‘Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff’ is Trash Relationship Advice (Video)

Comments 21

A really cool thing happened when The Atlantic decided to publish an excerpt from my new book This is How Your Marriage Ends.

It introduced my work to a bunch of new people, boosted book sales (which I’m guilty of really wanting to happen), and it added me having a byline in The Atlantic to my career accomplishments which I feel super-fortunate to have had happen.

But there’s always a consequence to a bunch of new people being introduced to the work I do, exacerbated even more by The Atlantic editorial staff’s decision to make the excerpt about the whole She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink thing.

Some people flip shit about that for reasons I’m not entirely sure about. A bunch of internet tough guys like to call me a “soy boy,” or a “mangina,” or any number of other things, to which I would kindly tell them to go fuck themselves if I didn’t know that they have no idea what they’re even criticizing. I believe they think I’m advocating for being a subservient romantic partner instead of advocating for healthy relationships. But it’s the same dumb shit I would have thought 10-15 years ago too, so I’m going to try to withhold too much judgment about it.

Yet, one reoccurring theme from the peanut gallery comes through loud and clear. And that theme from some people critical of this dish-by-the-sink thing is the paraphrased retort: “Hey Matt! You big, stupid pussy! Have you tried not sweating the small stuff?!?!?1111!!!

Again. It’s fine. They don’t get it. And they shouldn’t have to. I just wish they had the discipline to not be so Dunning-Kruger-y about it in internet comments. The Dunning-Kruger effect refers to a cognitive bias in which incompetent people lack the skills and cognitive abilities to recognize their lack of knowledge. Poor self-awareness and ignorance results in them overestimating their own capabilities. While I surely must do this sometimes still today, it more or less defined my 20s and early 30s, believing myself to be a good husband, but ultimately not even realizing the gargantuan list of things I didn’t know.

In the video above, I make the case for “sweating the small stuff.” Because what you consider a small thing, and what someone else considers a small thing will not always align. You’ll define “the small stuff” differently. And that’s fine. You don’t have to agree with everyone. But when that someone else is a relationship partner or another important interpersonal relationship, our occasional disagreement with them about what is or is not important can lead to all sorts of conflict and trust erosion via invalidation if we’re not vigilant about NOT doing that.

Please sweat the small stuff in your relationships. The big things are easy enough to notice. To account for. The things that sneakily erode trust and destroy us while we’re busy not noticing are precisely these so-called “small things.” And we can do better. We must do better.

21 thoughts on “‘Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff’ is Trash Relationship Advice (Video)”

  1. Victoria Manassero

    A shared understanding of “small things” and trust erosion: I see this point made over and over in diversity, equity, and inclusion conversations at all levels of professional life. Thank you for bringing this up. I truly hope you’re able to gain traction with the “mangina” crowd.

    1. Matthew: I have followed you and your blog for many years, the fact that at least one man in the world “gets it” is like a lifeline to me.

      I am a woman, have been married for 12 years and despite an initially great relationship, my husband does not grasp the paper cut vs. bullet wound ruin of a relationship. He thinks that because he does the basics and doesn’t cheat,gamble, drink etc, that means he’s a great husband by default.

      Despite my years of direct and clear communication of my issues with how he disrespectfully talks and responds to me. He cannot even bring himself to say that he cares about my feelings, even when I state that he is causing me pain and sadness or am actively crying.

      I am reading your book now, but still feel so defeated and have found myself stifling my feelings except in the most egregious situations to avoid being emotionally punished by him for bringing up things that he does that make me feel sad & unloved.

      It takes me back to my emotionally neglectful childhood. It’s all very sad but I am still hopeful in knowing that a man (you) learned the lesson even if I can’t personally get there with my husband.

      “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies”. Red: The Shawshank Redemption

  2. I’d say it’s good advice to not sweat the small stuff. The problem is, you usually cannot decide for your spouse what the small stuff is.

    So if it’s big stuff to her, no amount of telling her it’s small stuff is going to make a difference. (Feelings are largely impervious to facts! Even less so to different opinions.)

    So instead of saying don’t sweat the small stuff, which I still think is good advice for people when deciding how they personally are going to respond to what life throws at them, I’d say don’t tell your spouse what should be small stuff.

    Who knows what gets triggered when you leave a dish out. Maybe they were traumatized by leaving dishes out when a kid and this is big stuff to them, even if small stuff to you. Something can be small stuff to you AND big stuff to her.

    So yes, try to make as many of the things that impact you small stuff. DON;T try to tell someone else what should be small stuff.

    The more stuff one can make small stuff, the better their life will be. But you cannot do that for another, so it’s a losing strategy to try.

    And have an adult conversation. Try to understand why it’s such a big deal to her. I.E. wow, this seems to hit a nerve, would you like to tell me more about how this impacts you?

    That works far better than, “You stupid B*&c4 why are you so upset about a disk?” <- contrived extreme example, but hopefully the principle is understood.

    Now that doesn’t mean you should take abuse from your spouse. If you leave the dish out and she dresses you down, you might say something like I won’t stand by and let you be disrespectful. If you want to make a respectful request that I pick up my dishes, I’m all about that. But being treated like a child or disrespectfully is not what I signed up for when I got into this relationship.

    She can have a preference for putting the dishes away, just like you can have a preference and boundary for being treated respectfully and like an equal adult partner.

      1. I think I said what he did. You cannot define for another what is important. But you can choose what is important to you.

        What I got from what he said is you cannot define what is small stuff for another, which is what I said.

        That doesn’t mean you have to put up with disrespectful behavior. Same standard, can’t tell someone they should just take it when you are suggesting not putting up with the small stuff is shitty advice.

        Respect isn’t a one way street. Matt is suggesting to respect that people have different preferences and values.

        If she’s treating him like a child, that’s no less problematic than him belittling what is important to her.

        Cannot have it both ways.

        Cannot argue to respect her concerns and then marginalize his.

        Consistency.

        She has the right to ask for what she wants. He has the same right for it to be done in a respectful and no demeaning way.

        Again, cannot admonish him for marginalizing her concerns while defending her marginalizing him.

        There is a right and wrong way to ask for what you want. Asking itself is not wrong. How you go about it can build or break the relationship.

        That is the basic premise of what Matt writes about. I’ve said nothing that goes counter to that thesis.

        1. You’re making a good point Uniballer, I like your perspective on ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’.

          I don’t think Matt ever said his wife was disrespectful or abusive though, or treated him like a child. (although she may have sometimes, we don’t know. These things are generally pretty complex.)

          I think what Matthew’s getting at is that his wife was asking him to validate her need for help, and someone to partner with her on everyday responsibilties (and on more than just dishes – bigger stuff too, Matthew shares a lot more in his book).

          But yeah, I think we can all do better. I thoroughly enjoyed your contrived extreme example 🙂

          Matthew, I’m so glad you finally addressed all the haters who can’t read past, or deeper into, the dishes by the sink! (Not you, Uniballer, it’s encouraging to see someone who seems to get it)

          1. The last paragraph here is disappointing, as is the tactic of labeling a disagreement with, or, more accurately, attempting to articulate further complexity to the issue as ‘haters’ and ‘internet tough guys’, et al.
            One moron in the OP uses the idiotic term ‘soy boy’, and now that gets extrapolated into ‘god, what a buncha morons who know nothing about the complexities of relationships’. Uniballer above makes some more than salient points on this issue, and what happens? Immediate response is snark and dismissal. Husbands/Men are invalidated in relationships CONSTANTLY…and no one bats an eye, much less has The Atlantic take notice. Then there’s the commenter who ofc brings in the microaggression angle along with the whole diversity/inclusion stuff. Is it any wonder we are losing our shit? I fear once we realize how adolescent this all is, it will be too late.

          2. Hello TWC.
            I’m so sorry you’re feeling disappointed by what I’d intended as encouraging words for both Matthew and Uniballer.

            I’d like to clarify that I was not labelling people who disagree ‘haters’. I was referring to those who choose to disagree in a manner of hate, specifically those who use terminology like ‘soy boy, ‘mangina’ and many other worse things, which they so often do here. I think those qualify as unnecessarily hateful toward Matthew. And yes, I think those kinds of people are morons.

            BUT anyone has a right to disagree, with respect and kindness. In contrast, these people are not morons, and I speak for myself personally when I say that I’d happily hear those kinds of people out.

            Also, I was endorsing Uniballer’s comment, not contradicting it. He does make some ‘salient points’ as you rightly put, and I went so far as to support his logic about wives, by ackowledging that “these things are generally pretty complex”. I even appreciated his joke, genuinely.

            I also said that we all need to do better. All of us, including wives.

            As for making everything into a discussion about diversity (which I made no comment about) I haven’t given that much thought. It probably matters to some people, although I’m sorry that bothers you. I can understand your frustration, it feels like we are all walking on eggshells these days.

            I hope you’ll read this and receive it the way I intend it. (IE: with kindness) I only want to ensure that my words are not twisted or misunderstood, or experienced as a means to offend or hurt.

            Wishing you well and take care,
            Kirsty

  3. I think Uniballer has it right. He has protected everyone’s right to decide what is “small” and what isn’t. The example given is “trauma” but I would suggest that main reason is more mundane – the never ending pick it up/put it away/clean it that is the epitome of grind. The person in this position finds this intolerable, not so much because of the work involved, but because of the disrespect for their unending little responsibilities that are not honored, not by “thank you’s, but by making sure they don’t spend their life doing a do-over because their partner refuses to make it right the first time. Pick it up and use it, put it back where you got it. Isn’t that what we teach our children as basic responsibilities? When that goes out the window in a marriage, wife become mothers, husbands become children. Wive’s work to correct, husband work to excuse. Wive’s (I am gonna CAP this) ACTUALLY WORK MORE while husbands just beg off. A week ago, I counted what I picked up and put away, item by item. 92. Come on. That is adolescent, at least. Who wants to be married to an adolescent? Raise your hands…

      1. @TWC – You’ve been around long enough to where I’m not going to have ANY tolerance for you suggesting I’m some man-hater. I have always, and will always advocate for men. I tell stories the way that I do not because I believe men are bad, but because I believe they ACCIDENTALLY hurt people they care about, which hurts themselves and their children by proxy. And I try to point out those things.

        If you think there’s evidence that I’m anti-guy, and out to fuck with the male experience in relationships unfairly, then I’d challenge you to share evidence of it.

        But perhaps more importantly, responding to LEGIONS of people (usually women) who’ve had horrible experiences with men, sharing that they’ve been deeply hurt by their horrible experiences with Whataboutism responses like “Yeah, but women do bad stuff too! What about that?!” seems profoundly tone deaf to me.

        Men absolutely suffer in relationships. Of course. If it’s at the hands of an abuser, then I want desperately for them to remove themselves from that unhealthy situation.

        HOWEVER. I believe very strongly that most of men’s suffering in male-female relationships is the result of feeling bad by wives/girlfriends’ behavior which is in direct response to things HE DID FIRST. Things that hurt them. Not because he’s an asshole. But because he lacks the awareness and empathy necessary to accurately calculate for the pain she feels while he’s busy being comfortable.

        If that idea offends you, I’m seriously sorry. Because the last thing I try to be is offensive.

      2. I think the OP brought up diversity/equity as a similar issue because it’s an area where people behave in ways that inadvertently hurt others, not because they are fundamentally mean or bad, but because they are thoughtless and unaware (and unwilling to learn). The solution to the problem is for people to take into account and trust (aka validate) the experiences of another human. Instead, we keep going through iterations of the same issue over and over again because people like you always see them as an individual’s petty problem and not a broader cultural or institutional problem that it is. That kind of narrowed thinking creates a lot of unhappy, exhausted, and angry people because they’re always having to prove that their experience is real to someone who has ownership of the importance scale. But what do you lose by actually doing some introspective thinking of how you show up for others?

        1. Some of us come to the conclusion we’ve been showing up for others, but they’ve not been showing up for us. Maybe they cannot. Maybe they are too selfish to do so. It’s hard to say why. But we do recognize that we’ve been left wanting when someone who should have been there chooses to not be there. A parent, a spouse, a friend, we’ve all experienced it. Some more than others.

          My mom just passed a bit more than a month ago, and I had a lot of time to reflect on how much I’ve showed up for others.

          For example, I stayed with her during her dying days, allowing her to have a death with dignity at home instead of parking her in some nursing home. She literally said the words “I don’t want to be the adult” when we were going to one of her chemo treatments. That’s my experience. Even as a child, I had to be the adult.

          She parked me with her great great aunt when I was a child. But she could go hunting and fishing with the boys. At least I learned to be an excellent shot and trout angler from mom.

          I’ve spent a life showing up for others, but not seeming to get the same.

          I wouldn’t say I’m angry. I wouldn’t have cared for her if I was so angry. But I did it for me, so I wouldn’t regret not doing it.

          Some of us guys are out here looking for someone to show up for us too.

          I’d like to think I showed up for my ex-wife as well. Perhaps not in the way she wanted or needed. But she got to be the stay at home mom she said she wanted to be until she had to choose to either stop spending so much or go back to work. She chose go back to work and had her affair shortly after. How’s that for not showing up for your husband? I had ample time and opportunity to cheat as I had a travelling job the first 4 years of the marriage. But, at her request, I changed jobs to be home more, trying to hear her and show up. Did she show up for me with more sex and fun? Nope. Heck, I can recall a trip to Mackinaw Island. We drove up after dropping our daughter with her parents and it was practically a silent 8 hour drive as she read and kept to herself. Should have seen it coming I suppose. Just thought she was tired or enjoying not having to be concerned about anything other than riding in the van.

          I guess I knew Mom wasn’t going to show up when I was going through my divorce in 2003 and she tried to move the conversation about my problem to one about fixing her printer. And no, it wasn’t because she was trying to distract me. Fixing her printer was more pressing than her son being betrayed by his wife. But I travelled the 700 miles one-way to be with her after her surgery a year or so later.

          So color me just a little unconvinced when I hear that men are not measuring up and women need us to do more, be more, give more, or whatever. It’s been the experience in my life that I can count on the men in my life to show up more than women in general.

          Now my dad did leave my mom at the altar, pregnant. Not quite that dramatic, but close. I contacted him in 2003 as some sort of cathartic exercise after I found out about my wife and told him I didn’t want anything other than why he did such a shitty thing as to abandon her and me. Excuses and I told him I thought his excuses were pathetic. The only hour I’ve spent talking with him. I cannot think of other men who’ve abandoned me. But women, I’ve had all manner of them not showing up or taking the cowards way out. Instead of using their words to have an adult conversation about the state of the relationship, just cheating and leaving. Or making promises they wouldn’t/couldn’t keep.

          That great-great aunt was good to me. My wife today is good to me. There are still things I want, but I believe I can count on her. After all, she was okay with me taking so much time to be there for mom.

          When does my experience get to be real, or matter?

          Just tired and cranky a few days into my standby rotation. And tired of my experience not seeming to matter. Like to the person above who suggested I should read the book. Nothing about that suggested my experience mattered. Instead, I should change my perception by reading the book.

          I think the advice to be introspective is solid. But perhaps it can be taken too far? People are so introspective, they are unable to see the people around them and their experiences, needs, etc.

          At some point, does introspection move into selfish thinking? I don’t know.

          Ultimately, we all play the cards life deals us.

          Sorry so scattered, just a bit cranky tonight.

          One more thing, sometimes we don’t show up because we don’t know how. We’ve never had it modeled for us. So when we ask, it’s not because we are obtuse, or not paying attention, we simply don’t know. We want clear unambiguous messages not because we are trying to be annoying. We are trying to show up for you. We are telling you what we need to be what you need. it’s not some sort of game or test. It’s not that we don’t love you. If we didn’t love you, we wouldn’t ask for a clear, concise message. The act of asking demonstrates we care. You can choose to believe it or not, but it doesn’t change the fact that asking is caring.

          I’m not sure what I think about Matt’s comparison to knowing about a team or some other pursuit. I mean I can go on-line and get the score, the record, etc. The info is out there at the tips of my finger through a cell phone. It’s not the same when dealing with a person. I can watch my wife (or pretty much any human) do something and think I’ve learned a bit about them and then when I try to use that information, somehow I got it wrong.

          One last example, laundry. Wifey has far more complex clothing than I do. So on one hand she expects that I do laundry. Fine, as one who grew up just this side of free range parenting, laundry is well within my wheelhouse. Something I’ve done for myself since middle school. In fact, since I WFH, I do most the laundry. (Parenting tip, if your child can operate a smart phone, they can probably do their own laundry! Ours did and were prepared for going away to college.)

          So I do laundry, only to get scolded because I washed some delicate item the wrong way. Okay, lesson learned. I ask if there are clothes she doesn’t want me to wash, and she says yes. I suggest getting a unique laundry basket for those clothes. She thinks it’s a good idea. I procure a red basket and present it as her receptacle for anything she doesn’t want me to wash. Problem solved right? Wrong, she still puts delicate stuff with the general laundry and somehow it’s my fault for washing them even though there is an agreement.

          I mean you would think I left dishes on the countertop (sorry, I just had to!)

          My point is it’s often like that. We can be blind sided because we are not sent a clear message. The red basket is a clear message, uniballer, don’t wash these clothes. But sometimes, the message is not sent. The delicates are just tossed in with the rest of the laundry and the message is lost or not clearly communicated.

          So is it really we are not paying attention? Sometimes the messages are mixed or poorly communicated if communicated at all.

          I just choose to treat most of it as small stuff. If I got excited ever time she tossed my bike shorts in the dryer, we’d probably be divorced by now 🙂

          But on a positive note, she did pass the marriage test 15 years ago. We assembled some IKEA furniture and didn’t kill one another. Do that and take a canoe trip together before you marry. If you have the skills to navigate that as a team, you can probably face most challenges life will throw at you.

          Oh, and set a shared goal of having sex in every one of the 50 states. You get to travel and have sex!

          Oh, guys make a big deal of 2/14 for her. Gals, make a big deal of 3/14 for him. That’s showing up for one another!

          1. Good post Uniballer. I too have similar sob stories with women, ex-wife, adultery, not sticking around etc. Most do I suspect, on both sides. However, you, like me, may have asked ourselves at one point why they didn’t stick around. What is it about me? Why not love me, I’m amazing?!

            My current partner is what has inspired me to look into this blog although I found it of my own accord. I’ve always sailed through relationships with the attitude that what I bring should be enough. What you see is what you get. It doesn’t work that way and taking that stance, in my opinion, is effectively saying we can’t change.

            I’m sure that you, like me, kill it in relationships in many ways. Bring home the bacon, be the fixer of things, do your chores, be a great dad, and much more. I thought that was enough…it’s not. My partner says to me, “You do all that stuff great. But it’s not what I need.”

            Remember guys, we do a lot of those things because it makes us feel good and physically effective. We do them with or without a partner.

            So, my initial reaction was “Well, go find someone better!!!” That’s the problem, they do.

            I would approach relationships like I was perfect, if they had an issue it must be on them. I can be charming, cute, am gainfully employed, have good hobbies and family…score right? I looked back on discarded husks of previous relationships without much of a thought. Not once feeling, maybe it was me, always pointing the finger. Then my marriage failed. Could it have been saved with this insight? Who knows, but it would not have hurt it.

            Now that I’ve found this blog I haven’t shut up about it and my partner is thrilled. Because A) It resonates with both of us, B) It shows I’m taking an emotionally vested interest in her well-being and the marriage’s well-being, and C) It’s showing her I can be open-minded about making changes instead of being stubborn and protective of my male ego and sense of right.

            Is this a Holy Grail? I dunno, but it’s precisely what she’s been saying to me over the past 3 years. Does she need to make changes? Yep. But that’s on her. And she is.

            Certainly, it’s a two-way street, but what I’m finding is my attitude and approach were nowhere near the middle to help build effective communication and emotional connection. The middle is where we need to be. Do I have as many emotional needs as my partner? Probably not, but she’s not me. Do I have emotional stonewalling techniques that get me nowhere? 100%.

            What Matt teaches is not that hard to grasp and it’s actually making things better for her and me. But you really have to check your ego at the door and get down to the real emotional dirt and understand you’re doing it for you, not her (that feels counterintuitive but it’s not). To me, this is why many feel like what Mathew is saying is bashing men. It’s not. Forget about your partner for a moment and look inwards. Because even I, who had seemingly precious few family or emotional issues to start with, still get dirty and can still do better.

            That’s not to say anything and everything should work out. But this newfound approach is getting me to look at things through a different lens. I’ve always felt I had gobs of empathy and compassion, but when someone tells you that’s not what they see, you might have to take a look.

            None of this is a guarantee. But practicing some of it just might make us better people whether we are in a relationship or not. That’s all.

          2. Sometimes it’s him not her who finds someone better.

            Nineteen years later, she’s still single, so no, AP wasn’t better. (Is anyone who cheats to get out better?)

            I’ve been married almost 15 years now to my 2nd wife. While neither one of us are without fault, the difference is she gives me actionable feedback most of the time.

            I mean there are times when it doesn’t happen like Red Laundry Basket or from the pre-this website days when she said the things I did don[‘t count because I enjoyed doing them. (The only time I’ve dropped an f-bomb on her for what she said. I told her that’s F;ed up. Things have to get done. Enjoy them or not, they still usually have to get done.

            I don’t think I’ve suggested that I’m al that and a bag of chips. Merely that if you want something, make clear and easy to understand requests. I’ve gone agains the trope that he should just know and/or men are inferior when it comes to relationship. We are not inferior, we are different and bring different relative strengths and weaknesses to the table.

        2. ‘People like me’…this made me actually LOL. 2 things stick out in this response: what, EXACTLY, is meant by ‘broader cultural and institutional problems’?
          And who, EXACTLY, are these folks who ‘have ownership of the importance scale’?

          1. @TWC
            You appear capable of googling information, so use your sense of curiosity and go find the answers. It’s not my job to school you.

  4. Congratulations on the book and on the article in the Atlantic!

    Definitely, “don’t sweat the small stuff ” is trash advice. 90% of marriage is making sure we honor the other person’s “small stuff” 🙂

    1. Thank you Matt! Your presentation method speaks to me and I appreciate your witing

  5. Typical. That which is claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. You made the claim, pal….now back it up, or stfu. The grownups are talking.

  6. I agree. The little things have everything to do with feelings, acknowledging hurt and wrongdoing – everything where appreciation, understanding, empathy, humility, and forgiveness reside. These are the make-it and break-it themes in marriage where acknowledgment and apology are the longevity factors in a marriage. I say this going on 22 years of marriage with a life partner with who I couldn’t imagine a happy existence without.

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