthday parties, where the child gets the attention of the entire family. And, as already mentioned, a couple without children are best off sitting beside one another on either side of a corner, at right angles to each other, forming a semicircle.
Claire, age thirty-seven, wants more harmony at the table. She believes it is important to sit together at the table to eat at least once a day. Often it gets noisy at the table. She wants to see if everyone is in their “right” place by doing a table constellation. She places a representative for herself on one side of an imaginary rectangular table and one for her youngest daughter, age seven, to her left. Her partner’s representative sits opposite her, and immediately to his right is one for their ten-year-old daughter. The four representatives take a moment to feel out their positions, and then I ask Claire’s partner to swap places with their youngest daughter.
The children are now sitting along one side of the table in the proper order, and their parents are side by side on the other side. Both children say they feel better with the change; they feel more relaxed. Even Claire’s partner indicates that this situation feels better. I get the parents to swap places. Now Claire sits on her husband’s left, opposite their eldest daughter. All representatives indicate that they now feel even better. Claire’s representative is particularly relaxed in this arrangement. Claire replaces her representative and comes into her own table constellation to take up her new position. She clearly senses the difference. When I see her weeks later, she tells me that after several days of teething problems, it is quieter at the table.
Susan, age thirty-four, is a single mother with two children: John, age nine, and Sharon, age seven. She struggles with John, who does not always do what his mother asks. During an introductory evening, I give Susan the option of having a table constellation. At home, around their rectangular table, Susan sits at the head of the table, with John to her right and Sharon to her left. While there is nothing to remark about Sharon, it is plain to see that something is up with John. Setting the representatives in the right family order, I place Susan to the side of the rectangular table where John normally sits, and both children, next to each other, opposite her. The position at the head of the table, on her left, remains vacant.
Everyone immediately feels better, and the atmosphere is more relaxed. Susan is surprised. Sitting in her new spot feels rather strange to her. The spot to her right is vacant; it felt so good having John there. I make it clear to her that this position is actually where an adult should be sitting, and that her son cannot be a substitute for a partner. As long as he continues to sit to her right, he will feel a bit bossy. John’s representative says that he felt unstable and disrespectful sitting to the right of his mother. He felt he looked down upon her. Now, in his new position, he is looking at her.
By asking her to sit in various positions around the table, I allow Susan to try out different seating arrangements. Soon enough, she understands the principles at work and also how important the correct order is. Out of curiosity, she decides straightaway to implement the new seating arrangements at home for a week. A few weeks later, she phones to thank me. “It’s much more peaceful at the table now, and John listens much better,” she tells me.
It always strikes me how something that may be considered as unimportant as dinner table seating arrangements can influence, in a positive or negative way, the feelings of all family members.
In principle, table order applies also to newly blended families. Children of both partners can be “mixed,” but in the correct order; sitting across from their parents, and next to each other according to their dates of birth. If only one partner has children, then they are best seated to his or her left. This means that the partner without children does not come between his or her partner and his or her children.
Barbara, age thirty-nine, is a crisis mediator and has greatly benefited by knowing how to position clients to the best effect around her meeting table. This is especially useful considering that she often deals with divorce cases, where good seating arrangements are crucial. Before she was introduced to table constellations, she let clients choose where they wanted to sit at either of two tables positioned opposite her table. However, this sometimes led to the children sitting between their parents.
With the help of representatives, we tested various strategies to find an appropriate seating arrangement for the “warring parties.” The tables now form a semicircle, with Barbara’s table to the right, two tables for the parents in the middle, and a third to the far left for children, if they are present. A play corner for toddlers was also added. The children are no longer placed between the “fighting” parties, and the communication between parties runs more smoothly and is more successful.
Are you game enough to try out the “right” seating arrangement around your dinner table with your partner and/or family for a week to see if this improves the situation? Children will often complain about the change, but with a little patience, you will soon be appreciating a more peaceful atmosphere at the table, as a rule.