Dirty Dishes? Overcooked brisket? Don’t sweat the small stuff



At a time when we have so much to worry about as war wages on in Ukraine and so many are killed and displaced, we try to limit our whining and complaining. This is especially true with those whom we interact most such as our family members and closest friends.

We think, are dirty dishes left in the sink, a birthday forgotten or an overcooked brisket so important that we need to criticize or even ruin a relationship over it? No. Yet, we certainly have been guilty of such actions and even recall the exact situations and conversations.

Crumbs Conundrum

Margaret remembers snapping at her late husband, “Could you please wash off our dishes.” “Please clean up your crumbs.” Nag. Nag. Nag. No response. She remembers his tactic was to leave 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 or driving. These trivial fights were annoying but fortunately never undermined the relationship seriously.

Yet, in hindsight, she knows they were wasted moments. And she learned as she moved into another romantic relationship that keeping quiet, stepping away, waiting to speak until calm returned and then perhaps using a sense of humor are all important ingredients and lessons.

What’s the Beef?

For Barbara, too, the learning has continued. “How could you ruin the brisket?” she said in a snarky tone to her then new beau almost nine years ago. It became overdone, tough—and almost inedible after he decided to take charge. Barbara was annoyed. A first-cut brisket from her favorite butcher then cost $7.49 a pound or so. Who knows how much today? But that’s irrelevant since she learned. The entire imbroglio back then 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. Yet, it took her another effort to learn the lesson perfectly. And 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 then 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 tension outside. Ironically, it turned out the roast was done—and not overdone. It tasted even better the next day when most of the smoke had receded. And this time around, they even were able to laugh about brisket 2.0. Years later, brisket remains on the menu but is made in an Instant pot so there’s no chance of it burning up or getting smoke in their eyes.

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, which seem to work. Many of these appear in chapters on relationships and friendship our latest book, Not Dead Yet.

Try not to get annoyed at another person 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 or forgetting to call someone back is 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.” Or, “I meant to call you but got so swamped; please forgive me or call me again next time. I’ll try to do better.” How do those responses feel and sound to you?

Say it if you have a problem. Your partner or friend or even a work person isn’t a mind reader. Don’t suppose anybody 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. If you stew, it will build and become bigger, like a snowball rolling downhill. Stop it in its tracks early. Barbara has used this strategy when she’s had work done on her home. Does something bother her after a few days? If so, speak calmly but start with a compliment.

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. Run it by someone else if you must, which Margaret and Barbara do as sounding boards, always maintaining the confidence. “Do you think I can say this or write this?” they’ve said.

Be empathetic. Everybody needs this in a sharing relationship when you have a problem. Empathy, sympathy, compassion–the more of these you toss into the relationship mix, the better. Walk in the other person’s shoes and always leave a door open rather than slamming it shut.

Ask for some space if you need it.Rather than lose it, walk away, cool off, and again weigh how much anything really matters. Anger usually dissipates and try not to hold a grudge. We’ve written about the value of not doing so.

Don’t bring up stuff from the past.This is a key lesson in marital therapy, which is good for friendships, too, especially the big, important ones we’ve written about. 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. Specific examples are helpful.

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. This is key with children; they mirror our behavior as they grow.

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 who will feel uncomfortable. After others have left, you can say, “That made me feel terrible that you said it in front of others. Please don’t.”

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 and relationship counseling.

. Tell your partner or friend how wonderful he or she is at least once a day and add how much you love them periodically as well.

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 or like you no matter what, even in that horrid short-sleeved button-down shirt or in that too tight fitting dress.”

Create fun times together. Be playful and have fun with each other, laugh and more. Again, use humor to add levity to tense situations.

Say “thank you” to people you regularly interact with to show you value their friendship. Doesn’t matter what it’s for–taking you to lunch, complimenting you, including you in an outing with others. It shows you don’t take each other for granted, and the other person is likely to return the favor and thank you as well–maybe, for making that great brisket or doing the dishes.

Always remember why you fell in love or became friends.
When you go through a rough patch, talk about those early days to recapture those early feelings. You can do this when things are going great as well.

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

Margaret (Meg) Crane lived most of her life in St. Louis, was associate editor of the Jewish Light in the early 70s and from 2001-2012, was senior writer for Jewish Federation. Two years ago, she moved to New York City to be closer to family living there. Barbara Ballinger, originally from New York, lived in St. Louis for 23 years and worked at the St. Louis Post Dispatch. She now lives in upstate New York. Follow their blog here.