Some leftover food is great. It has the almost magical ability to do what we'd all love to do—get better with time. Leftover chili is 100% better the next day. Personally, I love leftover pizza heated up in a toaster oven.
Other leftovers aren't exactly ideal. Leftover French fries? No thanks. You only need to look at your wilting, slimy leftover salad to know it's not going to work out. And a hard pass on leftover fish.
The leftovers that really don't work well, though, are the ones we tend to give to the most important people in our lives.
I recently heard Esther Perel, a psychotherapist who specializes in relationships and who's coming out with a book on infidelity, talk about the idea of leftovers in an interview. What she's observed from those who experience affairs has led her to believe that couples could drastically improve "if people took 1% of the creativity that they put in their affairs and brought it into their marriages and relationships."
It's uncanny, according to Perel, how much creativity, kindness, generosity, and desire a person can produce in an affair.
She points to the idea of leftovers.
"They bring the best of themselves not to their partner. They bring the best of themselves to work, to their friends, to their colleagues, to their hobbies, to their children, for that matter. Not to their partner."
It's true, if you think about it. Unfortunately, I've been in the kind of relationship where we serve leftovers, and I've been both the receiver and the giver. But when it comes to being a teacher, I consider it part of my job every morning to "get up" for the kids. No matter how tired I am, no matter how frustrated I am, no matter how little I'm in the mood, I gear myself up for every single class and I smile and I laugh and I treat the kids with as much kindness as I can.
I give my best to my students, and then I get around someone who's close to me and treat that person as if they're an afterthought.
Perel says she often meets with people in therapy who say that their partner is their best friend. She responds by telling them, "You treat your best friend like this? What kind of BS is this?"
We criticize our loved ones, especially family and spouses, in a way we would never with a friend. Though we'd say we love and cherish them more than anyone, we speak to them and treat them in ways that honor them less than our acquaintances.
We do that because we think they're just going to, or maybe even have to, put up with us. And maybe it's true that they can't or shouldn't leave us—because of blood or marriage or a crazy expensive two-year lease. That doesn't mean we won't lose them.
And we can lose people in a lot more ways than one. Rarely does a relationship implode spontaneously; what's more common is that we lose each other, one step at a time.
Maybe it's time to re-think who's getting our leftovers and why.
In his leadership podcast, pastor and author Craig Groeschel talked about one way he avoids giving the most important people his leftovers: he decides who and what his top priorities are (such as family), and then he blocks out time in his schedule for them first, the way any of us would schedule an appointment with a dentist or your hair stylist. He takes no chances of getting too busy for the people most important to him.
That's one way to make sure someone doesn't get leftover time. And while we all probably have our own unique ways we struggle with leftovers, an almost universal leftover I see dished out is in regard to kindness.
I notice this on a regular basis, especially with married couples. There's not a lot that's more cringeworthy than watching the way a husband speaks to or treats his wife (and vice versa) and thinking, "It sure does feel as if he likes everyone in this room more than he likes her."
It's not a good look.
More importantly, it's not the way things should be, and it's not the best way to have the happy, healthy relationship we want at the end of the day.
"But, but, but..."
We have a ready-made list of excuses for why we give our loved ones leftovers: I'm tired, I had a bad day/week/childhood, he hurt me, she's not receptive to me, he/she is even meaner than I am.
The hard truth is that no matter what reasons we have for serving up our leftovers, we still bear the responsibility to be kind to the people we love. That's on us. It has to be. If I can do it for my students, I can do it for my loved ones. If I can do it for acquaintances, I can do it for my loved ones. If I can do it for a stranger, I can do it for my loved ones.
The ones we love the most deserve our best.
I recently made a list of all of the "honeymoon" type of behaviors that happen early in a relationship that make it feel like the relationship is spiked with some uppers and rainbow juice. The good news? 90% or more of those behaviors are ridiculously simple.
Some of them aren't sustainable. You're probably not going to stay up all night, every night talking to this person for the next fifty years. Scratch that off the list.
So many things, though, are doable and don't require much effort at all. Tell me these aren't easy:
Smile at them.
Say, "Thank you."
Use a term of endearment.
Hug them when you first see them.
Tell them you love them.
Leave them a note.
The list could go and on. Some of this will work for you, and some won't. The point is, you can do it. I can do it. We can do it. We won't be perfect, we won't get it right all of the time, we'll still have some cringeworthy moments...but we can do this.
What leftovers have you been giving to your most loved ones?
How do you speak to and treat your friends—is it better than the most important person in your life?
In what ways have you short-changed them in kindness?
Our loved ones deserve better. The best. Let's begin to give them that.