What's Tony Thinking

How To Improve Your Husband (or Wife)


I’ve been on both sides of the room for couples counseling. That is, Linda and I have done counseling at several junctures along the way. And I have counseled couples as their minister. I didn’t do long term counseling with couples, preferring to help them find a therapist.

But I did enough to notice a pattern. Each partner in the relationship felt that if the other one would change in the following ways . . . problems would go away. I’m not sure I was a lot different when on the  receiving end. I guess by the time you get into counseling you are, by definition, irritated with one another.

So I reached the conclusion that the best thing you could do was work on yourself. Or as they say in 12 Step programs, “Sweep your side of the street.” You had, generally speaking, a whole lot better chance changing yourself than you did changing your spouse.

But a recent article caused me to re-think that. Actually, not a recent article, but a recently re-published piece in the New York Times “Modern Love” series.

“What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage” was first published in 2006, but was run again recently in celebration of the “Modern Love” series moving to TV (or maybe it was a podcast).

The author, Amy Sutherland, was despairing of ever seeing change in some of her husband’s irritating ways, when she got into working on a book about training exotic animals. Here’s Sutherland:

“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 concepts are pretty simple. Reward behavior you like. Ignore behavior you don’t. Simple to state, not so easy to do. The work also involved stepping back for a dispassionate view of the subject.

“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.”

Sutherland breaks down a couple of different strategies, not only rewarding desired behavior, but something called “approximations,” and perhaps most intriguing, “LRS — Least Re-Inforcing Syndrome.”

That’s a pretty fancy name for not responding or reacting, positively or negatively, to behaviors you don’t like. More Sutherland,

“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 should be added that Amy did love her husband. She just wanted a few tweaks. Probably that baseline of love is essential.

It occurs to me that ministers might consider applying some of these strategies to their congregations. Try it, friends, and let me know how it goes.


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