Sweat the Small Stuff Early in Your Marriage!

by | Nov 17, 2023 | Marriage | 18 comments

It’s okay to sweat the small stuff.

We talk a lot at Bare Marriage about the big things that wreck a marriage, and how when abuse is running rampant within a marriage, it’s important to acknowledge that it is a sign of a broken relationship. 

But there’s also another type of marriage issue that destroys the connection between a husband and wife. It’s not something that is a clear poison, but it absolutely can kill the relationship: it’s the “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” marriage.

In Bare Marriage Podcast, episode 212,Rebecca and I discussed an article that had recently been published, She Divorced Me Because I Left My Dishes by the Sink by Matthew Fray.  This article, which was also turned into a book,  discusses how the little things, such as not doing his dishes, began to slowly destroy his marriage.

Then yesterday on the podcast Rebecca and I looked at a study that we’re incorporating in the marriage book we’re reading that debunks the idea that you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. Basically, in a difficult relationship letting things go can help in the short-term, but in the long-term it can be poison. 

So let’s talk about sweating the small stuff before the small stuff turns into big stuff.

Why The Small Things Turn Into Big Things

Year after year after year, what so many women want to say is that, often, we feel helpless because as we’ve been told our entire lives that our job is to make sure everyone is comfortable around us. 

Our job is to smooth all the waves over. 

Our job is to look effortless while we do it. 

Our job is to have everything be perfect and make sure it’s perfect.  And if our husbands help, then that’s great. But it’s really our responsibility. 

And so what happens if there are problems with in-laws?  Do we speak up the first year? Year two? Year three? What about when the kids start to come and they continue to cross boundaries? What do we do?  

We can handle these stressors fine for the first year. Maybe even the first 5-10 years. But as time builds and we find ourselves stuck in these situations, the resentment begins to build because the load we’re trying to carry just gets heavier and heavier with time and with no reprieve in sight. 

We’ve been taught for so long to be quiet that often what ends up happening is that the silence leads to disconnection.

Think about a plane trip. If you go off course by one degree, it’s super easy to fix early.  But if you’re eight hours into your flight, all of a sudden you’re in a totally different country. 

And men can have these issues too, even if they haven’t been given the same messaging. You’re supposed to love her and show grace, and so if she is doing something that is making more work for you, and is making you miserable, you suck it up to be a good husband.

And you can do that for a few years. 

But can you for a few decades?

When Marriage is Imbalanced, Bigger Issues Fester

The coffee cup on the counter is not just a coffee cup on the counter. It’s saying, “I won’t take the 5 seconds it takes to put this in the dishwasher, because I know that you will, and my time is more valuable than yours.” Leaving the coffee cup on the counter, assuming your spouse will clean it up, comes with the assumption that you are more valuable than your spouse is.

That’s toxic for a marriage, and that’s why little things add up. 

While this can apply to either gender, studies do show that it’s skewed towards women. Women are taught from a very young age that we don’t get to forget. We have to do it because no one else is going to, and that kind of marriage just eats away at someone. Although this is not a universal truth, forgetting is often a luxury that men have within a marriage, not women.

She Deserves Better!

Because we all deserve a big faith.

Your daughter deserves better than what you likely grew up with in church.

What would it look like to prepare the next generation without toxic teachings about modesty, sex, or consent, and instead set her up for a big faith?

Even Holly Furtick said on the reel that we analyzed yesterday on the podcast that she doesn’t have the luxury of being grumpy, because the whole family depends on her. 

When everyone else has a luxury that you don’t have, that’s a big imbalance that is often unsustainable in the long-term. 

Even if the small things are themselves small, they’re often indicative of a larger pattern that makes one person feel invisible or less important. 

Sweating the Small Stuff doesn’t mean attacking you spouse

Bringing up these small issues doesn’t mean that you attack your spouse’s character or talk about how your marriage is horrible. It can look like simply saying,

“Hey, I’d appreciate it if you’d stop leaving coffee cups on the counter but put them in the dishwasher instead.”

“What about coming to bed with me, instead of getting caught up on the computer at night? I miss you when you’re not there!”

“I hate that we’re always late to events. What would it take to get out of the door earlier on a regular basis?”

Just mention the things that are bothering you!

If you’re finding they’re really making you feel badly about your marriage, you can expand it, like this:

“When you leave the coffee cups on the counter, it seems like you’re assuming it’s my job to clean up after you, and I hate that dynamic for our marriage. Let’s not do that, okay?”

Can you see how having those conversations early can end up better in the long-run, before habits are built?

It’s Important To “Sweat The Small Stuff”

Divorce-bound relationships have multiple phases.

Often it starts with the small stuff. The things we take for granted with our spouses, unaware of the resentment and disconnect that is building. As the years go by, these feelings grow and grow, until something big happens; there’s a fight or a sudden realisation of, “I just don’t know who you are anymore.” The marriage is now in full-blown crisis mode. 

This is usually the point where many married couples seek out help through marriage counselling. However, studies have shown that if you seek help at that point, your marriage is likely already beyond the point of no return. Your flight has ventured so off-course that you’re now on the other side of the world. 

(that’s not to say that counseling won’t help; only that it likely would have helped more if you had sought counseling much earlier!)

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If you seek help when there hasn’t been some huge blow up or existential threat, there’s a lot more hope. When you’re at the point of saying to one another, “We just don’t feel connected. We’re living parallel lives. We feel like we try to reach out, and we just don’t mesh as well as it used to. I’m feeling lonely”–if that’s the point when you’re reaching out for help, it can actually move you in a different direction because you’ve corrected your path earlier on in the flight.

Maybe right now, you’re kind of kind of trudging on, feeling yourselves drift apart, but thinking, “Well, it’s not that bad yet.” This is the time to fix it–BEFORE you’re not in crisis mode.

Death by a thousand cuts is still a death.

We long for everyone to have happy and healthy marriages, which is why we can’t ignore the little things. 

Seriously, sweat the small stuff, because the small stuff can add up.

What do you think? Do you err too much on the side of making a big deal out of little things? Or do you clam up too much? How do we find the happy medium? Let’s talk!

Written by

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. Nessie

    Honestly, the way you phrase dealing with the small stuff (calmly, directly) comes across to me as *not* sweating the small stuff. I viewed sweating the small stuff more as disproportionately overreacting… “Why can’t you ever pick up your coffee mug? Are you blind?” But my view of that is likely more rooted in my familial household upbringing.

    I will say that going a couple decades without things being addressed (rather- many things were addressed, but now we know ADHD made responding to them a far bigger struggle than might have been otherwise) WILL take its toll on you and your marriage. And sadly we are several years in to this with a therapist, and it will likely take several years more before we can even begin to start having a healthy marriage because it solidified habits and behaviors. It is SO daunting.

    The sooner you change course, the less time it will take to undo the misdirection!

    • Jen

      Yes, change course as soon as possible. And if your spouse refuses to change course, get help. I asked for change for three decades only to discover he had a secret sex addiction. Yep, that explained it all – all of the “small stuff” he wouldn’t/couldn’t fix.

      I begged him to get therapy many times over the years and I even asked for couples counseling (not knowing about the addiction). He always said no. The no to couples was a super big red flag.

      Now, we are trying to slog back from a “marriage” that literally almost killed me.

      Even if your spouse isn’t mentally ill, those paper cuts will hurt you. Marriage is supposed to be life giving, not death bringing. And the small stuff DEFINITELY adds up.

    • CMT

      I agree- I think I personally “sweated” the small things more when I felt like I had to pretend they didn’t matter. I was just stressing over them internally rather than communicating with my husband and addressing stuff directly.

      It’s interesting you bring up ADHD. I wasn’t diagnosed until this year (I’m in my mid 30’s, btw) but I have ADHD as well. Looking back I can see how it has impaired my ability to manage stress and make needed changes. And, my husband isn’t exactly neurotypical himself, although for completely different reasons. We have experienced a lot of “small stuff becoming big stuff” over the years, in part because for a long time we assumed I was the “normal” one who would always accommodate his limitations (on top of the “normal” gendered expectations).

      • Nessie

        I’m glad you mentioned that! I am very curious how marriages with wives vs. husbands with ADHD differ… I can absolutely see how it would feel harder if the wife has ADHD and didn’t do the “expected of women” things vs. a lot of the ADHD traits my hubs exhibited were easily brushed off as him simply “being a guy” and just not caring if he picked up after himself, etc. I also wish we’d had the ADHD awareness a long time ago as well as other marriage problems, and seeking outside help sooner likely would have revealed that back then. Longer-established patterns of behavior take longer to change, and we both could have been more tolerant of some behaviors that read as unloving which were simply harder to accomplish/communicate for various reasons.

        • Suzanne

          Yes! This is where I am, there are so many little things that I feel like have been going on and aging up for 20 years and it has gotten so old.

  2. Laura

    This is great stuff for me to remember as I prepare for marriage in six months. Of course, I don’t like confrontation but I think simply stating that something is bothering me and to ask him not to it and do things differently in a nice voice is acceptable. I like the coffee cup example Rebecca gave on the podcast.

    In my first marriage, my ex was always pointing out something I did wrong and just criticizing me about it, then he would give me the cold shoulder for days. No wonder I just endured that small stuff until it piled on. It was the big stuff like the sexual abuse that made me leave. In the beginning of our relationship, I did not set physical boundaries and when we got married, I thought I could never say no to sex which meant that I never set boundaries. Once I started settling boundaries mainly in the last year of the marriage, he would comply but was angry and gave me the silent treatment, then the sexual assaults began while I was asleep. So I thought maybe I needed to not make a big deal out of these things.

    One thing I noticed in Holly Furtick’s Instagram reel was that she never mentioned anything about mental health issues women could possibly be struggling with. So to say that women can never experience sad, mad, or grumpy feelings is just wrong. You can feel your feelings first and should rather than stuffing them down for years until you explode one day. Did Holly not realize this?

    • Tim

      Congratulations on your engagement!

      • Tim

        Um, Sheila, can we talk about how you got access to my Google Drive? This is seriously almost exactly what I’m preaching tomorrow, right down to the analogy about the plane off by a degree and ending up in a different country! Great minds think alike, I guess?

        Also, I’m not generally a Jordan Peterson fan at all, but there’s one chapter of the 12 Rules For Life book (chapter 10, from memory) where he says basically this in what I thought was a helpful way. Albeit with about three times as many words as were needed to make his point.

        On second thoughts, maybe skip JP and just reread Sheila’s post!

    • Nessie

      Congrats, Laura, on your engagement!

  3. Jennifer

    For me, it’s my husband’s aggressive, sometimes angry driving. He says I’m criticizing his driving all the time. But I don’t feel comfortable as a passenger or, sometimes, safe! For him this is a small thing, but for me it’s important. What I’m thinking is how can he care about me if he refuses to change what feels like aggressive driving to me? (We have not sought counseling for this “small stuff” issue.)

    • Cynthia

      That’s not a “small” thing! I’ve been a passenger in situations where the driver is aggressive, and it is terrifying. Objectively, it is not a safe situation. A change could mean that you take over the driving. I remember how I had thought, as a passenger, that I should be grateful that an aggressive driver was taking on the burden of a commute that must be so stressful, since he was always having to change lanes at the last moment and swear at other drivers. After I got a car and started doing the same drive myself, I realized it was actually a really simple commute as long as you anticipated the lane changes in advance.

    • Lisa Johns

      No, aggressive driving is not a small thing. It is frightening and it puts you — the passenger — at risk. If he is willing to risk your wellbeing because he doesn’t want to change his driving habits, it may be time to tell him you won’t go anywhere that he’s driving, if that is possible for you.

    • CAT

      even if you are truly safe,
      if you communicate
      to your husband
      that this makes you
      feel anxious/afraid,
      then he
      needs to respond accordingly –
      by loving you and
      respecting your feelings enough
      to alter how he drives when you
      (& your children)
      are riding with him.
      love casts out fear 💝
      or at least seeks to!

  4. JoB

    So many things to think about. This advice reminds me of the advice I heard going off to college about getting along with roommates: work on healthy communication, don’t let things fester, don’t assume that your way is necessarily the “right way”, find ways to compromise. Perhaps premarital counseling should focus more on assessing personality characteristics (flexibility vs rigidity) and “roommate/lifestyle” type questions- how important is neatness, how late do you like to stay up, etc. I remember our premarital counseling as being a lot of theoretical Bible info about marriage covenants, but not much personal assessment. Instead of saying, “make sure you communicate about things” why not give both people a questionnaire about their views on common disagreements: how do you address dirty dishes: a) immediately b) by the end of the day c) by the end of the week d) before someone visits me, or e) my mom does them when she comes over. Questions like “what issues over chores have you had arise with roommates and/or family members”? “What are some of your pet peeves?” Especially if living together before marriage is forbidden, and divorce is frowned upon, we need to be addressing the nitty gritty details of living in the same house, since there is no “trial run.”

    I would push back on saying that a person who leaves a coffee cup on the counter is necessarily saying that his time is more valuable than her time. He might be saying that, but he could also just be saying he doesn’t mind dirty dishes on the counter. I am close to several people (both male and female) who live alone and do not do any housekeeping. It’s pretty extreme. It’s just not important to them and suggesting that they might need to change is usually met with some hostility, because they see it as an attempt to tell them what to do (this is actually probably more true for the women I know than the men). It’s not that they are expecting someone else to pick up after them, because there is no one else – they just don’t value housekeeping and in some cases I think enjoy messiness. It is probably good that these people are single 😉However I agree that it is vital to communicate when something is bothering you and try to come up with a creative, positive compromise that honors both people. However I’d keep it judgment free- the important thing is respecting your partner and finding something you both can live with, not debating the “right way” versus the “wrong way.” Just like if I walked into my messy single friend’s house, it wouldn’t be right for me to judge her as lazy- this is her house and she’s managing it the way she chooses to. If I become her roommate, the situation changes. I don’t think I should immediately ascribe wrong motives to her (unless I see other evidence for it), but I should communicate about what I need for us to live together peacefully.

    • Angharad

      Agree with you about leaving coffee cups etc lying around. My husband will leave stuff because it doesn’t bother him – when he was single, he’d let the house reach a certain level of chaos and would then spend a day blitzing it! I am naturally a much tidier person than my husband – by the time the mess reaches levels that stress him out, my blood pressure is through the roof. So I leave him to sort his study out by himself and never go in it. I do more tidying than he does in the rest of the house because I have a higher standard. And he does a bit more tidying than he would naturally want to do, because otherwise, I’d end up doing all of it!

      I would like the house tidier than it is. He would like it messier. But between us, we have worked out a compromise. And we each have a space that stays as tidy/messy as we want.

  5. Jo R

    This is all great advice for the dating, engaged, and newly married. Yay!

    Now. What do those of us who have turned into pressure cookers by “not sweating the small stuff” for three or four DECADES do to release all the annoyance, aggravation, and anger that have built up? And it’s not just those emotions that have built to volcanic levels. Oh no, it’s decades of habits that BOTH spouses have let become seriously entrenched, like Grand Canyon deep and wide, that now need to be filled in and completely rerouted.


    • Nessie

      Your described situation may be rhetorical, but … one thing we are working on is kind of a triage system… what things are the most important, what is going to go furthest in making a difference in our relationship? My husband can only handle changing so much at a time (neuro-divergence, old family patterns, gets overwhelmed by too much pressure, etc.) so we try to pick just a couple things to work on so he doesn’t shut down from his overwhelmed> freeze response. It is sloooowww going but progress is being made.

      I’m trying to work on being more outwardly thankful to help reinforce the positive changes. So, things I normally wouldn’t say thanks for (just functioning as a healthy marriage partner tasks) I am trying to be more mindful of thinking him for because positive reinforcement does actually help in our case. He’s thanking me more which also helps himself become more aware of all the things I have done for decades that went unnoticed. Once he starts noticing and verbalizing those things, he becomes more aware of what he can do to work with me.

      How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

  6. JoB

    One thing I heard taught recently is that the Bible teaches us to approach each situation with discernment and respond appropriately. The example I heard was contrasting the two verses in Proverbs, “answer a fool according to his folly” vs “do not answer a fool according to his folly.” They are not in contradiction, but rather pointing out times when you might take one approach vs the other. There’s also that passage in Ecclesiastes about the different seasons- a time to speak out, a time to keep silent. I think the evangelical church doesn’t teach the concept of discernment very well, if at all- it seems to approach the Pauline letters as imparting a new legal code to be applied indiscriminately in all situations, regardless of outcome. If we are taught anything about the OT concept of a fool, it is always illustrated as someone outside the church, a blatant nonbeliever. We’re almost never asked to examine ourselves for foolishness or to discern if we might have a fool very close to us, perhaps in our own homes.

    I have found working on the concept of boundaries to be very helpful for me- you have the freedom to choose, and I have the freedom inform you how I will respond to your choices. Sometimes it takes a lot of creativity. I personally find it helpful in my marriage to keep a lighthearted tone most of the time, because it usually gets better results. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t feel or express anger. I would also add that I think the admonition not to “be grumpy” could be helpful as a reminder not to take out resentment or anger on innocent parties- like taking it out on your kids all day instead of addressing things with your spouse. However, I agree it should be a call to discerning the best way to resolve situations, rather than thinking the solution is to bury all your feelings.


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