Should We Really Sweat the Small Stuff?

by | Jan 24, 2020 | Resolving Conflict | 32 comments

Sweating the Small Stuff in Marriage

How do you know in marriage when you should bring up an issue, or when you should let it go?

Should you sweat the small stuff?

We’ve been talking this month about how iron sharpens iron, and how marriage should make us better people. This week, the third in our series, I gave some concrete examples of how to speak up when something’s bugging you.

In the comments there was some great discussion that illuminated some big thoughts, and I wanted to draw attention to some of those and expand a bit!

Don’t forget the power of prayer in preparing your spouse to deal with an issue

First, Anonymous said this, which I thought was excellent advice:

I’ve only had a couple of disagreements with my fiance so far, but one thing that has really helped us is PRAYING! We had a major disagreement (major as in big difference of opinion, not major as in shouting and yelling!) a few months after we started dating and another around the time of our engagement, and both times, we prayed about it together and separately, that God would show us the right path – and he did. And I think those disagreements actually brought us closer together as a result.

A couple of times, there’s been something that concerns me and I’m not sure if I should raise it or if it is me over-reacting. So I’ve prayed about it. And a few days later, he’s raised the issue and either said he’s planning to do what I hoped he would or else he’s asked me what I think about it, giving me the perfect opportunity to share my thoughts.

I do set a ‘time limit’ on these things, asking God to either have my fiance raise the topic or that it will no longer bother me by a set time, and committing to the Lord that I will raise the issue if neither of those things happen (because I am someone who hates conflict and would naturally pray about something for months rather than speak up!) But it’s amazing how many times I don’t have to say anything because one of those two things have happened by the ‘deadline’!

I’ve found this true in my own life as well. Pray about something, and often God does speak to your spouse and then they’re prepared to hear what you think, too. I just want to reiterate the last bit of what she said–she does set a time limit, so that if it’s not dealt with by that time, she will raise it. I feel like in the church we give “just pray about it” as a pat answer so often that I likely shy away from talking about it too much, which is wrong of me (so I’m glad that Anonymous raised it). But here’s what shows she’s not just treating it like a pat answer: she does say that if it’s not taken care of by then, she will do something about it.

Prayer should not be a substitute for doing what God is calling us to do. But prayer should be preparation for what God is calling us to do. And often through prayer, God softens the ground!

Thank you spouse when they do change–let’s reinforce positive behaviour!

Flo also mentioned this:

I think it is also very important when something has been fixed to notice and mention it. “Thank you for fixing the issue with X that I talked to you about, it really makes a big difference.”

Love that. If you’re going to speak up, then thank your spouse when they listen and show they care. In fact, getting in the habit of thanking your spouse for things can help you notice when your spouse is doing good things. If you’re looking for those good things, you’ll notice them and you’ll think about them more, rather than being preoccupied by things your spouse does that bug you (something I dealt with at length in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, too!).

And if they’re trying but not quite getting it? Love this from Hannah:

I have to put in a word for the gentle reminder strategy though, because sometimes that’s the way to go. We had the socks in the hamper problem when we were first married, and it took many, many reminders for him to put things in the hamper. He does now! Interestingly, I’ve gotten messier and he’s gotten tidier, lol. But I knew he was trying to do it and wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, so the second and third (and tenth and twelfth) conversations went more like, “Babe, don’t forget to put the socks in the hamper” rather than really upping the seriousness. He already felt bad; there was no need to rub it in. So just something to think about for those like me who have really good-hearted spouses who are trying their hardest!

But shouldn’t we also just let things go?

Doug also brought up an important counterpoint to this argument, when he said this:

One thing I have done to help eliminate some of the discord that can come about in a marriage, is to just recognize that we are different. I can, and have focused on those things that really drove me crazy. For the last 5 years, I have just taken it on myself to do them. In the past, dishes in the sink have always bothered me. I never really said anything, but I have to confess it stirred a certain amount of resentment. Now, when I see them, I just take a moment and wash them. After dinner, I generally go straight from the table to the kitchen sink. I know it blesses her, and it takes something that used to be a problem for me and eliminates it altogether. I am sure some are probably thinking that I should do so anyways, so what is the big deal. The truth is that I work as much as 80-85 hours a week in construction, when you add in my random commute. We are empty nesters, so she really doesn’t have anything that has to be done other than cleaning and cooking. I could handle her workload in a few hours every day.

The truth is there are many ways she blesses me but she is simply not as tidy as I am, and it is easier for me to do myself. When I first began doing so, she took it as a critique, and would get defensive. Now, she might get a little bit defensive about it, and say something like “You don’t have to do that”, and I just respond that I know I don’t have to, but I want to.

One benefit to it, is that often she will join me and one of us will wash and the other dry.

Some things just are not worth fussing about.

He’s right. Some things are likely not worth fussing about, and loving your spouse and blessing them is great. HOWEVER–here’s the caveat to that, which I mentioned in my reply:

That’s a great point, Doug, and one that I brought up in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, too. See, I pick up Keith’s clothes off the floor at the same time as I pick up my own. It really isn’t a big deal to me. But that’s because it’s not indicative of a bigger issue in the relationship. If there’s a bigger issue that this is a symptom of (like disrespect or being taken for granted), then it likely should be dealt with. If it’s a small thing that doesn’t bother you that much that you don’t mind doing, then by all means, let it go!

My only caution is this: often those who shy away from conflict rationalize to themselves, “It’s not that big a deal.” But after 10 years of doing it, day in and day out, and seeing your spouse grow more selfish, it becomes a big deal. Whereas if it had been dealt with simply, at the very beginning, it never would have grown that big.

So we have to use discernment, yes. And overlooking small things is often a good strategy. But it’s not always, especially if you’re a people pleaser. Some people gravitate towards saying nothing, and in the long run, that doesn’t always serve your marriage. So ask yourself: Is this part of a wider problem that shows disrespect/bad behaviour in the relationship? Is this something I can live with happily for the rest of my life? Is this something where I can simply bless my spouse, or is this something where I may cement a bad habit in my spouse? Is this something that easily could be let go, or is this something which honestly is serious (being out late at night and not calling is serious; being home for dinner late when the kids are waiting without communicating is serious, overspending is serious, becoming enmeshed with your mom is serious).

So very much Christian information says just what you’ve said: Let it go. What I’m trying to provide this month is a counterbalance, especially when “let it go” doesn’t work or ends up making things worse.

And I want to end on my last point there. I do believe that Doug is right, and many of our marriages would be blessed by just letting more things go. However, that tends to be the common message in most Christian marriage books, and sometimes we need to hear the other side. God doesn’t want us enabling selfishness and immaturity. He wants marriage to make us better people. And so sometimes you need to speak up!

How do you know when you should speak up, and when you should keep silent?

I guess it goes back to Anonymous’ first comment–you pray. And you listen. And keep in mind your own bent. My bent would be to make bigger issues out of things I could let go. Other people’s bents may be to bury them. Whatever your bent is, that’s what you’ll want to hear from God. So challenge yourself to really listen!

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts. Next week we’ll get even more practical about what to do if you’re trying these things, and big things still aren’t changing.

Are you GOOD or are you NICE?

Because the difference matters!

God calls us to be GOOD, yet too often we’re busy being nice. And sometimes, in marriage, that can actually cause problems to be even more entrenched.

What if there’s a better way?

You may also like:

Should We Sweat the Small Stuff in Marriage? When it's important to talk about things that are bugging you.
What do you think? When do you let things go? Do we let things go too easily or not enough? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Recovering from abuse

    Good thoughts on thinking through when to raise an issue. I would add that in addition to praying about it, some of us might need to run it by wise counsel. Especially those of us from dysfunctional early lives because we didn’t see healthy modeled. I assumed that how I was being treated by my parents and husband was normal. Now that I see the gaslighting and emotional abuse, I’ve mentioned to friends what a pattern would be that I encountered repeatedly from my spouse, and their shocked reaction validates that it was never healthy. Maybe if I had shared a few scenarios with a trusted friend or a mentor earlier on, I could have caught these things sooner. That’s why blogs like this one that point out what healthy can look like can be a lifeline to those stuck in unhealthy.
    those of us being gaslit are probably told that it is all small stuff and we need to let it go. So there is definitely a balance. Even though I know now that how I was treated isn’t healthy, I can still read about not sweating the small stuff and again question “am I crazy? Did I make this stuff up?” But I heard recently on a podcast that if you are regularly questioning if you are crazy, there may be a good chance than you are experiencing emotional abuse.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, great thoughts! The problem, of course, is figuring out who a trusted mentor is. So many aren’t aware that there are bad marriage situations out there, so they assume that you’re just dealing with “normal” marriage problems or you’re overreacting. So choose mentors wisely!

      • Nathan

        Also, and I don’t like to keep pounding this drum, but it’s a crucial thing, many people assume that just because somebody claims to be Christian, or has a cross on their door, or a bible on their desk, or works at a church, that they MUST be a good and trusted mentor, counselor, etc.
        Trust, but keep your eyes and ears open!

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          So true!

          • Recovering from abuse

            Yes. Great point. I wasn’t going to find a trusted mentor at my former church because it was spiritually abusive.
            I just had a thought: I’ve been taught that when looking to see if an abusive person is changing/recovering, you should always look to the tension side of the abuse cycle. (Abuse incident – calm – honeymoon phase – rising tension). I wonder if that could be somewhat applied to choosing a mentor. Don’t look at how someone acts when they have it all together. Look at how they respond to attack and stress and hard emotions. Choose the mentor who can be mature in the face of painful things.

    • AspenP

      Recovering from Abuse,
      I’m so sorry for what you are going through. I think that the podcast you listened to that says if you’re constantly feeling crazy you are likely dealing with gaslighting & emotional abuse is spot on.
      Sheila has a great post on gaslighting and Leslie Vernick is a great resource on emotional abuse in marriage or dating. Her book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage is solid if you haven’t read it yet & offers so much healing and clarity.
      Prayers for you as you heal!

      • Recovering from abuse

        Leslie vernick’s resources helped me clue into the abuse! I echo your recommendation. And I believe I may have first found her through this blog. I also read Gottmans book and that led me to do more research. Coupled with emdr therapy about my early years and then research on spouse’s SA and my education over the last three years has really bloomed.

  2. Nathan

    Recovering, I’m so sorry that you went through that (and thought that is was normal and acceptable). I pray that you get to a good place.
    > > those of us being gaslit are probably told that it is all small stuff and we need to let it go
    That happens, true. Most stuff is likely small stuff, but not everything. Certainly not abuse, infidelity, etc. Also, many “Christian” sources will say that only the WIFE has to let things go. The husband can gripe all he wants.

    • Maria

      Even if it’s small it’s okay to talk and find some consensus on an issue. If it’s bothering you it matters. A loving non abusive spouse will hear you out without being abusive. You don’t have to be right to talk about what’s bothering you. It can be an opportunity to work through things and care about each other’s perspective and to grow. Maybe after a peaceful discussion, you hear your spouses heart and intent and decide not to sweat it. Or maybe your spouse had no idea and would love to change. Or maybe they have a deeper character flaw that is revealed sooner than later …. that’s not fun but that’s a good outcome too, because now you can deal. Communication is a good thing.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Keith asked me this week if I would please turn the lights off when I left a room. And you know what? I’ve been making a concerted effort to do that. Really not a big deal. Not a big deal for him to ask me. It’s good for him to ask me. He just noticed something I didn’t, and so I’m trying to honour that.

        • Keith

          And I appreciate it! Thanks for making the effort. 🙂

  3. Arwen

    And to be honest with you Sheila, it’s very typical for wives to let the small stuff go. Many wives are long suffering in their marriages or relationships (friendships). Like you mentioned though, depending on the context that can be a good thing or bad.
    I really like the commenter you quoted above, when something has been fixed to mention it and thank them. Really good point. It’s feels wonderful when your good works are acknowledged, for even God does the same.

  4. Rachel C

    Sometimes I have a hard time distinguishing between when I should be communicating legitimate needs and feelings and when I should just stay quiet because of, well, “do all things without grumbling or complaining” (Philippians 2:14). But I’m working on it, and my husband is really encouraging with it too.

    • Blessed Wife

      I think the “grumbling and complaining” bit really is talking about the spirit in which you do things. If you’re going to do a thing, you are called to be doing it with all your heart as unto the Lord. Eyes on the prize set before you, with the joy of our Lord in mind.
      Grumbling and complaining WITHOUT INTENDING TO CHANGE THE SITUATION is energy and attention expended in a direction that doesn’t serve God or the process you’re working on.
      However, there may be a good reason why doing a certain task makes you WANT to complain. Your subconscious may be trying to tell you that by doing this thing, you are enabling sin, allowing your spouse to hurt or disrespect you, or not teaching your kids to take responsibility for their stuff, or something of that sort.
      We aren’t called to live passively in unhappiness and like it.
      We follow a God who shaped the world, shook the world, shaped it again…and will keep shaking and shaping until it looks like the Bride He wants. So our job, as I see it, is to try to point others to Him as we seek to become more like Him ourselves.
      Good luck! It’s a struggle.😂

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        That’s a great comment, Blessed Wife! I also find that grumbling and complaining can relieve the “pressure valve”, and so we do that so we don’t feel so upset, but it doesn’t actually change the situation. It’s kind of like parents who yell a lot at their kids, but don’t actually set boundaries. They feel like they’re firm because they yell, but because there are no consequences, the kids tune them out.
        Yelling, grumbling, complaining aren’t helpful. But if you feel like something is wrong, then that may be a sign to actually do something about it!

        • Bethany

          I had a self-imposed rule about not bringing up anything annoying or hurting me unless it was life or death. I decided that I was annoying to all adults and therefore took years to learn how to speak up for myself, about basic things. So now that I’m married, I have some basic rules about keeping everything above and out in the open. If I’ve brought it up, and had a neutral place reached, I’ll only mention it rarely for now.(teeth grinding, it’s a future solving) but I try to be as open as open can get about my opinions. Otherwise my anxieties will swallow me, and I’d be a mouse again. It’s working very well so far for our relational Dynamics.

          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            That’s great, Bethany!

  5. Doug

    I’m sorry, but I think there is just a lot of damage done in a marriage, when small stuff is made into a bigger issue than it needs to be. So much of this seems to revolve around correcting bad habits thatbare less about being bad than they are about being different.
    Nobody likes to be taken for granted, and I understand that, but (for the sake of arguement) a pair of socks left on the floor, or a wet towell left on the bed are just really small things to be upset over, in the grand scheme of things. In any normal household, there are literally dozens of small acts that occur during the day. The vast majority are un-noticed by the other spouse, which means that by and large, they could be considered thankless tasks. I have serious reservations with the idea that those tasks should command less attention than the shortcomings. If some small slight seriously creats so much distress in you, it may well be that it is yourself that needs an adjustment, and not your spouse who forgets to pick up his socks.
    I know I am generalizing things to a degree, but I really don’t think I am very far from the mark. There are real issues that should be addressed, and I don’t have any problem with taking a strong stand in those cases, but those are sin issues. Focusing in on small examples of what are admittedly inconsiderate behaviors, risks being inconsiderate and more damaging than the behavior that supposedly needs correction.

    • Maria

      Doug, no one is saying not to notice and appreciate little things done well. Nor is anyone saying you should make a big deal about little things. This is a discussion about how to tell if something is worth speaking up about, at least that’s my take on it.
      So why are the socks on the floor? Because he believes he is entitled to have her clean up after him / because she believes she is entitled to have him clean up after her? The problem isn’t the socks. It’s the attitude of superiority. Feeding that attitude by picking up the socks is bad for the marriage.
      How do you know if it’s a big deal that looks small? For example, a hard lump under the skin can be a tumor or it might be a pimple starting to form. If it’s a tumor you don’t say “because it’s small in size, ignore it.” But if it’s a pimple, you don’t freak out over it.
      You bring up a good point about perhaps it is one’s self who needs an adjustment (as in attitude adjustment, right?) But sometimes a person is bothered by something because it really does need to be addressed.
      It’s not all or nothing. A person can address some things that bother him/her without trying to fix everything he/she doesn’t like.

    • Blessed Wife

      My favorite rule of thumb is that if it takes less time to fix it than to fight about it, shut up and fix it. This covers most of the petty annoyances that come up in my marriage and gives us both the gift of a peaceful home.
      Something that creates hours of extra work is worth bringing up and fixing.
      Behaviors that harm the person, the marriage or the family are worth doing real battle over.
      None of those things involve socks, though.😂

  6. Nathan

    Doug, a good post, but I have to nitpick with you one bit…
    Leaving socks on the floor – Agreed, not a big deal
    Leaving wet towels on the bed – a BIG deal, as it can cause other problems

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      AND the socks on the floor, IF PART of a wider problem with taking a spouse for granted, may very well be a big deal. Isn’t always, but could be. And what I’m saying in this series is that continuing to let small things go, over time, can enable selfishness and immaturity, and can grow into a marriage you really don’t like in 15 years.

      • Doug

        I have no problem with the occasional reminder, if I am being inconsiderate. I do take issue with someone deciding what “growth” for their spouse should look like. I have serious issues with the idea of “nip it in the bud” for the sake of your marriage, because if you seriously have issues with something trivial, then you will certainly not be able to weather the real issues that happen in all of our lives.
        I don’t remember who made the comment, but somewhere in this series soneone mentioned setting the “boundary” of refusing to wash the laundry if it didn’t get put in the hamper. I don’t know how anyone could believe that was appropriate.
        It is contentious and petty. If selfishness is an issue, then deal with that, but I would caution you to take a very hard look at yourself first, and decide if you are being critical, ungrateful, or without grace.
        Jesus said a lot of things in his time on earth. Mathew 5:41 speaks pretty clearly to this issue. If we are to carry our enemies pack for 2 miles when they tell us to carry it for one, how do you suppose he would look upon us refusing to pick up a pair of jeans or socks for our spouse.
        Now you can frame this any way you want to, but if you don’t thank your spouse for everything they do right, every single time, but instead decide to point out their shortcomings then you are a bigger problem than they are, because I guarantee that in all but a very few cases. We all can find any number of things we don’t like in our spouses, but how many of us ever mention those things even half as much as what we dislike.

        • Maria

          Someone else thinking they have the right to decide the direction of your growth? Warning, warning! Orange flag. You know yourself better than any other human. If someone else thinks they no better than you where your character growth should occur, that is a warning sign. Your character growth is between you and God.
          Also, that really does not seem like what people here mean when they talk about consequences. Expecting your spouse to treat you with courtesy and respect is not the same as determining their growth.
          So, consequences CAN mean punishment – I will inflict pain on you to make you behave the way I want (I have not seen any of that thinking expressed here). Or consequences can mean “If your behavior causes me problems, I will not pretend it’s ok. I try not to cause you problems and expect the same from you (key word being try). If you do not at least make an effort then I will put the problem back in your court where it belongs.”

        • Lindsey

          I understand where you’re coming from, Doug (except saying a wet towel on the bed is a minor inconvenience – it isn’t, wet bedding creates a lot of extra work for your spouse, and might ruin your mattress. It is 100% careless and, if the reasoning behind it has been explained to the towel bandit and the behavior persists, disrespectful).
          We should be trying to praise more than we critique, and I don’t think anyone is advocating for attributing every minor thing to evil intentions.
          However, everyone has their pet peeves. If not putting dirty clothes into the basket is your spouse’s pet peeve, and creates a lot of negative emotions in them, but otherwise they aren’t hypercritical, then any spouse who actually loves their partner should take steps to make sure their clothes are in the hamper. Saying “This isn’t a big deal and this is just who I am, you’re overreacting”. Is to convey to your spouse, “you are not loved or valued”. So both people in this scenario should be open to the idea that they may have the wrong attitude, yes. But, an otherwise laidback and appreciative spouse who has a pet peeve (especially one that promotes personal responsibility, self-discipline, or some other admirable quality) should be accommodated.
          Is laundry on the floor a big deal to everyone? By no means! But we aren’t married to the majority, we are married to a unique individual.
          Something doesn’t need to be a sin issue to make one’s spouse feel unloved or disrespected. Spouses must mutually work towards eliminating their irritating habits so as to communicate love to their mate. That starts with positive communication BEFORE resentment begins.

      • Rachel C

        Also, I know in my house that what my husband does, my sons also tend to do, so when I told my husband to not just leave his dirty clothes on the bathroom floor directly in front of the washing machine, part of my goal there is so that my sons don’t do that either. It might seem like a small thing on its own, but it can greatly increase my workload if 3 other people contribute to the week’s pile of dirty clothes and I have to be bending over a lot more and hurting my back more in the process. This is our home together, and we should all make one another’s lives easier if we can. Like I expect more of my husband than I do of my kids, and I expect more of my 8 year old than I do of my 3 year old. 🙂

        • Rebecca Lindenbach

          Not only that, you’re also equipping your sons to be great husbands someday by being considerate and clean! They won’t have to learn these things when they’re grown-ups if they’re taught it as a child.

  7. Maria

    As a single person who may possibly get married one day, your blog is great marriage prep! Best to have some idea of what marriage really is before getting engaged, I think. And that’s where the posts and discussions here are so helpful. Makes me think. And develop my beliefs.

    • Maria

      Just noticed that I am the second Maria to post today.

      • Anon

        I totally agree on learning about marriage before getting engaged. The church I used to go to runs a course for couples who are considering marriage – the idea is that they can start to think about what is involved before getting engaged, so hopefully fewer couples will get engaged and then split up when their marriage prep course opens their eyes to what marriage really involves!

  8. Manon

    Hi Doug, I do believe that introspection is important, and that sacrifice, or service to one’s spouse is important, vs. just (always) griping. However the concept that Sheila is promoting here is ‘Iron sharpens Iron’. The goal, then, (think swords or plowshares, or knives, or scythes) would be to have a sharp tool, or weapon, by honing it against another.
    In other words, if two people in a relationship continue to ‘hone’ that relationship, for the benefit of the OTHER, then through that, the relationship would flourish. Both people would benefit.
    Giving and receiving opinions, in the “Iron sharpens Iron’ process, probably means, Doug, that I would like to see changes, but it likely involves ME changing as well. In the end, the process has to be intentional, and specific, for it to end in a win-win (two tools sharpened)
    Interestingly, if you use an iron tool or weapon to ‘hack’ at another, BOTH of them will end up damaged…..

  9. Madeline

    When my husband and I first got married, his aunt, who is a professor of sociology, shared with us about a study of couples who had been married 40+ years. A major finding in that study was that these couples *do* bring up their small problems to each other. In other words, the study suggested that we should sweat the small stuff. I wish I could link the specific study here, but I thought it might still be interesting to share.


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