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Lifestyle: Training your spouse

17 Oct 2019

Amy Sutherland used animal training methods to improve her spouse and wrote about it in one of the most emailed New York Times articles ever. I know you will identify with Amy’s story. I do.

Amy’s husband used to annoy her over little things. He would stand behind her while she was cooking in the kitchen trying to engage her in philosophical debates. He would forget things like his car keys and create a storm trying to locate them. He would selectively ‘turn off’ and not hear important family details that were needed to make the family run right.

He would be late for important events. He would leave his smelly biking clothes on the floor of the bedroom. He would drive too fast and not shave for days.

He was annoying, not in a marriage-breaking way, but in a death-by-a-thousand-cuts sort of way. The love was harder to find as the years went by.

Amy tried three approaches, in order. As each one failed she advanced to the next one. Firstly, she tried to help by listening, by helping him find his car keys, by repeating important messages over and over, by picking up his biking clothes and putting them in the washing machine.

That just annoyed him. It didn’t work.

Next, Amy tried nagging … which just made matters worse.

Amy and her husband went to counselling to try and ‘smooth the rough edges off our marriage’ but the counsellor didn’t know why they were there and complimented them repeatedly on how well they communicated.

Amy then got a job writing about a school for exotic animal trainers on the other side of the country (she lived in Maine and the job was in California) and she realised that the techniques she saw there might be adaptable to training ‘that stubborn but loveable species, the American husband’.

The central lesson Amy learned was to reward the behaviour she wanted and ignore the behaviour she didn’t. How it works is when the behaviour you don’t want occurs you stand still without reacting for a few seconds, not looking the animal in the eye, and moving onto something else. Absolutely no reaction. Deadening. Nothing. Any response, positive or negative, fuels a behaviour and if a behaviour provokes no response, it typically dies away.

But that is easier said than done. My wife and daughter spent good money on puppy training our Maltese puppy to no avail. Cotton, the Maltese, has now completely trained Amanda and Frances so they do exactly what she wants. The animal reversed the approximation process. I guess this happens a lot.

I digress.

Amy learned that animal trainers use what they call ‘approximations’, rewarding any small step that would lead to the desired behaviour. If Amy’s husband got one dirty shirt into the washing hamper, she would thank him. When he got two in there, she would kiss him. All the time she would walk over dirty clothes on the floor without comment.

It seemed to be working.

The exotic animal trainers taught Amy that she needs to learn all about the species being trained. For example, an elephant is a herd animal, so it responds to hierarchy. Amy’s husband was a loner, but still an Alpha male who was what animal trainers would call ‘food driven’.

Amy also learned the technique of creating ‘incompatible behaviour’. On a field trip with students Amy learned how a professional trainer taught African crested cranes to stop landing on his head and shoulders. The trainer managed to train the birds to land on mats on the ground beside him using approximations. Once the birds were trained to land on the mats, they forgot the head landing behaviour.

When her husband came into the kitchen, Amy tried giving him a job cutting up parsley or grating cheese at the other end of the kitchen table, or a bowl of crackers and salsa in the other room. He soon forgot about hovering around her. She had created an incompatible behaviour, and it worked.

When hubby started roaring around the house looking for his keys Amy would not react, not make eye contact, not say anything and wait, until finally, “Found them”.

After two years of animal training Amy reported that her marriage was far smoother and her husband much easier to love. She used to take all his bad habits personally but after seeing him more as an animal-in-training it gave her the distance she needed to be more objective.

Amy adopted the animal trainers’ motto: “It is never the animal’s fault.” Maybe her approximations were too big a step for hubby. Smaller approximations would pick up the progress again, she found.

Amy shared what she was doing with her husband and he was amused and intrigued to the extent that he started doing it back to her, without a blink. He stopped reacting to Amy’s outbursts, and voila.

It wasn’t long before hubby was training Amy, that loveable species, the American wife.

Keep asking great questions …

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P.S. Amy Sutherland’s essay led to a book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers, published in 2008.

The New York times article can be read in full here