Gary Smalley, who writes and speaks on marriage and family relationships, has authored or coauthored 14 books and produced several films and videotapes. Combined, his books have sold nearly four million copies and won numerous awards. In more than 30 years of studying, teaching and counseling, Dr. Smalley has interviewed and surveyed thousands of people to learn how best to strengthen relationships.
His latest book is Making Love Last Forever, in which he discusses ways husbands and wives can strengthen their marriage partnerships. Dr. Smalley and Norma, his wife of 32 years, live in Branson, Missouri.
The Good News: To better familiarize our readers with you and your work, let’s begin by asking how your television program, Hidden Keys to Loving Relationships, began.
Gary Smalley: It began in 1988. Our first guest was Dick Clark. Now we have people like Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford, John Tesh and Connie Sellica. Because of these guests, every Air Force base in the world has a set of our videos on marriage, as do most of our naval fleet and other military branches.
One aircraft carrier did a study on our marriage videos. On a return trip from a six-month tour, they required all 5,000 men aboard ship to watch all 18 videos. Normally they would hear of 60 divorces following a tour, but in that one study, they had only 11 divorces. The military is testing this approach in different parts of the services now.
GN: How did you get interested in family and marital relationships?
GS: My parents argued a lot. My father was an angry man. I thought all families were like this, that all were having difficulties in their relationships. Some of them ended in divorce, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. That’s when I decided to learn about what it takes to have a lasting marriage.
Later, after I got married, the first five years of my marriage were spent arguing. We were losing the love we had for one another. That’s when I began interviewing women and counselors and reading books on the subject. Over time I found that women had a built-in marriage manual: They seem able to explain what makes up a good relationship and how to arrive at that kind of relationship.
I began to pick up on this little by little. Early on I taught a college-aged marriage-preparation class. I had 500 students. I shared 10 things I had learned about helping a man get ready to get married and 10 things to help a woman prepare for marriage. I alternated those points and gave them material every week.
I repeated this procedure for three years, and the same people kept hearing the same points over and over again. But they never seemed to tire of them, so I put those lectures into a little booklet. That really started it all.
That booklet and those lectures were the basis of my first two books. I kept doing research, asking couples what they needed, what worked and what didn’t work. About three years ago I discovered Dr. Howard Markman and Dr. Scott Stanley of Denver University. I found them to be professional and scientific in their approach to marriage and the family. They probably know more about divorce prevention than anyone else in the world. In fact, they can now predict with 90 percent accuracy whether a couple is going to divorce. This they base on a 32-question instrument which reveals whether an engaged couple will make it or not. They have figured out four reasons why couples divorce. These four reasons are the main reasons for the anger inside of us.
The basis of their findings became the heart of Making Love Last Forever. Their scientific evidence reinforced some of the things I had already learned. Today I can speak with tremendous confidence about what hurts a marriage and what keeps it alive. The greatest killer of marriage and love is anger stored away in the heart.
GN: Let’s discuss unresolved anger. What constitutes unresolved anger? Does it evolve from minor unresolved disagreements or a couple of major ones or from both?
GS: All of the above. If they are minor ones left unresolved, they can build up like an ugly growth inside of us. It’s like a cancer. They begin feeling deeply hurt, then fear. Then frustration sets in.
If a person is continually frustrated, hurt and feeling unsafe, it’s like developing cancer. They actually talk themselves into it; they choose anger. It is a choice. We all have a lot of choices to make, but people have a tendency to choose anger as their first reaction.
GN: Why do you think this is our first choice? Could you shed a little more light on this aspect of a relationship?
GS: It’s just human nature; it’s a primary, natural tendency we all have. It takes about five to seven years for this anger to grow in the average couple’s hearts, then it kills the love they once had. Love cannot coexist with anger. And, remember, anger is a continual buildup of little embers of frustration, hurt and fear. If we don’t resolve them they simply kill the love that was there.
Anger is like arterial plaque. It can do a lot of damage to the heart, and the love can fail. Then comes divorce.
Resentment is bad, but raging bitterness is much worse. You should realize that the anger doesn’t just have to be against the wife; it can be resentment toward the boss or something else, and that resentment can eventually kill a husband’s love for his wife or a wife’s for her husband.
So I charge around the country saying: “Anger is coming! Anger is coming!” If we don’t clear it up, we will suffer the consequences. We have all this racial anger, anger in the workplace, anger in many other areas of our lives. I’m just trying to expose it and trying to encourage people to admit it and get it resolved. We are, after all, responsible for our own anger. We can’t continue to blame others for our own anger. We have to learn how to forgive.
GN: More and more, mates are coming to see that a husband and wife think differently. Would you give our readers what you consider to be the most important things each one needs in his or her relationship?
GS: I have noticed four things that every man and woman needs in a marriage.
First, women need to feel secure and know that they are highly treasured. Things like saying “I love you,” giving her cards and flowers from time to time, reinforce this. The husband might unexpectedly say something like: “I was just thinking of you, because I’m committed to you for life, and no matter what we go through, good or bad, for better or for worse, I’m committed to you. I love you, I highly treasure you and am laying my life down for you.”
If you say these words to her, that’s like giving sunlight to a plant. She will blossom. She needs this from her husband.
Second, a wife needs meaningful communication. Meaningful communication is primarily just listening to her feelings and needs and valuing those feelings and needs which will help her build the faith she needs to express herself in the future. The husband should not just try to fix what he sees as her problem; he must simply try to understand her needs and treasure those needs as unique to her. The husband should value her special feelings and needs. Just take the time to really listen to her; it’s like water to a plant.
Third, a husband and wife should do things together. Go to the beach, take vacations, enjoy fun nights out, or take a pleasant drive on a Sunday afternoon. Do things together that are fun to both of you. Fun things bond us emotionally. Laughing together is important. If this one point were followed faithfully, it could revitalize a couple’s marriage overnight. But do not mix your fun times with arguments. Under no circumstances do my wife and I ever argue during fun times
The fourth thing a wife needs is regular touching, hugging, hand-holding. We are not talking about sexual contact-just touching, like I just mentioned. You can even touch with your eyes. This is also a meaningful way to communicate your love. Sex is a reflection of the fruit of security which comes from the loving, affectionate, caring touch and from these four things being practiced in marriage
Men’s needs are different. Men have a deep need to feel safe in their relationships. Men hate turmoil in their marriages, even though they sometimes provoke arguments. That’s really the reason men withdraw from an argument, because they have this need to feel safe.
Another need for men is that they need rules to live by, so they often create rules in marriage. When a woman gets into an argument with a man, if no rules are present the man will tend to either close down or heat up, either become mean or withdraw. When a wife doesn’t realize that, she can get her husband all worked up in an argument and do a lot of damage to their marriage.
So men need rules and need to feel safe, and a woman has to say to herself: What do I need to do to help him feel safe?
I have found that one of the best things for both mates to do is to develop some very simple rules to follow if they find themselves in an argument. Most couples really don’t know how to argue an issue.
Women are usually more aware of things in a relationship than men are. They think we are as aware as they are of their needs, which is why it hurts their feelings so much when they find we are not. They begin to assume all kinds of things that aren’t true or accurate. At the same time it’s very important for men to feel safe in a relationship. We also want to be understood and not have our wives believe things about us that aren’t true. We want our wives to be supportive of us, to listen to us and to treasure us. GN