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What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage

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  • What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage

    A friend sent this to me tonight... got a good giggle out of it!

    June 25, 2006 The New York Times
    What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage

    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.

    I love my husband. He's well read, adventurous and does a hysterical
    rendition of a northern
    Vermont accent that still cracks me up after 12 years of marriage.
    But he also tends to be forgetful, and is often tardy and mercurial. He
    hovers around me in
    the kitchen asking if I read this or that piece in The New Yorker when
    I'm trying to
    concentrate on the simmering pans. He leaves wadded tissues in his
    wake. He suffers from
    serious bouts of spousal deafness but never fails to hear me when I
    mutter to myself on the
    other side of the house. "What did you say?" he'll shout.

    These minor annoyances are not the stuff of separation and divorce, but
    in sum they began to
    dull my love for Scott. I wanted — needed — to nudge him a little
    closer to perfect, to make
    him into a mate who might annoy me a little less, who wouldn't keep me
    waiting at
    restaurants, a mate who would be easier to love.

    So, like many wives before me, I ignored a library of advice books and
    set about improving
    him. By nagging, of course, which only made his behavior worse: he'd
    drive faster instead of
    slower; shave less frequently, not more; and leave his reeking bike
    garb on the bedroom floor
    longer than ever.

    We went to a counselor to smooth the edges off our marriage. She didn't
    understand what we
    were doing there and complimented us repeatedly on how well we
    communicated. I gave up.
    I guessed she was right — our union was better than most — and resigned
    myself to stretches
    of slow-boil resentment and occasional sarcasm.

    Then something magical happened. For a book I was writing about a
    school for exotic animal
    trainers, I started commuting from Maine to California, where I spent
    my days watching
    students do the seemingly impossible: teaching hyenas to pirouette on
    command, cougars to
    offer their paws for a nail clipping, and baboons to skateboard.

    I listened, rapt, as professional trainers explained how they taught
    dolphins to flip and
    elephants to paint. Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might
    work on that
    stubborn but lovable species, the American husband.

    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.

    Back in Maine, I began thanking Scott if he threw one dirty shirt into
    the hamper. If he
    threw in two, I'd kiss him. Meanwhile, I would step over any soiled
    clothes on the floor
    without one sharp word, though I did sometimes kick them under the bed.
    But as he basked
    in my appreciation, the piles became smaller.

    I was using what trainers call "approximations," rewarding the small
    steps toward learning a
    whole new behavior. You can't expect a baboon to learn to flip on
    command in one session,
    just as you can't expect an American husband to begin regularly picking
    up his dirty socks by
    praising him once for picking up a single sock. With the baboon you
    first reward a hop, then
    a bigger hop, then an even bigger hop. With Scott the husband, I began
    to praise every small
    act every time: if he drove just a mile an hour slower, tossed one pair
    of shorts into the
    hamper, or was on time for anything.

    I also began to analyze my husband the way a trainer considers an
    exotic animal.
    Enlightened trainers learn all they can about a species, from anatomy
    to social structure, to
    understand how it thinks, what it likes and dislikes, what comes easily
    to it and what doesn't.
    For example, an elephant is a herd animal, so it responds to hierarchy.
    It cannot jump, but
    can stand on its head. It is a vegetarian.

    The exotic animal known as Scott is a loner, but an alpha male. So
    hierarchy matters, but
    being in a group doesn't so much. He has the balance of a gymnast, but
    moves slowly,
    especially when getting dressed. Skiing comes naturally, but being on
    time does not. He's an
    omnivore, and what a trainer would call food-driven.
    Once I started thinking this way, I couldn't stop. At the school in
    California, I'd be scribbling
    notes on how to walk an emu or have a wolf accept you as a pack member,
    but I'd be
    thinking, "I can't wait to try this on Scott."

    On a field trip with the students, I listened to a professional trainer
    describe how he had
    taught African crested cranes to stop landing on his head and
    shoulders. He did this by
    training the leggy birds to land on mats on the ground. This, he
    explained, is what is called an
    "incompatible behavior," a simple but brilliant concept.

    Rather than teach the cranes to stop landing on him, the trainer taught
    the birds something
    else, a behavior that would make the undesirable behavior impossible.
    The birds couldn't
    alight on the mats and his head simultaneously.

    At home, I came up with incompatible behaviors for Scott to keep him
    from crowding me
    while I cooked. To lure him away from the stove, I piled up parsley for
    him to chop or cheese
    for him to grate at the other end of the kitchen island. Or I'd set out
    a bowl of chips and salsa
    across the room. Soon I'd done it: no more Scott hovering around me
    while I cooked.

    I followed the students to SeaWorld San Diego, where a dolphin trainer
    introduced me to
    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.
    In the margins of my notes I wrote, "Try on Scott!"

    It was only a matter of time before he was again tearing around the
    house searching for his
    keys, at which point I said nothing and kept at what I was doing. It
    took a lot of discipline to
    maintain my calm, but results were immediate and stunning. His temper
    fell far shy of its
    usual pitch and then waned like a fast-moving storm. I felt as if I
    should throw him a

    Now he's at it again; I hear him banging a closet door shut, rustling
    through papers on a
    chest in the front hall and thumping upstairs. At the sink, I hold
    steady. Then, sure enough,
    all goes quiet. A moment later, he walks into the kitchen, keys in
    hand, and says calmly,
    "Found them."
    Without turning, I call out, "Great, see you later."
    Off he goes with our much-calmed pup.

    After two years of exotic animal training, my marriage is far smoother,
    my husband much
    easier to love. I used to take his faults personally; his dirty clothes
    on the floor were an
    affront, a symbol of how he didn't care enough about me. But thinking
    of my husband as an
    exotic species gave me the distance I needed to consider our
    differences more objectively.
    I adopted the trainers' motto: "It's never the animal's fault." When my
    training attempts
    failed, I didn't blame Scott. Rather, I brainstormed new strategies,
    thought up more
    incompatible behaviors and used smaller approximations. I dissected my
    own behavior,
    considered how my actions might inadvertently fuel his. I also accepted
    that some behaviors
    were too entrenched, too instinctive to train away. You can't stop a
    badger from digging, and
    you can't stop my husband from losing his wallet and keys.

    PROFESSIONALS talk of animals that understand training so well they
    eventually use it back
    on the trainer. My animal did the same. When the training techniques
    worked so beautifully,
    I couldn't resist telling my husband what I was up to. He wasn't
    offended, just amused. As I
    explained the techniques and terminology, he soaked it up. Far more
    than I realized.
    Last fall, firmly in middle age, I learned that I needed braces. They
    were not only
    humiliating, but also excruciating. For weeks my gums, teeth, jaw and
    sinuses throbbed. I
    complained frequently and loudly. Scott assured me that I would become
    used to all the
    metal in my mouth. I did not.

    One morning, as I launched into yet another tirade about how
    uncomfortable I was, Scott just
    looked at me blankly. He didn't say a word or acknowledge my rant in
    any way, not even with
    a nod.
    I quickly ran out of steam and started to walk away. Then I realized
    what was happening, and
    I turned and asked, "Are you giving me an L. R. S.?" Silence. "You are,
    aren't you?"
    He finally smiled, but his L. R. S. has already done the trick. He'd
    begun to train me, the
    American wife.
    Amy Sutherland is the author of "Kicked, Bitten and Scratched: Life and
    Lessons at the
    Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers" (Viking, June 2006). She
    lives in Boston and in
    Portland, Me.
    Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic

  • #2
    Good article BB. Now that I know it works on women, I'm gonna go try it out!!!

    Why must I feel like that..why must I chase the cat?

    "When I was young man I did some dumb things and the elders would talk to me. Sometimes I listened. Time went by and as I looked around...I was the elder".

    Mr. Rossie Freeman


    • #3
      cool I really liked that story thanks for sharing.


      • #4
        Originally posted by Joe's Dad
        Good article BB. Now that I know it works on women, I'm gonna go try it out!!!
        Might work, until she reads this thread. LOL.

        My wife has used this on me for years. It's called the silent treatment. (shudder)
        Pow Wow Radio Addict
        The measure of a man is not in what he has, but in what he gives.


        • #5
          Sound like a good plan to me.
          Courage is just fear that has said it's prayers.


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