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Try not to ‘Sweat the Small Stuff’

October 23, 2015 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

Can dirty dishes or an overcooked brisket burn a relationship? Yes, unless you douse the fire quickly. Case in point.

“Why didn’t you rinse off my dish in the sink when you did yours this morning?” Margaret snaps at her husband. “And while you’re at it, please clean up your crumbs.” Nag. Nag. Nag.

No response. He leaves the room.

What was she thinking? Now that her husband has passed away, she wishes she could take it all back…the petty comments and arguments over the years about such innocuous stuff as dishes and crumbs. These trivial fights often undermined their marriage and relationship, but fortunately never did it in.

Yet, in hindsight, she knows they were wasted moments. And she has learned as she has moved into another romantic relationship. Keeping quiet, stepping away, waiting to speak until calm are all important ingredients.

What’s the Beef?

For Barbara, too, the learning continues. “How could you ruin the brisket?” she says in a snarky tone to her then new beau. It became overdone, tough—and almost inedible after he decided to take charge. Barbara was annoyed. A first-cut brisket from her favorite butcher cost $7.49 a pound or so. The entire imbroglio took 10 minutes as her beau rushed to rescue the relationship– and the brisket. He stepped away, returned, and calmly said, “You don’t want to look back and think we broke up because of a brisket, do you?”

Humor diffused the situation fast.

Barbara knew her beau was dead right. Why fight over a roast or any food item that can easily be replaced and remade. But then the second battle of the briskets broke out a year later. When cooking it in the oven, according to a new recipe, fat dripped over the sides, and made a mess. Her beau pulled out the half-cooked roast, pressed the clean oven button when it had cooled down, and it sent toxic fumes and smoke wafting throughout the house. It also sent Barbara and her 95-year-old mother running outside for breaths of fresh air. In the meantime, her beau told Barbara to turn on the vent, not her annoyance. He then adeptly took the object of so much sturm and drang out, and it turned out the roast was done—and not overdone. It tasted even better the next day when most of the smoke had disappeared. And this time around, they even were able to laugh about brisket 2.0.

Of course, the biggest disagreements in our relationships have been about food and took place in our kitchens. We’re passionate about what we prepare, eat, and serve others. It’s the way we unwind and take breaks from our work. But we’ve learned to dial down our tempers and, in Barbara’s case, the oven. Here are 14 other methods we follow to cook up healthy, happy relationships that seem to work. Many of these appear in our soon-to-be released book: Suddenly Single After 50: The Girlfriends’ Guide to Navigating Loss, Restoring Hope, and Rebuilding Your Life, to be published by Rowman and Littlefield Group spring 2016:

  1. Try not to get annoyed at each other about unimportant stuff. What’s unimportant? Anything that’s not life threatening or dangerous. Driving after multiple drinks is CRAZY but not taking out the garbage is really irrelevant. Learn to explain your feelings calmly, and use “I” rather than “you” messages. “I feel I may care about the cleanliness of the house excessively, but I’d love if we each could pitch in.” How does that feel and sound to you?
  2. Say it if you have a problem. Your partner isn’t a mind reader. Don’t suppose your partner knows how you feel about all or anything unless you speak up but again calmly and sweetly. Sometimes, it’s wise to wait and see if it still bothers you, or even sleep on it.
  3. Avoid sarcasm, meanness, and any form of condescension. You can’t take words back sometimes, even apologies won’t always work. The written word is pretty powerful, so is the spoken word. So think calmly before doing either.
  4. Be empathetic. You each need this in a sharing relationship when you have a problem. Empathy, sympathy, compassion–the more of these you toss into the marital mix, the better.
  5. Ask for some space if you need it. Rather than lose it, walk away, cool off, and again weigh how much anything really matters.
  6. Don’t bring up issues from the past. This is a key lesson in marital therapy. Focus on the present. Keep discussions and arguments to one subject at a time rather than fill the kitchen sink and have it overflow. Exception: If you need to point out why something currently going on is too much of the same that already has happened that’s different.
  7. When you make a mistake, admit it, and ask for forgiveness. Take blame and responsibility. Learn to apologize fully with no “buts” or “ifs” and sometimes even if you weren’t the one to start the argument or bad mood, take hold of it to move forward.
  8. Try not to criticize. If you do, say it lovingly and in a constructive way: “I love that you made dinner and, just so you know, the trash can is under the sink.” Never ever criticize in front of others. It’s embarrassing for your loved one and also for the others.
  9. Listen closely. Don’t always do the talking. Try not to get defensive. Don’t multitask while listening. Show that you have listened by repeating back occasionally something said to you, another lesson in marital counseling.
  10. Respect. Tell your partner how wonderful he is at least once a day and add how much you love him as well–especially when you and he head off to work or activities and at the end of the day.
  11. Don’t make generalized statements. Be specific i.e. you look best when you wear checks rather than horizontal stripes, blue is a great color on you….underlying message: “I love you no matter what, even in that horrid short-sleeved button-down shirt or in that too tight fitting dress.”
  12. Create fun evenings. Be playful and have fun with each other, laugh and more. Use humor to add levity to tense situations.
  13. Say “thank you” to your partner. Doesn’t matter what it’s for–taking you to dinner or for doing something that is special to you. It shows you’re not taking each other for granted, and he’s likely to return the favor and thank you as well–maybe, for making that great brisket.
  14. Always remember why you fell in love. Talk about those early days to recapture those early feelings when you go through a rough patch, or even when things are going great and you become a bit nostalgic.

Have other ideas for what helps diffuse difficult situations or keep relationships on   track. We’d love to hear them. Please share with us by leaving a comment.




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