Hello and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been discussing the terrible Christian marriage-advice book If Only He Knew. Written by Gary Smalley, the book seeks to walk men through repairs to their failing marriages. But his fans only want advice that will allow them to keep the ideology destroying their relationships. They especially seek to protect the central pillar of complementarianism: women as less-than-human. Indeed, complementarianism only works if women aren’t really people. Here’s why.
Men Are From Earth, and So Are Women.
Just as I began my escape into deconversion in the early 1990s, a book came out that my tribe fell madly in love with. It was called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. It and its many successors were written by John Gray, who isn’t a right-wing Christian but is as poorly-qualified to make such assertions as anybody in right-wing Christianity ever is. The book became a near-instant bestseller.
John Gray began by assuming that men and women often face trouble in communicating with each other because they are metaphorically from other planets. Thus, his books sought to teach each sex what they didn’t know about the other. In his opinion, men needed to learn all that soft touchy-feely stuff that drove women, and women needed to know that men were basically cave-dwellers who’d eat raw meat off the bone if women didn’t vastly disapprove of the notion.
My then-husband Biff and I both read the book. However, we came away from it with two totally different opinions of its claims and advice.
You can probably guess where we both fell on the approval rainbow.
Biff immediately became John Gray’s #1 fan. Meanwhile, I came out of it really profoundly shocked and disheartened. Was this really what men thought of us women? Was this really what I was expected to put up with in order to have a relationship with one?
Yes and yes, in a nutshell.
The Rise of Complementarianism.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know the word itself yet, when I was Christian.
But complementarianism had already swept through my end of Christianity and devoured all in its path. My church certainly held the beliefs involved, even if we didn’t call it that yet.
Originally a wingnut doctrine out of the very wingnuttiest part of extremist Christianity, complementarianism soared quickly in popularity. Very quickly, it became one of the marker beliefs of evangelicalism itself. It became a major part of the so-called Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). And it was part of the original swivel-eyed weirdness of Bill Gothard’s weird sex cult.
In fact, almost every single extremist Christian group leader out there employs some version of this doctrine. I’d go so far as to say that this doctrine is a huge waving red flag. Groups employing it always turn out to be a hotbed of scandals, hypocrisy, and gut-churning abuses. I’ve never once seen a group that believed in this doctrine that didn’t eventually get revealed to be abusive and hypocritical.
And these leaders absolutely need complementarianism to make their visions happen.
Without it, the people they want to dominate would never put up with their nonsense otherwise.
Jesus-Flavored Male Supremacy.
First, a quick review.
Complementarianism holds that the Christian god deliberately built men and women to be different from the ground up. Men and women each have frailties and strengths that are inherent to their sex. However, these frailties and strengths complement those of the other sex. Where men are weak, women are strong. Conversely, where women are weak, men are strong.
Thus, complementarians believe that men and women do very well together in mixed-gender relationships if and only if they don’t try to be something they aren’t, and if and only if they uphold the strengths in their mates and cover for their weaknesses. They hope desperately that their mates will do the same for them in turn.
Complementarians sometimes conceptualize men and women as half-spheres. Alone or in same-sex relationships, they’re lopsided and have trouble functioning. But together, they form a perfect sphere that provides full coverage for all of life’s needs and difficulties.
By the same token, these Christians also believe that when people refuse to embrace their proper spheres, nothing but chaos, misery, and madness can possibly result. Thus, a feminist mixed-sex couple–or dawg forbid a same-sex couple of any ideology–cannot possibly achieve the happiness of a complementarian mixed-sex couple that are doing things correctly. (We’re tackling that last phrase in an upcoming post.)
How Complementarianism Gets Sold to Christians.
This doctrine contains so much evil and so much obvious self-serving misogyny that many people outside that culture marvel at how so many Christians could possibly get caught up in it–especially women. To some extent, outsiders might understand how someone raised in that culture might believe in complementarianism’s lies simply because it’s all they know. But how on earth do outsiders convert to this mess?
Speaking as a onetime convert who married another convert, perhaps I can explain.
It’s a crazy, uncertain world. To someone already leaning toward authoritarianism, it looks even scarier and more uncertain than it already is. Most people already know (or think they know) the dismal prospects for marriage nowadays. And most people know a great many married couples who struggle constantly to stay together. Relationships look like storms of drama and trouble.
Then someone strides into the middle of all that frightening chaos and cries out, Follow me, everyone! I have diagrams!
It’s more than seductive. It’s cruelly manipulative.
And hucksters keep doing it–because, well, it works.
The Clarion Call of Power.
A certain number of people desperately need structure, rules, certainty, and approval. Even authoritarian-leaning women, who decidedly get the short end of the stick in complementarianism, get swept up by its promises.
But authoritarian men, already feeling aggrieved and petulant at having to give up some of their privilege in the modern world, fall like dominoes before it.
Complementarianism tells these men that they just need to make mouth-noises about everyone being equal in the eyes of their god. In return for their obedience to their group’s leaders, they’ll still receive vast amounts of personal power over the women in their lives. They can marry without fear of losing their privilege, because they’ll be the veto and dealbreaker vote, always. They’ll never stand at risk of being controlled by those they view as inferior to themselves. And they will never need to fret about potential emasculation, or about being forced to change.
Instead, they’ll enjoy their partners’ obedience and a life of relative luxury. Hopefully.
For a man who treasures his position as lord-of-all-he-surveys, a complementarian marriage must sound like a really great deal. Such a man regards with great pity those they view as enduring more egalitarian unions.
But what of the women involved in this vision of marriage as a glorious phallus-worship mini-cult?
A Life Half Lived.
This is where complementarianism really gets nasty. Complementarian men would never, ever accept the life they think makes women truly happy.
They know that they would absolutely hate being overridden in every single dispute.
They know that they would hate being infantilized and held responsible for the reactions of others around themselves. They’d know that’s unfair! But they’re only too happy to do that to women.
They know that they would hate to be relegated to becoming the cheering section of another person, forced to clap and wave and heap adoration upon their partners for every little boom-boom they leave in their potty. But that’s the life they want for their wives.
Worst of all:
They know that they would never be happy enduring a life where their leisure time meant far less than that of their partners. They would despise having to pick up after another person forever. They’d hate being stuck with way more labor–physical, emotional–than their partner must do. They’d vastly resent having so many more hours of work to perform.
And they know they’d resent that work even more if it were mindless, repetitive drudgery that was noticed more in its absence than its presence.
And yet they don’t have any trouble forcing this life upon the women they’ve sworn to love, cherish, honor, and respect. In fact, they believe that the more a woman rejects this ideal, the unhappier she makes herself.
Womenfolk! Womenfolk! Barely Even Human!
Literally the only way complementarian men can visualize that kind of life as one that makes women contented is if they also think that women are not at all people like themselves.
Think about it. Most dog owners feed their dogs roughly the same food every day in bowls on the floor (or slightly raised). The food these dogs eat is usually stuff that humans would never, ever eat–it’s not even up to human standards most of the time. Yet most dog owners love their dogs enormously. They want only the best for them.
Dog owners feed their dogs that kind of food because dogs aren’t people. What keeps them happy and healthy is really different from what works for people.
Now think about the kind of life complementarian men want for their wives. It’s not a life they’d ever want for themselves. They know it’d make them downright miserable. Sometimes, they’ve even faced some of that distress in their own lives–and they know they hate it. But they think their god carved women specifically to not only do all that stuff for men, but to find contentment and joy in doing all of it.
They must feel downright mystified at how women could ever find joy in that life. But they must also be hugely relieved that they will never, ever need to know the answers to that mystery. Women, to them, are simply so alien and so Other that there’s no point even in wondering.
Men in complementarianism do everything they can to avoid learning how women can possibly exist in such a constricting role. In fact, Gary Smalley teaches men that it is “nearly impossible” for them to understand women without his help:
The differences (emotional, mental, and physical) can be so extreme that without a concentrated effort to understand them, it is nearly impossible to have a happy marriage. Freud once said, “After thirty years of studying women, I ask myself, ‘What is it that they really want?'” If this was his conclusion, just imagine how little we know about our wives. (p. 18)
But remember, husbands usually live with their wives. They see these women every single day, often on very intimate terms. If they really want to know something, they can ask.
Maybe the problem they’re having is that they really don’t want to know, because if they really engaged with the truth it’d mean they either need to change their ways or else live with the knowledge that they are monsters perpetuating evil upon half the human race just to gain power over them and some extra leisure time.
We see the same willful ignorance on display when Christians in that same tribe go on and on at length about atheism–with assertions that atheists themselves won’t identify with at all. It’s not like it’s hard to find the people they’re bearing false witness about. But for some reason, they’d rather keep repeating lies among themselves.
Complementarian men look to their leaders to provide them endless pseudoscience to justify the injustices they seek to visit upon women.
And their leaders never disappoint them. They provide hand-waving that gives a veneer of validity to any of the ideologies in question. Their pseudoscience is completely cargo-cult in its infantile crudity and obvious pandering. That said, it accomplishes its task. It keeps all those rumblings of injustice at bay in a group that doesn’t want to engage with anything critical.
Most complementarian pseudoscience runs along very similar lines.
- Tons of fake biology to prop up the untrue notion that men and women have vastly different physiologies.
- More pseudoscience to prop up the idea that biological differences explain why stereotypical women differ from toxic masculinity’s ideals for men.
- Yet more pseudoscience to explain why misogynistic husbands want nookie so much more often than their wives do.
- Conclusions that completely affirm misogynists’ vision for male-female relationships.
- Calls for husbands to try harder to be nice to their poor widdle wives and their poor widdle pink ladybrainz; after all, women can’t help being irrational, hyper-emotional fluff-bots, the poor things.
That’s exactly what we find in If Only He Knew. John Gray’s books represented only the crest of the wave of dehumanizing and objectifying women. Gary Smalley only extends the ideas a bit.
Nature vs. Nurture.
Watch out when you hear misogynists assert that gender differences exist because of biology. Chances are very good they’re confusing social conditioning with biological wiring. In fact, a lot of what they come up with only applies to the social conditioning of their own tribe and more than a little willful misunderstanding of data.
And that pseudoscience hurts both men and women. It limits them to sharply-defined roles and prevents them from truly loving and accepting each other. Worse, though, it introduces a dynamic of enforced injustice upon the couple. That enforced injustice leads all too often to contempt. And contempt leads all too often to abuses of various kinds. At the least, it leads to competition in the worst ways (a topic that is also on our dance card).
We’ll talk soon about why complementarianism leads this way so often, but for now I’ll just say that it’s all but impossible for a husband locked in that belief system to avoid taking his wife for granted, and thus to start taking more and more liberties at her expense. Disrespect in both directions becomes the norm.
I personally knew more than a few women who talked privately about their husbands as if those men were ill-behaved, churlish children. And for their part, the men tended to treat their wives like they were really their mommies. Parties and social gatherings often got very uncomfortable for me, as they traded passive-aggressive, disrespectful jabs at each other.
But I can’t say I was innocent of the same. I was locked in the same paradigm they were.
A Flash of Irony.
The sheer lack of self-awareness in this book astounded me constantly. Here’s just one example of it.
On page 17 of the book, we discover Gary Smalley lecturing a young college student. She’s just told him that she wants to find a husband who can “tell jokes, sing and dance, and stay home at night.”
Smalley reprimands her: “You don’t want a husband. . . You want a television.”
About six paragraphs later, he features a quote from a divorced woman who tells him, “What [my now-ex] doesn’t realize is that most women are as responsive as puppies.”
Wow, how insightful!
Gary Smalley gets tetchy if young women say they want husbands who will do stuff with them. But he allows men to reduce women to the status of housepets.
In fact, if husbands could only treat their wives like they’d treat puppies, Gary Smalley teaches, showering their pupper-wives with “tenderness, gentleness, and understanding,” they’d never lose their marriages!
Management vs. Understanding.
Of course, Gary Smalley isn’t really offering his readers a full understanding of women. Gosh, even Sigmund Freud couldn’t figure that out, so what’s a lil pastor like gonna offer, eh? Hyuck-hyuck! As we’ll see in a future post, he really has no idea what he’s doing–and he’s pretty up-front about his own ignorance.
What he offers instead is a method of managing women.
He teaches his readers to view women in a particular way, and then tells them how to put on a show that will soothe that cardboard cutout’s ruffled feelings. Hopefully, the song-and-dance will mollify women enough that they won’t take advantage of them dang evil ol’ demonic ol’ NO-FAULT dee-VORCE laws!
Because that’s what this book is really about: avoiding the inevitable divorces sprouting from this pernicious belief system.
The Evil Specter of Divorce.
The specter of no-fault divorce looms over this book and the anecdotes in it like the specter of polio once hung over American neighborhoods in those dreadful days before the vaccine’s creation.
“The Polio Story: The Vaccine That Changed the World.”
In days past, complementarian men didn’t need even this ersatz “understanding” to maintain their marriages; it was so prohibitively difficult for women to access divorce that they usually felt compelled to remain in deeply-dysfunctional relationships.
But those days are thankfully long gone, and now even the most deeply complementarian men must at least pretend to mollify women. Thus, they turn to this self-proclaimed Feeeemale Whisperer, Gary Smalley, to teach them how to pay lip service to kindness while continuing to treat their wives as less-than-human fluff-bots who are there to tend them, cook for them, and provide sex upon demand.
They know he won’t tell them to abandon complementarianism itself, only to slightly modify how they’re doing it. He promises them that his approach will work. And because his promises fit into what they want to do, they believe this huckster. They believe him even though in his very book he shows them exactly how incompetent he is.
The end result: a human Labrador Retriever.
NEXT UP: A quiz that confuzzled my husband–and that reveals quite a lot about how complementarian men see marriage.
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