this marriage is obviously over
Reading Time: 12 minutes (Richard Lee.)
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Hi! Lately, we’ve been talking about a terrible Christian marriage-advice book, If Only He Knew. In it, author Gary Smalley promises his readers surefire techniques they can use to save their ailing marriages. Last time, I offhandedly mentioned my surprise at seeing Gary Smalley described as kindhearted. This dude’s anything but! Today, let me show you just how kindhearted Gary Smalley is as he opens his book by describing how he coddled an abuser and trampled on that man’s victim–and then I’ll show you exactly why he did it, and what it looked like in realtime when it happened to me.

this marriage is obviously over
(Richard Lee.)

(PS: Biff story ahoy! Content note: today’s about a dynamic commonly found in relationship abuse. These two announcements are not unrelated.)

“You’ve Got to Help Me.”

If anybody wonders about this book’s center of sympathy, Gary Smalley settles that question in its first chapter’s sentence:

At the other end of the phone a quivering voice said, “You’ve got to help me. She has a court order against me.”

The “quivering voice” belongs to George, who reached out to Smalley for aid. Recently, his wife of 20+ years, Barbara, threw him out of their house. She also obtained “a court order” against him. As a result, George feels angry and petulant: “after all I’ve done for her,” she’s treating him so terribly! How dare she!

Note: We don’t know what this “court order” even is, and Smalley never explains further. I assume it’s a protective order, because George can’t enter his home.

Like most authoritarian Christian men (and, really, most abusers), George respects only powerful boundaries that he knows he can’t cross. In this case, Barbara’s court order clearly represents such a boundary. He might even face prison time for violating it! (Come to think of it, I’ve never yet met a right-wing Christian man who didn’t feel a gut-churning terror of that fate.) So calling Barbara himself was very solidly out of the question.

Instead, he made a sniveling “quivering” phone call.

George hoped that Smalley–his friend? pastor? I have no idea what their relationship is–could help.

And gang, George wasn’t wrong.

Smalley was exactly the right person to call.

The Hierarchy, Preserved.

Authoritarianism, at its heart, is hierarchical.

Authoritarian followers borrow the power of the authoritarian leaders above them. That sense of borrowed power grants them a sort of permission slip to do whatever it is they want to do.

Further, having people above them on the ladder of power provides them a sense of safety and immunity. That’s why they tend to fall right into line when someone barks orders at them. As long as they follow their orders, if anybody gets in trouble for it then it will (hopefully) be the people who gave the orders–not the minions carrying them out.

(When I worked at call centers and got one of these types on the phone, I appealed to authority. “I can’t reverse that fee because the company owners won’t let me.” Authoritarians never questioned a rejection worded like that. Seriously. It was like magic.)

Every so often, however, those followers must draw upon their superiors for help. That help represents the price these leaders must pay for the obedience given to them. Now, this help won’t take the form of financial aid, of course, as I myself discovered. Nor will it be a job, or food, or a car, or anything like that.

No, it’ll be the extended use of the leaders’ authority, flexed for the benefit of followers in need. And those leaders seem to enjoy doing it, so it’s a win/win for both groups.

Asking the Right Proxy: Someone Who Isn’t Me (SWIM).

So in Smalley’s book, George phones him and begs for help.

Specifically, he wants Smalley to use his power as an authoritarian, complementarian Christian leader. He wants Smalley to talk Barbara into ending the protective order and resuming the marriage. After all, he can’t speak to her himself at this point, not unless he wants to land in serious legal trouble.

Thus, he needs a proxy.

But he can’t ask just any proxy for this help he has in mind.

He probably knows Someone Like Me would turn him down flat. And I would! I’d know he was trying to insert me into his drama, and I’d be aware that this request is a time-honored tactic in the Abuser’s Handbook (if there was one, I mean, besides like Fifty Shades of Gray). In fact, I’d know that George’s request represents a primary way for an abuser to continue harassing his victim after she’s firmly closed off other avenues of contact. Someone Like Me would likely call Barbara immediately to warn her that George is hunting for proxies–and reassure her of my support and ensure she’s safe.

No, Someone Like Me would know that when a court order gets filed, that means this lady doesn’t want to talk to this guy, period, forever, rAmen, the end. She’s done. And intuitively, Someone Like Me would know that means she doesn’t want to talk to her abuser’s hand-chosen proxies, either!

No, no, no. George asks Someone Who Isn’t Me.

Toxic Men Helping Toxic Men Since, Well, Forever.

George’s prerogative as a man overrides anything his wife wants, even her sense of safety. He needs to ask someone who would sympathize with his frustrated prerogative. He needs someone who either won’t know what his request represents in the abuse cycle, or who doesn’t care about stuff like that.

George needs another complementarian guy. And who better to ask than someone with a great deal of power in the complementarian tribe?

Gary Smalley works as a giver-of-awful-marriage-advice in that exact tribe. That’s his job. So naturally, when a man belonging to his tribe comes to him to declare that the complementarian marriage model has completely failed him, Smalley swings into action–to potentially violate the wife’s court order against her husband.

Now, I know some folks in the readership are twitching right now at this whole “court order” thing and wondering if Smalley is violating it by acting on George’s behalf. Me too! Typically, indirect contact is a no-no as well on protective orders. Again, we don’t know exactly what the “court order” involves, or if it even truly existed in whatever story inspired this embellishment.

Here, the “court order” functions solely to illustrate how angry Barbara is at George, and to reveal how determined she is to end the marriage before Smalley rides in to save the day. Smalley doesn’t think he did anything wrong by contacting her on George’s behalf, and he expects his readers to feel the same.

The Abuser Coaches the Proxy.

Smalley’s goal, completely, involves reconciling the couple–at the abusive husband’s request, even though he stands well aware and advised that the wife desires no contact whatsoever with her husband.

Weirdly, after calling Smalley specifically to talk to his wife for him, George immediately backtracks: “There’s no way you can talk to Barbara. She wouldn’t talk to you.”

It’s a weird tonal shift, considering what we learn soon about George. If you hadn’t already figured out a solid page ago that we were in r/ThatHappened-Land, well, there’s your sign.

The husband then warns him: “The moment you say you’re representing me in any way, she’ll hang up on you.” Smalley is so invested in the complementarian model that he tut-tuts this warning away, not realizing he just got coached by an abuser. George just taught him how to approach his victim in a way that she might not detect as coming straight from her husband.

PSHAW, Smalley reassures George. Ain’t found a li’l lady yet who could refuse a chat with King Me!

I’m sure George relaxed a bit at last, content in having found the perfect dupe to embroil in his problems.

Trampling the Victim.

Sure, Smalley feels a bit nervous about calling Barbara. He’s busy wondering if his streak of wins will be broken here.

He doesn’t worry his fluffy blue boybrains in the least about whether the call will make Barbara feel unsafe, violate her boundaries, or remind her of the abuse she’s suffered at her ex’s hands. Smalley appears to have forgotten entirely that the law’s gotten involved in this relationship. Something important takes precedence here over anything Barbara wants or needs!

Only one thing occupies the author’s mind. Smalley worries only about whether this will be the very first woman to refuse to discuss her relationship with him. Cuz all women love to blather about relationships, amirite? Will Barbara prove herself to be the shining star of NAWALT?

However, his worries come to nothing.

As Smalley puts it, “She was more than anxious to discuss their problems.”

Sure, Jan.

Wow, that’s lucky! Had it been me answering that phone call, and y’all, it has been, I’d have known immediately that Smalley represented my ex and was calling to speak for him. (What, do y’all think this was literally the only time George has tried to send intermediaries to talk sense into his wayward wife?) Consequently, I’d have hung up on him flat and contacted whatever authorities I could to stop Biff from trying that tactic again.

It amazed me that Biff kept finding proxies like that. Surely at least one of these galactic-level dipshits might have guessed that maybe I was difficult for Biff to contact for a reason?

But no. They never wondered.

Dude kept sending people after me “just to talk” about our breakup. He never stopped, never let up–until I began tamping down his avenues of contact by going over his head in the toxic-masculinity hierarchy.

I’ve gotten my ex in trouble with his ISPs, his base commander, and more than a few of his friends (who always apologized profusely to me after I explained what Biff had conned them into doing and why I’d left). Finally, I threatened to drop a package containing, among other stuff, his own voice messages threatening me and ranting at me to his town’s constabulary along with a request for a formal protective order.

I suspect it was that last bit that finally ended Biff’s stalking. That’s what it took to get through to him that I seriously had no desire to communicate with him ever again, and–more to the point, and more relevantly to his interests–that he had no chance in the world to reel me back into being his narcissistic supply again.

The #1 Priority.

In the book, Gary Smalley calls Barbara. His very first recorded statement about that call reveals his priority:

“What would it take for you to be willing to let your husband back into your life? What would have to happen before you would try to rebuild a marriage relationship with him?”

Then he reveals that he’s followed the same tack many times before when acting as abusive men’s proxies.

She reacts predictably, by saying she’s done. She wants no part of George anymore–and requests that Smalley “just keep him away!”

But Smalley won’t let her off the hook so easily. He asks what on earth George could have done “to offend her.”

Notice what’s missing about this exchange?

Smalley hasn’t asked Barbara anything about how she’s doing or what she’s feeling. He’s offered her no sympathy at all. He hasn’t asked if this marriage even should be reconciled. George wants to reconcile, so Smalley assumes that the marriage needs to be reconciled.

After all, he does not tell us even once about any husbands he has decided not to help (with one very notable exception, which we will cover in a future post, trust me, trust me, we’re going there, because it’s just so WTF: cases where the wife has already begun a new relationship).

The Chaplain’s #1 Priority.

Similarly, when I spoke with Biff’s on-base chaplain (at a daycare he was helping at for the day, for some reason), this guy’s #1 priority was reconciling us. I don’t remember every single thing we said anymore, but it went remarkably similarly to what Gary Smalley’s relating here.

And like Barbara in this book, I unloaded on that chaplain. I told him Biff had physically threatened to harm me, then doubled down on those threats when I told him to cut it out. In addition, Biff had turned our religious differences into a devastating, catastrophic dealbreaker, that his dishonesty and manipulativeness had finally exceeded my tolerance limits, and that we had several points of difference that had no feasible compromises, like having children.

Barbara’s list of grievances looked a bit different from mine, but it ran along similar lines. George had been “domineering and critical of her.” He’d been ruthlessly controlling, isolated her from friends, spied on her, and blew his fuse when she dared do something outside his comfort zone. And he’d completely destroyed her sense of self-worth through his constant needling and “ridicule.”

Men like Biff and George don’t need to be married and inflicting their idiotic selves on innocent women. They need to take kindergarten over again. 

Pursuing the Priority.

Most of us would see these two lists–mine and Barbara’s–and they’d say yep, y’all have no business being married. Go in peace.

But not Gary Smalley, and not Biff’s chaplain. They both received an abused wife’s list of grievances, and turned those into the classic meme: So you’re saying there’s a chance…

Cuz see, it’s obvious that if anything even vaguely like this story ever happened, Barbara didn’t offer that list as a to-do list for George. She offered it as an attempt to buy validity for her choice to divorce him, just as I did. Those reasons were coins we thrust toward those men, hoping they’d accept them and tell us we’d made the right choice.

We hadn’t learned that dreadful lesson yet, that you can’t convince abusive people that you’re doing the right thing by walking away from a bad situation–especially if that situation benefits them! No, we offered our coins to people who could not accept them. The only coin they respected was our complete capitulation. If we couldn’t offer that, then they accepted–and wanted–nothing else from us.

Both Smalley and the chaplain saw those coins and rejected them. No, no, now really: what would it take to get you two crazy lovebirds back together?

It blew my mind. I remember staring at the chaplain. Had he somehow not heard a word I’d said? Had he not noticed when I’d talked about Biff threatening to take a knife to me?

No, he’d heard.

He just hadn’t cared. Neither does Gary Smalley.

Getting Ideas.

Barbara tells Smalley, as they’re hanging up, not to “get any ideas.” She fully intends to pursue the divorce.

Similarly, I told the chaplain that our meeting had not been about reconciliation. It’d been about me making him fully aware of the help I needed from him to stay safe from an abusive spouse. My heart already sank, though; I knew it’d been a waste of time when I ended that meeting. I wonder if Barbara knew that too.

If not, she figured it out very quickly, if my case is anything to go by. The chaplain relayed to Biff every single thing I’d said (so much for Biff’s claim that the guy operated under confidentiality laws), and they created some kind of weird rom-com plot based on it to win me back. It was excruciating and cringeworthy for a bit there, but thankfully Biff realized quickly that it wasn’t working.

I came out of that experience beyond horrified at the betrayal. This chaplain had stepped into the middle of what he’d known was a domestic abuse situation–one that’d come within micrometers to physical violence–and then told my abuser, the man terrorizing me, everything I’d revealed to him in confidence.

One wonders what Barbara really did, once it became clear to her in turn that Smalley had taken her list of grievances straight to George to help renovate him into a good husband for her.

Summarizing the End of George’s Story.

This is getting long, so let me summarize for the moment what happens at the end of this introductory tale. We’ll be delving into it in more detail later on.

Smalley convinces George to go through the divorce proceedings without legal representation, and to grant Barbara 25% of his retirement benefits instead of the 20% she requested. George is outraged at Smalley’s suggestions–but he complies. Meanwhile, Smalley coaches him in How To Pretend To Be A Compassionate Human Being.

Barbara gets super-impressed with how nice George is at the hearing! And they begin seeing each other again after the divorce goes through! In fact, she’s so impressed with the long-term changes he’s made in himself–in only three months, and thanks to Gary Smalley’s sage advice!–that they get married again just a few months later!

OMG! What are the chances?

In fact, Smalley confesses that after acting as George’s proxy and counseling George through the divorce case, he lost touch with the fellow. He had no idea how the situation had resolved until running into George “at the grocery store.” Because Gary Smalley and George are just a pair of wild and keeerazy complementarian guys who just both happen to love doing the family grocery shopping, right?

This whole ending reads like one of those too-good-to-be-true scenes in movies that tips viewers off to the fact that we’re in Dream Sequence territory. It doesn’t even sound halfway plausible. It’s crazymaking. This is not how humans really operate.

On Their Side.

But you know this story will make complementarian men in troubled marriages extremely hopeful–hopefully hopeful enough to drop some bucks on a Christian self-help book! Gary Smalley has shown them that he is 100% on their side–and not on the side of the wives they’ve mistreated.

That’s how things operate in complementarian country. Complementarian leaders are on men’s side, all the way. They assume, always, that the women in these marriages must be behaving capriciously, selfishly, thoughtlessly, or cruelly. (Later on, we’ll get into their studied response to that perception–demonizing and trying to end no-fault divorce.)

But for now, I note only that books aimed at complementarian men are going to assume by default that the marriage can be repaired and salvaged (except for that one exception), that the men just need to change a couple of things they’re doing, and that the complementarian model itself isn’t at all the problem–only how these outlier men are putting that model into practice.

That’s where Gary Smalley, George, Biff, and his chaplain live, mentally. And that’s a big part of why complementarianism fails so dramatically in real life. These men would rather enjoy the fantasy than the reality of their partners and partnerships.

NEXT UP: That incredible survey making the rounds about Nones. Then, please join us for totally groundbreaking revelations about the differences between men and women. Later, we review a questionnaire that mystified Mr. Captain beyond all comprehension. See you next time!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...