Enriching marriages

Greg and Erin Smalley still argue on occasion, but one fight in their second year of marriage stands as their low point.

After arguing in the car, Greg pulled into the parking lot of a workout facility to argue some more. Erin was about nine months pregnant with their first child. She threatened to walk home. A woman who mistook the couple for dropping their gym membership card approached the car.

“That was a fun one. Seeing the look on that woman’s face told me, ‘We need help,’ ” Greg Smalley, Psy.D., said in a phone interview this week from Arkansas, where he works for the Center for Relationship Enrichment on the campus of John Brown University. An author and speaker, Smalley’s main focus is marriage enrichment.

In a few weeks, he will be in Columbus for the one-year anniversary celebration and fundraiser for Right from the Start, a marriage initiative that teaches the importance of healthy marriages. Right From the Start works with congregations, clergy and couples to give marriages tools to succeed. It’s affiliated with the Georgia Family Council and directed locally by Fran Magoni.

If Smalley’s name is familiar, his father is Gary Smalley, author of numerous articles and 28 books. Gary Smalley, also a counselor and writer, works in Branson, Mo., where he runs the Smalley Relationship Center. Another son, Steve, works with him.

Gary Smalley is one of the country’s best-known authors and speakers on family relationships.

Greg Smalley picked up on his dad’s career naturally enough.

“I grew up going to his events and people would come up to me and give me big hugs. They would say, ‘He saved my marriage.’ I’m going, ‘He’s already lecturing me at home; why are you paying money to hear him?’ ” Smalley joked.

Greg Smalley had plans for law school but “in the 11th hour,” he said he got interested in the clinical side of interpersonal relationships. After attaining a doctorate in clinical psychology from Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University in California, he conducted “marriage intensives” for couples in crisis. He compared it to visiting the ER.

“We had five couples in a group for four days.”

A primary message: If couples close their hearts to one another, if there’s little to no trust, there’s not much to be done to save the relationship.

“It doesn’t matter how clever or insightful you are (as a therapist), all bets are off. Every day our hearts open and close, with all our busyness. Part of it comes from the culture we live in. The Chinese have two words for busyness: One is heart and the other is death.

“I really see that our hearts are under assault in the world we live in.”

But, couples have choices.

Smalley sees four practical signs of couples with open hearts: How they greet each other in the morning; how they say goodbye when they leave the house; how they say hello in the evening; and how they say good night. Everyone has bad days and moments, of course, but Smalley said the sign of an open heart is one that greets his or her mate with affection.

“Good marriages don’t just happen,” said Smalley, who’s been married 16 years and has four children. “It’s idiotic — we take in our car regularly, but we don’t apply the same maintenance to our marriage.

“We’re all so busy. It’s a fantasy that marriages and family life just happen. And heaven forbid we go talk to someone if things aren’t working,” he said.

After that major blowup with his wife about 15 years ago, the couple who came to counsel others got back on solid footing.

“We know enough now about what makes a good marriage,” he said. “We take time to invest in our relationship.”

This past Tuesday, for instance, was the couple’s date night. They went to dinner and a play. He’s practicing what he preaches: His organization encourages a monthly date night for couples — no distractions.

“It’s just about having fun and enjoying each other,” he said.

Related stories from Columbus Ledger-Enquirer