Hi! Lately, we’ve been looking at Gary Smalley’s terrible Christian marriage-advice book, If Only He Knew. In it, he freely dispenses terrible marriage advice to complementarian Christian men. As I read this book, I began noticing a lot of problems with it. The most disturbing of those problems must surely be Gary Smalley’s own descriptions of his own behavior in his own marriage. Today, let me show you why nobody should consider this charlatan as any kind of authority about marriage.
(Also in this series: “The Huckster Fleecing These Sheep;” “The Target Audience Within Complementarianism;” “Villains Helping Villains;” “First, Assume Women Aren’t People;” and “This’ll Be On the Quiz.” In this post, I mockingly refer to Gary Smalley’s teachings collectively as “How to Marriage the Jesus Way.” That is not the term he used.)
A Quick Timeline.
First, let me offer a timeline of Gary Smalley’s life.
He was born in 1940. He married his wife Norma in 1964. They had three kids–a girl and two boys.
Between 1969 and 1976, Smalley worked for Bill Gothard. Yes, that Bill Gothard. He parted ways with Gothard in 1976, apparently, but not before personally witnessing Gothard’s sexual predations. Indeed, he even questioned some of Gothard’s victims–just not very closely. He never assisted in formal action against Gothard.
On his own official sites, Smalley’s professional life began in 1979–well after leaving Bill Gothard’s “ministry.” None of his official biographies even mention his activities between 1964 and 1979, much less that tainted association.
In 1979, Smalley began a business called CMI, which offered marital advice. CMI probably stood for “Christian Marriage Institute” or somesuch. Around this time, he wrote the crapfest If Only He Knew. Meanwhile, CMI performed well. He changed its name in 1985 to Today’s Family–and it grew and grew and grew.
After a lifetime spent pandering to complementarians, Gary Smalley died in 2016.
Now let’s see what kind of husband this Grand Poobah of Jesus-flavored sexism was.
In the very first year of his marriage, we learn on page 79, Gary Smalley did something unfathomably thoughtless. Apparently, the guy coached some sort of basketball team. And being such a great coach, he’d totally forgotten that his team had a game set for Valentine’s Day. When he finally remembered it, at 4pm on the big day, he called his wife at home to tell her to get ready so she could sit in the stands to watch him coach.
When Norma reminded him that it was, indeed, their very first Valentine’s Day together as a married couple, he told her,
Yeah, I know, but I need to be there tonight because I promised the team. I don’t want to let them down.
Not even discovering that she’d gone all-out to prepare a special, romantic meal at home for them could dissuade him. Dammit, did she not realize these people needed their guru?
When she pushed back a little more, he realized he was being a major doofus and apologized profusely and came right home and… Oh, who am I kidding.
In reality, Smalley slammed down hard on the complementarianism, pulled rank on her, and treated her like a puppy. (Hey, remember when he informed us that that’s a good thing?)
“Honey, you know how important it is for a wife to submit to her husband. I really need to be there tonight, and if we’re going to start off with good habits in the early part of our marriage, now is the time to begin. If I’m going to be the leader of this family, I need to make the decision.”
And it worked. She relented. But he could tell he’d dun goofed.
The next day, he performed a song-and-dance that is probably very familiar to fundagelical wives everywhere. He bought her loads of flowers and gave her a thumbs-up/thumbs-down card to show him if she approved or disapproved of him. She gave him a thumbs-up with the card, but later (p. 82) we learn that at least for a little while, she didn’t even want him to touch her.
By his own admission:
I never said whether I was right or wrong, only that I felt badly about the night before. And so began a history of offenses I never knew how to clear up with her.
A few years later, he went to work for Bill Gothard, teaching men How to Marriage the Jesus Way.
A Few Years Later.
On page 49, we discover a heartbreaking portrait of a young marriage that was already at the brink. We’re now about five years into the marriage, which puts us at about 1969–the year Gary Smalley began working for Bill Gothard.
This time, Smalley came home for lunch to find his wife standing in the kitchen without a word. She didn’t talk to him, not even when he tried to initiate conversation. He had no idea what he’d done wrong, he insists, but when he asked her if there was “anything wrong between us,” she finally answered,
“It doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t understand anyway.”
A bunch of ex-Christian women who’ve done time in a complementarian marriage just felt their stomachs drop to the floor. I know I sure did. That feeling only grew when I read about how he pressed her to talk to him. She replied,
“Even if I told you, either you wouldn’t understand or you wouldn’t change, so what’s the use? Let’s not talk about it. It’s too painful. It discourages me and disappoints me when you say you’re going to do something and then you don’t.”
Yep, been there too. Many times.
That’s How to Marriage the Jesus Way, all right.
Living on a Pedestal.
Finally, he drew Norma out enough to learn the problem. He constantly put her on the back seat to deal with counseling clients or to spend time with friends. He writes, “I had neglected her and offended her with my unloving ways.” But she barely reacted at all to his admission of guilt. He’d fully crushed her spirit.
So he did what any loving husband should do. He apologized up and down and began making tracks to ensure that this mistreatment never happened again–including making an appointment with a qualified, non-quack specialist to help them climb out of what had clearly become a rut for him… Oh, who am I kidding?
In reality, he first insisted that she “forgive” him. Then he promised he’d change. He’d done both many times before then. So sure, she gave her forgiveness, since her religious faith absolutely required she do so. But she also told him that she felt little confidence in his promises.
That said, clearly the fellow understood now that he needed to reel her back in before she flat-out left him.
He threw himself into convincing her that he was a changed man. It took two years, but in his words, “Norma finally believed I was earnest in my endeavor to change.”
We are now on Year 7 of this leading marriage counselor’s ailing marriage.
The Unforgivable Sin.
Now we fast-forward to his tenth year of marriage.
We find ourselves standing at 1974, toward the end of his years with Bill Gothard. Smalley had finally begun achieving success at his chosen field. On page 59, we learn that he made good money as a public speaker, in addition to his other success in counseling. Things felt like they were finally coming together.
And then Norma came up pregnant with their third child.
From Smalley’s point of view, this pregnancy represented a real disaster–for him. In fact, he shares his despondency with us:
. . . our youngest had only been out of diapers for two years. I was just starting to enjoy my children, and the thought of another little baby around the house was almost overwhelming, particularly when the doctor had told us specifically that we couldn’t have any more children.
So now, he did what a properly loving TRUE CHRISTIAN™ husband should do. He hugged Norma tightly, asked if she wanted to have a third baby, and then supported her personal decision about how she wanted to use her own body… Oh who am I kidding.
In reality, he blamed Norma for this unforgivable offense, then punished her for years over it.
Bear in mind that as a complementarian husband, Smalley’s responsibilities regarding childcare were already shamefully minimal. Very likely, he only participated in those tasks when he needed to temporarily cool his wife’s blazing resentment toward him enough to get nookie from her.
This time he retreated into work, leaving her to deal with 100% of the childcare and household tasks. When the baby arrived and needed a lot of medical care, Smalley retreated even further. I really have no idea how he managed to find that event horizon of total, complete, 100% withdrawal, but he attacked that goal with a mission statement and heavy machinery.
If his wife dared to complain or ask him for help, he had a ready escape clause:
Whenever the baby would cry at night or need special attention, I would quickly remind Norma he was her child. She had wanted another baby, not I.
Sounds like someone might have suggested an off-limits abortion, doesn’t it?
Regardless, his punishment continued for at least a year after the baby’s birth.
Hitting the Wall.
Finally one day, in an eerily calm, urgent tone, Norma told him:
“I can’t take it anymore. I wish I had the emotional and physical strength to take care of the kids and discipline and train them, but I just can’t do it with an absentee father.”
Once again, Smalley did what any loving husband would do upon learning he’d pushed and tormented his beloved spouse to this extreme… But I can’t even pretend now. He’d spent two years punishing her by that point, thus disqualifying himself from the descriptor of “loving.”
Instead, just as before, he realized Norma was slipping out of his grasp and set about single-mindedly reeling her back into place. He phoned his boss (who is, at this point, possibly Bill Gothard himself!) to ask for another position with the company that’d allow him more home time.
Don’t you worry: Jesus rewarded him for his noble sacrifice! Yay Team Jesus! (We’ll talk about Smalley’s descriptions of weird Jesus-rewards soon.)
Hitting the Roof, Literally.
We don’t know exactly how long into the marriage this next incident occurred, but his children were now old enough to talk and reason but weren’t independent yet. We find his writeup on page 70.
Because Smalley got home late with the family car from a fishing trip with his elder son, his wife tried to use their motor home to do some much-needed grocery shopping. But she wasn’t good at driving it. Thus, she hit their house’s roof–and falling debris damaged the vehicle in turn.
When he arrived home, Smalley geared up to scream at her for causing so much damage. He began repeating to himself, “What should I do?” His son interrupted his thoughts:
My son Greg overheard me. “Dad, why don’t you do what you teach? . . . You teach that mom is way more important than things.” Thanks to Greg, I remembered what I was supposed to do.
After at least 10-15 years of marriage, why was his course of action so difficult to ascertain without a pointed verbal reminder?
And how often had Greg seen his father react toward his mother in ways that ran completely counter to his very own teachings?
Couples trying to live by complementarian rules often develop deep-seated contempt over many years. That contempt can’t help but leak out of them as public aggression. We see a potent illustration of that exact problem on page 82.
Here, we don’t know when in the marriage this incident occurred. He doesn’t share the year of it or give any details that could clue us in. In the story, he and Norma drove to a company party. Norma “teasingly” informed him that she intended to play some kind of joke on the company president. The joke would have significantly embarrassed Smalley.
He tried to talk her out of doing it. But Norma had found a button she could push. Like a toddler with a plate of nacho cheese sauce, she couldn’t resist this newfound toy. Thus, she slapped her hands down on that button again and again until she got a @$&^ing CHEDDARCAUST out of him.
Finally, her loving husband, whose entire life’s work revolves around showing his tribemates how to act like loving husbands, slammed down on the car’s brakes. He screamed at her that he would now refuse to attend the party.
Norma, shocked by his screaming, burst into tears. His apologies only backfired. At the party, she wouldn’t even meet his eyes.
He dun goofed. Again. In the book, he says regretfully, “It took days for me to reestablish harmony.”
Ya don’t say.
And the Worst of It.
Now, we come to the last example I’ll detail.
On page 95, we find ourselves standing at about 2002. Smalley and Norma have lasted 38 years, and he’s been a marriage counselor and complementarian guru for almost all of that time. He’s published countless books, given countless speeches, and run countless seminars. He stands at the very peak of his career.
At home, his children are now grown. Greg is now some kind of relationship researcher or counselor himself.
During a visit home, Greg encountered a domestic scene that had played out countless times before. In Smalley’s words:
. . . I was attempting to “help” Norma improve one of her “bad” habits so she would “stop ruining or weakening our marriage.” She was responding to me as she usually did to these conversations, by disconnecting and placing distance between us.
This time, however, Greg felt unwilling to allow this scene to unfold yet again.
The Spiritual Leader Responds.
Greg talked to his dad privately in the front yard. There, he asked Smalley if he’d listen to some of the things Greg had discovered in his research. Smalley, frustrated, burst out with something surprising for a guy jammed so firmly up Jesus’ nether region:
“Well,” I said, “who can help her if I can’t?”
“How about letting God give a try?” he asked.
I got offended. “Don’t spiritualize this!” I told him.
Really. In 2002, after almost 40 years of marriage and almost that long in his career as a Wife Whisperer, Gary Smalley got completely offended at the idea of letting Jesus take the wheel.
Greg’s advice actually took a fairly rational turn, couched as it was in Christianese. He told his dad to stop making Norma feel unsafe around him. He warned his dad that if he kept this up, he’d destroy his marriage. Smalley was very obviously making Norma feel “emotionally dead” around him.
I’d say that ship sailed around page 49, five years in, but Smalley took Greg’s advice. He marched back into the house, apologized to Norma “for offending her for thirty-eight years,” and promised to change.
A Pattern Easily Detected.
This book is filled to the brim with examples of how complementarianism led to a terrible marriage for Norma and their children, all while Gary Smalley was preening and lecturing people about How to Marriage the Jesus Way.
I could tell you about page 136, where Smalley says he dumped the checkbook-balancing tasks on his wife in their early years, but then spent money out of their account without checking with her or looking at their balance. It wasn’t until she freaked out and literally dumped the checkbook and bills in his lap that he realized she wasn’t totally content to handle this job for an undisciplined three-year-old with an entitlement problem.
Or I could mention SandwichGate on page 111, where Norma simply didn’t make a sandwich for Smalley once. She made sandwiches for herself and the three kids, but nothing for him–because he criticized her sandwiches so vociferously and constantly that it was easier just not to do it and get in trouble for that than to endure his sniping yet again over how she fixed his food.
Or I could show you how he degraded his children at dinnertime, described on page 128, when they did stuff that annoyed him. For years, he “flick[ed] him or her on the head” and reprimanded them. Of course, he “knew deep inside that flicking them was not right.” But he didn’t want to listen to Norma, who tried hard to get him to stop. He was the MAN of the HOUSE, after all.
And, too, I could point to pretty much everything described from pages 161 to 167, wherein this boor dragged Norma and the kids on a camping trip even knowing that Norma didn’t like being out in the Great Outdoors.
Just mind-blowing, how absolutely miserable this guy makes his wife’s existence sound. This is the complementarian guru at work, y’all!
Those Who Can’t Do, Teach, Even in Jesus-Land.
Comparing his wife to a vegetable garden, Smalley writes on page 39, “Fortunately, unlike vegetables, my wife can talk. I can ask her just what she needs, how much she needs, and when she needs it.” But time and again we see that he either doesn’t ask or doesn’t listen to her.
Instead, we read pages and pages of times when complementarian advice failed for this couple. “Sometimes in the middle of a conflict with Norma I really want to give up,” he informs us on page 25–in present tense.
At the end of the book (p. 174), he describes a particularly conflicted period for them, “Here I was, on the staff of an organization that taught others how to have family harmony, and I couldn’t even achieve it in my own family.” On the next page, he confesses that for years, he would threaten to quit his job specifically to threaten Norma’s sense of security on purpose, just to win arguments and get his way. The tactic worked stunningly, at the expense of their harmony.
“My wife has told me dozens of times that when I treat her well I’m the one who wins,” he tells us on page 25, but apparently he forgot that sage wisdom all the time in his daily dealings with her.
And remember, all his life this guy made his living advising couples about How to Marriage the Jesus Way.
The Grand Results of All Those Teachings.
This book breaks my heart.
It blows my mind that Gary Smalley wrote this book decades ago, and yet almost nothing changed in his marriage for decades. By the end, he proudly paints himself as a changed man–but even in his self-fellation, on page 187, the book’s last few pages, he’s still unilaterally deciding things for his wife without asking.
This man was a charlatan–a false teacher through and through. He taught principles that had not created a happy, harmonious marriage for himself–and indeed could not–yet he told his adherents that his teachings would do that for them.
You’d kinda think that truly divine teachings would, I dunno, work way better for women like Norma Smalley than these ever do.
NEXT UP: We examine why so many Christians listen to this charlatan and those like him. Then we’ll see how Gary Smalley teaches complementarian men how to grow a sense of empathy, why this education is required, and why that effort fails so dramatically. See you soon!
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