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Reading Time: 9 minutes Hey, close enough.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hi and welcome back! We’ve been talking lately about Gary Smalley’s terrible Christian marriage-advice book If Only He Knew. While reading this awful book, I quickly realized that Gary Smalley wasn’t suggesting his readers make any big changes in their behavior or attitudes. Rather, he only wanted to show them some techniques to ease the worst of their marital crises. But those efforts are doomed to fail. Today, I’ll show you why his suggestions represent the weakest of all weak sauce, barely approximating a facsimile of marriage.

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(Also in this series: “The Huckster Fleecing These Sheep;” “The Target Audience Within Complementarianism;” “Villains Helping Villains;” “First, Assume Women Aren’t People;” “This’ll Be On the Quiz;” and “If Only Gary Smalley’s Fans Knew What a Hypocrite He Was.”)

Here He Comes to Save the Day!

In If Only He Knew, Gary Smalley assumes a few things about his readers:

  • That they are men, not women or anybody else,
  • That they are married…
  • … in complementarian Christian marriages…
  • … to women,
  • And that those marriages are in big, serious, stinky loads of trouble.

However, all of these assumptions are completely safe for him to make. At any given time, complementarian couples teeter and windmill between simmering resentment and blazing crisis. 

A great deal of that resentment occurs because someone feels taken-advantage-of and unfairly-put-upon. When those feelings get too huge to contain, that resentment flares up into a crisis. Add together enough of these crises, and the put-upon partner eventually gets exhausted and pulls out of the marriage. Almost always, that partner will be the wife–because of the way complementarian systems operate.

Asking Directions.

Complementarian men tend to subscribe to toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is a social construct that puts men into tight, constrictive gender roles that backfire to hurt them and everyone around them. Sometimes you’ll see this phrase bundled together with the notion of Southern honor culture, which celebrates toxic masculinity on a societal level by allowing for, condoning, and excusing hair-trigger tempers and retaliatory actions, outbreaks of aggression even against family members over any perceived slight or insult, and extreme defensiveness over image and reputation.

For example, imagine the old chestnut of a joke about men not liking to stop during a road trip to ask a local for directions. Biff became exactly like that after he became a Christian, and when I was Christian I knew any number of married men whose wives said they acted the same way.

Complementarianism tells men they must act knowledgeable at all times. They must always lead the way, be “strong” and certain, and know what to do. So no, absolutely not, they can’t possibly stop to ask for directions! That’d violate all three of their mandates! It’d make them look stupid and potentially wrong!

Worst of all, that show of weakness lowers their prestige and perceived strength in the eyes of everyone seeing it!

No Plan Survives An Encounter With the Enemy.

So it goes with marriage. Complementarian men grow up seeing married couples interact all around them, and they learn how to conduct relationships from men in their families or churches. When they begin to date, they do so with a mental list of rules governing those relationships.

They don’t realize–or allow themselves to realizethat these rules don’t work. Most of the rules complementarian men learn don’t actually contain anything specific enough to put into meaningful action. The rest of the rules backfire spectacularly when deployed around another living human being.

But complementarian men would rather cling to those inadequate rules than lose one iota of their personal power.

For example, when Gary Smalley put his foot down to go coach a basketball game on his first married Valentine’s Day (p. 79), he clearly fully expected his wife to roll over, submit to his command, and cheerfully attend his game instead of enjoying a romantic night at home and savoring the fine dinner she’d cooked. Instead, she got furious with him, expressing it in the only way her culture allowed her: passive aggression.

In turn, he had to run around in damage-control mode, spending money they probably didn’t have on flowers and effusive cards to mollify her wrath. Eventually, she softened. For a little while.

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Why Complementarian Marriages Suck, In One Fight.

In his book, Smalley tells us that he realized immediately that his wife was angry with him over pulling rank like that. But he didn’t change his mind or cancel the coaching gig. Instead, he tells us,

I figured she had to learn to be submissive sometime, and we might as well start now.

He makes her sound like a dog, doesn’t he? There’s a reason for that. He’s completely pared away her feelings and needs from his considerations–just as if she were a possession providing a service to him.

To a great extent, our interactions with human service providers are transactional and shallow in nature. Even if those workers despise us and feel horribly unhappy with their jobs, they still must perform their duties and provide us the goods and services we purchase. But we care even less about how our shoes feel about being on our feet, for example.

That’s complementarianism in a nutshell. Each person does their part and sticks to their own lane. Theoretically, it should result in marital harmony and love. In reality, it results in disaster way more often because it reduces the powerless partner to a decidedly subhuman level. There’s no way subjugated people can live like that forever.

And Gary Smalley knows it, if this quote from him is any indication: “The most difficult years of marriage are those following the wedding.”



The reason for that difficulty is the way complementarian men objectify women.

Norma is not a person to Smalley. Not really. She’s a maddening, confusing space alien whose motives and feelings must be dimly guessed-at but can never be known for sure. Smalley thinks his god created her specifically to serve him, hand-picking her out of all the world’s women to become his “helpmeet” (as so many complementarians misuse that tooth-grating term). In his worldview, she’s a sort of ambulatory sex doll and housemaid, and he treats her as such. Nobody feels guilty about canceling a date with a blow-up doll, after all.

That’s why women in these marriages all have the same complaints. They feel taken-advantage-of. They bristle at the injustices and stream of slights that pour out of their husbands. But there’s nowhere for their frustration to go. Their culture grants them no legal way to express that anger. So it simmers always on the back burner. As long as World War III hasn’t erupted, their husbands figure everything’s fine.

These women take this dehumanizing and belittling behavior until they just can’t anymore, and then everything blows up. If they’ve become exhausted, then World War III does in fact erupt.

At that time, and at no time before, their husbands finally pick up a Gary Smalley book to do some damage control.

Power and Respect.

See, complementarianism is about power. Ultra-authoritarian Christian men created this doctrine decades ago out of fears of losing their entrenched male power to feminism. Specifically, they feared the idea of women gaining power in their various groups and denominations, as was happening at the time in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

In authoritarian systems, the more power someone has, the more deference and obedience they are owed by others. (They think of this combination as respect.) The entire goal of people in these systems is to claw and jockey their way up the ladder, so that they maximize the pool of people owing them deference and obedience–while minimizing the number of people they in turn must grant their own deference and obedience.

So complementarian marriage is about enshrining power unilaterally in male hands, while in turn stripping women entirely of power. No matter how low on the ladder a man sits in that culture, he is completely assured of kinglike deference and obedience within his home.

However, the people in power in authoritarian systems must scorch away their compassion to flex that power. It hurts to endure power poorly deployed. People stuck like that bristle at it and resent the power-mad despots ordering them around. It’s unfair and they know it.

The men in these systems ache for power–for the obedience and deference that goes with it, specifically. Flexing that power feels good to them; it soothes them and makes them feel safer. They have no emotional room to think about how their wives feel about that treatment.

If Only He Knew (How to Show Basic Compassion).

Way back on page 25, Smalley tells us what he sees as the secret to a happy, harmonious marriage: “hard work and persistence!” But hard work doing what, exactly? Persistence at what, pray tell?

  • “Take her viewpoint into account” (p. 37).
  • “One hundred ways” to become a better housemate, including “develop a sense of humor,” “value what she says,” and occasional tips to “help” with various household and childcare tasks (p. 41-45).
  • Make sure she knows she’s almost as important to you as your magical invisible friend. (Chapter 3, inclusive.)
  • Think hard about “the ways you may have hurt your wife” (p. 85). He thoughtfully includes a list of 122 different ways that complementarian men offend women. All 122 of them are horrifying.
  • “Express genuine sorrow when you offend your wife” (p. 96).
  • Compliment and praise her often and recognize her accomplishments. (p. 114)
  • Ask her for advice about improving as a husband (p. 121). Smalley rushes to reassure men that accepting that advice doesn’t mean they “give up being the leader” (p. 124).
  • Don’t egregiously seize more leisure time at her expense (p. 132). Again, Smalley makes sure to stress that the wife won’t “take advantage” of that kindness.

He makes these suggestions sound like princely gestures of magnanimous kindness. The husband making those gestures must also ensure he’s not committing any of those 122 offenses, such as (quoted verbatim):

1. Ignoring her
57. Being impolite at mealtime
69. Demanding she have sex even when you are not in harmony
79. Forcing her to handle collectors and overdue bills
92. Being dishonest
97. Taking her for granted
115. Humiliating her with words and actions, saying things like “I can’t stand living in a pigpen”

Gosh y’all this all just sounds SOOOO HARRRRD. (/s)

The Problem With These Suggestions.

Ultimately, Smalley’s list consists of stuff all people should be doing anyway. It’s all “don’t put beans up your nose” advice, to borrow Mr. Captain’s phrasing.

Here’s the huge problem with Smalley’s suggestions, though:

They all require a measure of compassion and empathy from complementarian men. They must be able to put themselves in their wives’ shoes, understand how it feels to function in such a lopsided, unfair system, and be motivated enough to change how they treat the women they say they love.

And simply put: if these men possessed any of those abilities, their marriages wouldn’t be at a crisis point in the first place.

They’re complementarian precisely because the system allows them to behave so boorishly and selfishly toward their wives. Their leaders handed them a measure of power they absolutely did not deserve to wield, and then told them sotto voce that nobody’d be penalizing them for abusing it, nor ever take it away from them.

If their wives aren’t about to walk right out the door, you can be absolutely certain that none of them will be consulting Gary Smalley. The moment that risk subsides, it’s business as usual again–which Norma Smalley alludes to repeatedly in the book when she constantly expresses doubt that her husband is really sincere about changing this time. Every time he promises to change, she openly doubts him. And apparently she’s right not to believe him! But he presents these occasions unironically as wins.

Temporary Is Fine.

And that’s the big secret of If Only He Knew.

Gary Smalley has shown us his terrible marriage and his mistreatment of his wife all through his writing. At first I thought he did it to reveal how relatable he was to men facing marital woes. Now, though, I have a whole other opinion.

I think he was painstakingly showing his readers that he wasn’t suggesting they make any massive changes or lifelong alterations to their attitudes and behavior. Instead, he’s showing them how to make temporary patch jobs to the marriage–to do just enough to keep the wife dancing on the line and hoping that this time the “honeymoon phase” will last for good. She might need a year or two to figure out that no real changes are forthcoming. And that’s a year or two of her husband not having to change for realsies, much less to find a replacement sex-doll and housemaid.

Gary Smalley’s suggestions, therefore, only seek to placate a wife’s rage long enough for her to call off the divorce and/or move back home. In fact, all of the men referenced in this book stand at about that point in their fracturing marriages. And this huckster claims that his advice helps all of the men who listen to it, with one exception: those whose wives have fallen in love with another man already.

That’s why, by the end of the book, Smalley can’t resist including one last example of a recent time he’d offended his wife by making a unilateral decision regarding her life without consulting her (p. 187). It’s like he’s screaming:

SEE? SEE? You can be a total jerkwad and still maintain a marriage for decades!

And I’m betting that his readers hear him loud and clear.

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If cakes could speak this one would be saying “please kill me now”

NEXT UP: A quick review of the top reasons Christians give for belief–and why they’re simply not compelling. When we return to Gary Smalley, we look at the why being number 2 is less than enthralling to life-partners–and then, why complementarian marriages swoop through crisis after crisis. See you soon, friends!

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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,...