June 29, 2006

"What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage."

That's the title of a "Modern Love" essay by Amy Sutherland that has sat at the top of the NYT "Most E-Mailed" list all week. I skipped over it on Sunday -- just not in the mood for "Modern Love" -- but its staying power on the "Most E-Mailed" list is truly impressive, so I'm at long last compelled. Let's begin:
As I wash dishes at the kitchen sink, my husband paces behind me, irritated. "Have you seen my keys?" he snarls, then huffs out a loud sigh and stomps from the room with our dog, Dixie, at his heels, anxious over her favorite human's upset.

In the past I would have been right behind Dixie. I would have turned off the faucet and joined the hunt while trying to soothe my husband with bromides like, "Don't worry, they'll turn up." But that only made him angrier, and a simple case of missing keys soon would become a full-blown angst-ridden drama starring the two of us and our poor nervous dog.

Now, I focus on the wet dish in my hands. I don't turn around. I don't say a word. I'm using a technique I learned from a dolphin trainer....

The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don't. After all, you don't get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband.
Read the whole thing. It's not obnoxious, as you might jump to think. The author was writing a book about animal training and got the idea to use the techniques on her husband. At some point, she tells him what she's been doing and he's amused. Later, he uses it on her and she notices and is amused.

Why is this article so emailed? It's funny and well-written, full of detail about animal training and human behavior, including a precise description of a husband who's a distinct individual but who also seems a lot like someone we know or are. And it's got a specific idea that you either feel you can use or want to launch into criticizing.

Thinking back on why I rejected this article reflexively last Sunday, I can see that it made me think of a 50s housewife, the kind who would inspire what was once a trite wisecrack: "She's got him well trained." But I liked the piece a lot and am grateful for the "Most E-Mailed" list, which is a good backup to my ordinary instincts on what to read and what not to read as I flip through the New York Times each morning. (And, yes, I expect comments telling me I shouldn't read the NYT at all. I got email yesterday providing me with a list of NYT "media Business Units" and telling me that "[a]ll of these should be in the cross hairs of any boycott.")

I do wonder about the good of the techniques described in the essay. One is "least reinforcing syndrome (L. R. S.)":
When a dolphin does something wrong, the trainer doesn't respond in any way. He stands still for a few beats, careful not to look at the dolphin, and then returns to work. The idea is that any response, positive or negative, fuels a behavior. If a behavior provokes no response, it typically dies away.
My mother did something like this -- not that she picked it up from dolphin trainers. I think it allowed us to think that some bad things we did passed unnoticed and caused no pain. Much later, I realized how deluded it was to think she lacked normal perceptions and feelings. Of course she saw and of course we hurt her.

But I take it the animal trainer uses multiple techniques and remains ever focused on the goal of producing the desired behavior. If ignoring wrong behavior did not eradicate it, the animal trainer would try something else.

Is it wrong to treat a person as an animal to be trained? Perhaps a better question is whether it is wrong to blunder along doing things that encourage your loved ones in their bad behavior. The image of the "full-blown angst-ridden drama starring the two of us and our poor nervous dog" really struck me. It may take more wit and nerve than you have to turn down that role if you've got a fired-up, scenery-chewing emoter in your house insisting that you co-star.


bearing said...

You know, I really liked the way you used the acting analogy in the last sentence.

KCFleming said...

Wonderful article. E-mailed it immediately ...to my wife. (And I second the compliment on the last sentence. Dead on true.)

I expect she'll expand her techniques of subliminal training, much as some of these methods she's learned on her own. I often tell people that I may not be that smart, but I am trainable.

Still, I though my Dad's method for training teenagers was pretty effective:
"Get down here. NOW."
And I would!

Todd said...

I agree, you start out wanting to be angry at her and then you get sucked in and impressed by her. She's not nagging or trying to passive-aggressively alter his behavior, which are two of the easiest traps to fall into when someone in your life does things you don't like. She wants the marriage to get better, and she was smart enough to marry a person who could understand what her goal was and not get lost in the weeds on how she was going about it.

How many of us are going to go home and immediately try some of these ideas out? Our SO's have no idea what they're in for.

bill said...

Interesting. We do something similar about "ignoring bad behavior" with our daughter (age 4). Especially with manners--not saying please and thank you or saying "I want...." instead of "may I please...." We'll just sweetly stare at her until it clicks and she figures out what she's doing wrong. Recognition and self-correction followed by praise.

It's not a technique that works for every situation. Sometimes, the trainer/parent has to be more forceful; but if you haven't invested every confrontation or experience with unneeded drama, perhaps those times will be more impactful.

And with a "scenery-chewing emoter" often the best strategy is to not feed the fire.

Simon Kenton said...

It's dismaying to consider what behaviors the UN reinforces.

Der Hahn said...


I like the fact that she's focusing on *behavior* and not attitude or feelings. I can't stand attitudes (from either sex) like the one displayed in the trailer for The Break-Up, I want you to *want* to do the dishes!

Janet Rae Montgomery said...

There is a Bobby Darrin - Sandra Dee movie all about her using dog training techniques on him to get him to behave as she wants -- her mother tells her to buy a dog training book to help her marriage. Another movie plot turns into real life.

Joan said...

It was a surprisingly great article! What struck me is that pretty much all of the techniques she described are recommended by developmental specialists for bringing up children properly. The techniques have different names, but the principals are the same. Distraction -- avoiding saying "no" or "don't" by saying "do this instead" -- is a favorite of any parent-of-a-toddler. It makes life so much more pleasant.

I also liked that she realized it's not about her. Leaving laundry on the floor was not her husband's subtle way of dissing her, it was just that he couldn't be bothered to put them away until she gave him an incentive. (I will argue that you can train your husband to stop losing his wallet and keys: just make a place -- a nice bowl or tray -- where he needs them, and say, "this is for your wallet and keys." If you find the wallet and keys elsewhere, put them on the tray. We developed this system 8 years ago and it has worked wonders for us.)

Finally, I'll join the crowd applauding that wonderful last line. But I have to say, having been involved with a scenery-chewing emoter more than once, I'm glad my husband isn't one. I just don't need that much drama in my life. I doubt anyone does.

stoqboy said...

Keys: My wife loses her keys two or three times a week. She gets agitated, but invariably finds them in her purse, or somewhere equally as obvious. In twenty years of marriage, I lost my keys once, and never found them.

Bodie said...

The idea is generally very positive, and extensible to child raising and getting along with difficult co-workers. The only thing that really rankles is the idea of one spouse "training" another. It's at least as much about understanding how your own actions can bring draw others into doing things you like or into doing things you don't like, then training yourself to behave in a fashion that elicits the more desirable response. A person who is interested in building a good relationship can do this, while a person who thrives on drama and martyrdom would be both uninterested in, and unable to use this approach.

Anonymous said...

So you never tried to teach your teachers to stand in a corner? And your students have never trained you?

That's what students did before there was an Internet in the classrooom.

Independent George said...

This reminds me of the South Park episode where Mrs. Cartman hires the dog trainer to get Cartman under control (after he drives off a series of would-be nannies).

Cat said...

Independant George:

Cartman's mom hired "The Dog Whisperer," from the tv show of the same name. Small difference is, the trainer would touch cartman like a dog and make that "cccchhhhh" sound when correcting.


amba said...

Dolphin trainer Karen Pryor wrote a whole book about these techniques called Don't Shoot the Dog. Despite the title, it's largely about applying the techniques to humans. And it's witty and practical. It's been out for years, but is still in print. (Must have been mentioned in the "Modern Love" piece because its numbers are way down on Amazon.) I interviewed her, and wrote an article about that and NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) techniques for manipulating people by creating rapport, for some women's magazine over a decade ago. As a non sequitur side note, she's married to Charles Lindbergh's oldest son Jon.

R.A. Felix said...

It's been quite a while now since this article first appeared, and I still find myself telling my friends about it. And I've never even been married.

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