An interesting issue keeps coming up in marriage counseling sessions as my pastor husband and I sit across from couples of all ages and stages of their relationship. Each pair comes in with unique sets of issues, but it never fails that every couple seems to suffer from one specific problem: dishes. Yes, you read that right. Dishes are sure to come up at some point during the conversation: Who is doing the dishes? Who is leaving dishes sitting out? Who is complaining about dishes? Who is ignoring dishes? It seems to be the one marriage problem that no one can manage to resolve.
Now, before you send me emails telling me that dishes aren’t an issue in your marriage, let me reassure you: if dishes aren’t a problem, some other little thing is. Maybe it’s laundry. Maybe it’s yard work. It could be the direction you hang clothes in the closet or the way that your spouse microwaves his plate without covering it first. I promise–there are some small issues in your marriage that come up again and again, and one thing I’ve learned in 23 years of marriage and countless marriage counseling sessions is this: the little things add up to a big problem in most relationships.
How do couples come to a place where something as small as a plate on the counter has them contemplating divorce? I believe it comes down to one basic reality: the little things either communicate love, or they don’t.
Imagine that a newlywed couple comes to the end of their first week living together and finds that two minor annoyances have already surfaced: he is slightly irritated by the way she leaves her beauty products strewn across the bathroom counter, and she is mildly perturbed that he doesn’t put his clothes in the hamper. At this phase, these seem like tiny, insignificant issues that could never get in the way of their passion for each other. But, fast forward ten years. After countless conversations about these habits, the beauty products are still messy and the clothes are still on the floor, and the result is two people who don’t feel loved.
I know it sounds dramatic, but the fact is that love and trust and respect in marriage are built as much on the tiny things as they are on the big commitments, and maybe more so. Because the small things are easy to do. It’s so simple to defer to your spouse’s preference when it comes to the way clothes are placed in a drawer or the way we arrange things in the refrigerator. In these small things, we communicate love to the one we vowed to stick by through better or worse. We stood before God and all of the people who knew us best and declared that we would do all we could to love each other well for a lifetime. So what is stopping us from loading the dishwasher?
The answer, of course, is the true root of all sin: pride. We don’t like the be told what to do. We don’t like to put others ahead of ourselves. We don’t like to give more than we get. In marriage there is always the underlying urge to keep score, to look out for ourselves, and to insist on our own way. In light of this reality, two immediate steps that we can all take today will infuse more expressions and feelings of love in our marriages.
First, if your spouse has communicated a specific preference for the way a small thing in your home is done, do your best to cater to that preference. It may not make much sense to you. It may not be the most efficient way. It may even annoy you to no end at first. But it sends a message that you care, that you want to express love in big and small ways. It will make life more pleasant for both of you. Imagine if the little things that have been killing your marriage just weren’t an issue anymore. All it would take is for you to bend in the slightest, in the little things, laying aside your pride for the good of the one you love. When you finish your dinner, put the plate in the dishwasher. When you get up in the morning, make the bed. These aren’t huge sacrifices.
Next, lighten up. Don’t cling so hard to your own preferences that you drive your spouse away. So, he didn’t take out the trash when you wanted him to. So she didn’t replace the toilet paper roll. Let it go. Give grace. Let your love cover whatever was left undone and quietly replace the roll yourself. Take the trash to the curb without a word of complaint. Ask God to help you stop being so rigid and cold in your insistence that things be exactly the way you want them to be.
In both ways we communicate love and care. In both ways we show our loved ones that no mere inconvenience, no small irritation is enough to separate us. After all, if we aren’t willing to care for our spouse in all the small ways, what would ever make them believe we will be trustworthy when the health crisis or the pink slip arrives?
In the end, a marriage is really built on the little things. We should ask ourselves these questions to start creating a more loving, life-giving marriage today: What preferences has my spouse communicated? What can I do differently today that will show my spouse that I care? Which of my own preferences will I lay aside for the sake of my spouse and our happiness? How will I show Jesus to those who are watching my marriage?
I’m convinced this is a path to more fulfilling marriages that show the world what Christ’s love looks like. Husbands and wives, let’s love each other well with the little things. We can say all sorts of pretty things and make declarations of love, but our words are empty without actions, however small, that show we truly mean what we say. We can lay down our lives in this way for love, for Christ, for the kingdom.