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Shamu and the Happy Marriage
Mom with a View

Shamu and the Happy Marriage

Want to change your spouse's behavior? Reward desired action and ignore the undesirable.


Last week my husband sent me an article from the New York Times entitled "What Shamu Taught Me about a Happy Marriage" by Amy Sutherland. Hint: It had nothing to do with taking a vacation or sitting in the soak zone! (For those of you who aren't natives of southern California or in other ways amusement-park savvy, Shamu is the famous performing whale at San Diego's Sea World.)

In some ways it was a strange article for a man to send to his wife. It's about how Ms. Sutherland learned to apply the techniques used in training exotic animals to effect behavioral change in her husband. Was he sending it to me as a point of intellectual interest, or did he think my current strategies of screaming and sulking could use some improvement?

The animal trainers seem to employ basic behavior modification techniques, a simple idea that Maimonides espoused 1500 years ago but one that frequently loses out to good old-fashioned nagging. While behavior modification does effect lasting change, it is a slow process. It's the difference between quick, fad diets (grapefruit anyone?) and a slower adjustment to healthier foods and smaller portions. The weight doesn't drop off as quickly, but it usually doesn't come back.

Ms. Sutherland cites the central lesson as rewarding desired behavior and ignoring the undesirable.

The rewarding part is, I think, easier. The technique of choice is something called "approximations" -- rewarding each step in the right direction. (This works with children too, and with wives!) Just as seals don't move in one fell swoop from swimming peacefully in the ocean to balancing balls on their noses (a lot of small fish are consumed along the way), so too our spouses don't move from leaving dirty laundry on the floor to wash, dry, fluff and fold -- not overnight anyway.

So we express appreciation for each action. You threw one sock in the hamper? Terrific. Two? You're the man. (Okay, that's slightly exaggerated, but you get the picture.) As any smart wife knows, her respect for her husband is crucial to him and experiencing her praise will lead to more of the same behavior. This is the easy part.

The more difficult challenge is when behavior just needs to be ignored, when the solution is keeping our mouths shut. As all studies in this field of psychology demonstrate, if a behavior is reinforced intermittently, rats (and people) will continue the behavior. And the reinforcement does not have to be positive; hence the frequent negative attention-seeking behavior of our children -- and our spouses.

So in eliminating undesirable behavior -- it doesn't have to be bad character, it could just be something you personally find annoying -- the best strategy is to ignore it. The animal trainers call it L.R. S. -- least reinforcing syndrome.

This doesn't require the studied creativity and careful wording of the approximations that led to slow, positive behavioral change. It requires something much harder: keeping our mouths shut. Not shouting, "I can't believe you lost your glasses again." No sighs of frustration either. And most certainly avoiding a descent into a silly fight that chips away at our marriage. We have this compulsion to respond to every situation. But sometimes just saying and doing nothing is the winningest strategy. Just smile and remain silent.

Just ask the animal trainers. If they can prepare walruses and sea otters for leading roles in their stage productions -- and they can (don't make me tell you how many times I've seen the show!), then surely we, the more intelligent species, can benefit from these skills. I may actually go back to Sea World this summer -- just for educational purposes of course. And with the right amount of slow reinforcement, I may even convince my husband, who has sworn off amusement parks after trip #137.

July 8, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Anonymous, July 14, 2006 12:00 AM


I dont think that the author is advocating the inhumane treatment of animals, nor is she advocating treating your husband like an animal. She is simply giving all of us an effective tool to achieve desireable goals while elevating a person with praise. Great article

(4) Tova Saul, July 11, 2006 12:00 AM

Not a whale of an article

This article makes a wonderful point, which I have learned long ago, but---not at the expense of inappropriate and damaging usage of animal imagery. Untold suffering to "performing wild animals" has occurred throughout history and in modern times. This article makes one assume that the training is kind. Even supposing that the training itself is done humanely (and often it is not!), Hashem did not create "walruses, sea otters, whales" and other wild animals to be removed from their homes or to be raised in cramped captivity for our selfish amusement. Using this as an example as to how to relate to family members without even mentioning the immorality and sadness of causing wild animals to suffer in a living situation that is a not even a shadow of what Hashem intended for them is simply not a Jewish attitude. Any Jew that is capable of feeling compassion for animals would never cavalierly use Shamu----a large whale that was meant to live in the open sea but spends a lifetime swimming in small circles----as a way to teach the message of this article. Find another way to teach this, or----perpetuate in people's minds and hearts that we have the right to lord over animals to an excessive degree. Now-----What can we learn from muzzled dancing bears?

(3) Udel Kitov, July 11, 2006 12:00 AM

Hashem's creations

I was unpleasantly surprised to find this - I had been sent the original NY Times article by a friend, and thought then, as I do now, that the suggestions appearing in that article have no recognition of the true quality of the Jewish neshama. I pray every day for Shalom Bayit, but I reject as a Jewess to simply "train" my spouse. May he and I and all Am Yisrael return to Hashem with emunah and a great love.

(2) Anonymous, July 10, 2006 12:00 AM

It is such a blessing to come across this article.quite interesting!im so excited to apply this strategy to the people around me.thanks for sharing this with us.

(1) Anonymous, July 9, 2006 12:00 AM

changing behavior

In "Shamu and the Happy Marriage," Emuna Braverman says to ignore the undesired behavior. I do that a lot, but there is something my husband has been doing recently that effects me and I want it changed. Does she have advice for that too? Thank you.

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