Not all actions need a reaction

When songwriters Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz penned the country song “When You Say Nothing At All,” they didn’t mean keep your mouth shut when your loved one does something trivial that nonetheless annoys you.

From the lyrics, it’s clear that we’re being told that a smile, a look or the “touch of your hand” says “I love you” just as clearly as speaking the words aloud.

But I want to make the case that sometimes, keeping your mouth shut sings out how much you care.

The dining chair that your sweetheart forgets to slide back in place, the random lights left on, the clothes slowly building into a mound because they have been worn but aren’t judged ready for the laundry ... ”you say it best when you say nothing at all.”

To be clear, I’m talking about healthy relationships, not those marked by passive-aggressive behavior or no meaningful engagement.

Related detour: A friend filed for divorce after decades in an unhappy marriage when her husband offered to get a her a cup a coffee but first had to ask how she liked it.

I didn’t spontaneously come up with what I’ll call SUMO (shut up/move on). I came across the advice in a Facebook post by friend and former Chicago Tribune coworker John Teets. Because I’ve found the tip so helpful, I recently reached out to John and asked him what inspired it.

He responded: “Some time in the ’80s, my mom saved a list of ‘life tips’ and put it on her fridge. At the time, I thought of them as bromides — trite, warm and fuzzy.

“As I read them during the next few years, and maybe matured a little, they took on a certain Zen. I made a copy for my own fridge.

One morning I was fuming that for the umpteenth time my husband had left the milk carton out overnight, and I was ready to chew him out, for the umpteenth time plus one, when he came down for breakfast.

“But when I closed the refrigerator door one of the homilies hit me between the eyes: ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff; it’s all small stuff.’

“At which point I resolved to say good morning and smile when I saw the face I loved and let the milk go sour instead of me — and us. I wasn’t perfect about it over the next decades we had together, but it stopped me cold countless times from blurting out something stupid.”

Like John, I’m not perfect about following SUMO. But in the Joyce household, happiness reigns. And I like to think it’s partly because of that philosophy.

Or maybe it’s because my spouse adopted the SUMO mantra on Day 2 of our decades-long marriage.

— Denise Joyce of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers can email her at [email protected].