Gary Smalley: Keys to Marital Success
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I got a chance to chat by phone with this author of 19 books, including the Angel Award winning "The Language of Love," and I discovered that the founder and chairman of the board for the Smalley Relationship Center was just as approachable over the phone as he would be if he were standing in my own living room.
Having seen the divorce rate skyrocket, I was curious what this seasoned expert with 30-plus years of marital counseling experience had to say on the topic of spousal conflict and resolution. I was especially intrigued when I learned that separated couples who come to the counseling team at the Smalley Relationship Center can expect a 90 percent success rate of staying together.
So, what's the secret?
First, couples must recognize what they are doing to perpetuate conflict in their marriage. Both husband and wife have core fears, or what Gary calls "fear buttons" or "anger buttons," that both parties are completely unaware of. The counseling team at the Smalley Relationship Center has isolated twenty typical fear buttons. Some of these include feeling inadequate, belittled, controlled, abandoned, rejected, and disconnected, and the fear of failure.
Left unchecked, couples can get stuck in an unpleasant cycle Gary calls "the fear dance." "When a wife has a core fear and the husband doesn't know what it is, the husband is going to say or do something to tap into it," he explains. "Then her reactions almost always push his button. His further reaction re-pushes her."
Gary has witnessed the cycle in his own life with wife Norma, who he has been married to for 38 years. The typical battleground for Gary and Norma: the car.
"For years we would get into the car and she would always have a cute comment about my driving -- driving too fast, driving too close to the edge," Gary explains. "I would interpret that as she was controlling me and belittling me because I thought I was a pretty good driver.I was communicating to her that she was a failure as a woman, as a wife: 'You are not a strong person because you can't handle driving in certain conditions.I went off on my wife for years. She never had any idea what she was doing, and I didn't have any idea that she was poking [my fear button]."
Lest one might think these fear buttons are limited to husband/wife conflicts, be forewarned that they appear in conflicts among friends as well.
Gary told me about the time his friendships with two pastors suffered because he always ended up arguing with them. Once he realized that they had unknowingly tapped into his own fear buttons of control and belittlement, Gary was able to get his relationships back on track. "Now if they say or do anything that taps into my core, I don't respond the way I used to," he says. "I take it to the Lord and say, 'God, this is between you and me.' I still want to keep loving this person, so I don't take it personally. The moment you start understanding it, you start getting victory."
Another key to staying happily married is attending weekly small groups made up of four couples who pray together and keep each other accountable. Gary has been an active participant in small groups for 25 years and is currently in three small groups and can't say enough about the benefits of assembling with other caring Christian couples.
"If they are willing to get into a small group, we don't know of anything better. If they can get into a small group, I can give them a 95 percent guarantee that their life is going to change in a positive direction," Gary states with conviction.
The reason why small groups work, says Gary, is that individuals get energy and support from them. Struggling couples realize they are not the only ones dealing with difficulties and are able to give and receive pray. And, more importantly, each individual knows that they are going to be held accountable for any actions.
The idea is biblical. Scripture tells us in, "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed."
"I never lost a couple to divorce in one church when I was in Texas if they got into a small group and were loved by other couples," Gary told me.
That's some track record and good news for those struggling to make it. Through his books, video series, conferences, and counseling sessions, Gary has helped countless couples find hope and rekindle their marriages.
What does Gary have to say about that kind of legacy?
"This is my favorite thing to hear: We were right on the verge of divorce and not only have we stayed together and we are glad that we did, but our kids are thrilled."
For those of you who, like me, want to know more about understanding and resolving the fear dance, pick up a copy of The DNA of Relationships.
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