Let Your Relationships Stew

One summer, I was living on a modest income while my band worked to make it big in the music industry. There were eleven of us sharing a house, and we were all in dire straits — the living condition, unfortunately, not the band. Money was so tight that basic grocery shopping was a challenge. 

We quickly discovered that soups were a notably economical way to feed a full house on a budget. It started when one of us made a big pot of stew and, rather than finish it over the next few days; we decided to see how far we could stretch it. Each day we would individually contribute some ingredient depending on what we could afford. One day someone added chicken, while another person added carrots or green beans. By also continuing to add liquid and spices, we lived on virtually the same pot of soup for nearly three months. 

What surprised us all was the fact that each day the stew tasted utterly different. Depending on the ingredients we each contributed, the flavor of the soup shifted and changed. Sometimes the results were appealing. Sometimes — like when one housemate accidentally overdid the curry powder — a rescue operation was required. Each evening, though, I remember looking forward to dinnertime, when we would discover what new soup we had created as a house. 

The stew that the eleven of us nurtured and reinvented each day turned out to be a physical representation and manifestation of the relationship that we had with each other. The more connected and communicative we all were, the better the soup tended to be. When things fell out of sync in our interactions, the soup would often reflect that also. 

All relationships are stews of a sort; regardless of whether they are romantic, platonic, professional or even political, they all are impacted by the ingredients that each of us contributes to them. As the days, weeks and years go by, we each add new things to our relationships based on our actions and the words we say. These ingredients can be positive ones such as kindness, trust, or humor, or negative ones such as resentment, dishonesty, or abuse. With each contribution, the stew “tastes” different and takes on new qualities. 

When we like the flavors of our relationships, we naturally contribute similar ingredients to keep and maintain the experience. As an example, perhaps someone is good at expressing appreciation. We might notice how good that feels and reciprocate. Conversely, if someone allows themselves to express anger at us, we might naturally snap back at them before our mind has a moment to respond more maturely. 

When a stew’s flavor is “off,” we tend to notice it, but we don’t necessarily know how to bring the stew back to its former glory. Sometimes we may want to blame the other person, to insist that it’s their responsibility to put more of the “right kind” of ingredients in the pot. Other times we might try to deny the friction we feel, hoping it will go away. 

But only you know what is going to taste good to you and — like with the curry powder — ingredients don’t just disappear from the relationship. If you want to have a different soup, it’s up to you to add the various elements. Unless you make a conscious choice to contribute to your relationships what you are looking for yourself, you cede your happiness to another person. Left unchecked, an untended stew can dry out or sour and eventually cause one or both people to withdraw from the relationship, leading to its ultimate demise.

Take the fatigue of complaining in a relationship. If you want to create a shift in your experience, you could contribute something else to the dynamic instead such as appreciation. This might mean talking about what’s good in the other person’s world, or showing gratitude in general when that person is near you. You might also notice what types of complaints are most common and counterbalance them with positivity. If, for example, your partner complained about not being in control, you might make a point of being thankful when you notice something that is within their power. If they complain about not being seen, you might put down your devices when they speak to you and give them your full attention, or reinforce moments where they are appreciated and noticed for their talents. 

The philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and nowhere is this truer than in relationships. If your stews keep tasting the same time in relationship after relationship, it’s because they all have one chef in common: you. It’s easy to point fingers at the other people involved, but you are in complete control of the flavor of your relationship’s taste and for ensuring that taste is maintained to your preference. Goodness in, goodness out; garbage in, garbage out. You get out what you put in.

Throwing away the stew is always an option — sometimes the particular combination of spices is unpalatable, and there’s no clear path to turn the relationship recipe around. But if a relationship feels too important to ignore or abandon, at the end of the day, you and only you can turn it around. You are in charge of creating the experience you want, of feeling what you choose to feel, and of how your relationships take shape. You are the chef of your own life. 

This week, take stock of your relationships, from family and friends to colleagues. Which ones are sailing along, and which ones seem to drag you down? Take some time to evaluate your uplifting relationships and notice what makes up those stews. Then, see which of those ingredients are missing from the relationships that you find tiresome. Experiment with contributing something different to the stew. Make these contributions without an expectation that they will be returned, and watch what happens over time.

“Ask not what your teammates can do for you — ask what you can do for your teammates.” – Michael Jordan (with an assist from John F. Kennedy)

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