Once while I was visiting family many years ago, there was an argument over dinner. We were eating BBQ and sitting on their back deck overlooking the Grand Teton mountain range just before sunset. The sky looked like a pastel tie-dye of pinks, purples, and oranges. The younger kids were ignoring their carrots and burgers, eating only the chips, and pinching off small pieces of their sesame buns to make bullets to pelt each other with across the table. The dogs were playing and in love on the lawn. The wind chimes were tinkling. The adults were making the usual small talk. It was idyllic and relaxing. Then out of the blue my sister-in-law said, “So... who ate my noodles on Wednesday?”
Her husband and 20-something son stopped chewing for a millisecond…just long enough to denote that something was about to happen.
She continued. “You guys knew that I’d been saving them because I had the 4pm shift that night and wouldn’t have time to make anything before work. Then they weren’t there. I was hungry my entire shift.” No answer. Just chewing and swallowing.
We’ve all been there, and it really sucks when that happens. But in her case it was really bad because as a notoriously picky eater, there’s not a whole lot she will eat in the first place. This is a woman who refuses to eat most fruit or vegetables; she takes vitamins and believes that’s good enough. She would literally spend half a meal picking through whatever was on the plate to remove any unwanted bits or pieces. It’s strange, but hey, we all have our idiosyncrasies. And her family certainly knew what hers were. I got the sense that their dance floor had been well worn from this genre of argument. I’m not sure why she was bringing it up at this dinner days after the fact, but my guess is she wanted witnesses to the inquisition.
She glared at her husband; he didn’t meet her eyes. I looked at my husband; he shrugged his shoulders.
She pushed, “I think you ate them. Fess up.”
“Ok yes…I ate your noodles. Are you happy?”
“No I’m not happy. I was so hungry.”
“Can we drop this please?”
“No. That was mean of you.”
“But I ate them before I realized you wanted them.”
“But when you heard me frustrated looking for them, why didn’t you help me?”
And there it was. The real issue at hand.
We cleared the plates, and the kids ran off to the trampoline, the dogs disappeared beneath the porch. Later on, my husband and I talked about the noodle situation. He said, “She’s a picky eater…he shouldn’t have eaten her noodles.” I said, “Yeah, but you know that whole argument wasn’t really about the noodles, right?” He said, “What are you talking about? It was ALL about the noodles! He ate her noodles.”
I said, “No... I think she felt neglected.”
I let that sink in and then continued. “Once he realized his blunder that night, why didn’t he offer to get her more noodles, or make her something else, or bring her something at work? Didn’t he care whether or not she had dinner that night? This wasn’t about the noodles.”
I’ve thought about that night a lot. I think when arguments crop up it’s always a good idea to step back and consider what’s really driving the hurt or frustration. Don’t we all simply want to be seen and heard? Don’t we all want our loved ones to assume the best of us, not the worst? I believe if we look closely enough, most of the time it’s really not about the noodles. If we can step back and figure out what is really going on, then we give ourselves the opportunity to show some real love and kindness.