Attention, frustrated wives: if you want your husband to start listening to you and stop leaving his socks on the floor, all you need is a little patience and a lot of mackerel. Such is the putative relationship advice of Amy Sutherland, a journalist who spent a year at an animal-trainer school and decided to apply the trainers' techniques to her husband's annoying habits. According to Sutherland, the key to marital bliss is to ignore negative habits and reward positive ones, the same approach animal trainers use to get killer whales to leap from their tanks and elephants to stand on their heads. So to teach her husband, Scott, to stop storming around the house when he couldn't find his keys, she practiced what trainers call Least Reinforcing Scenario, which means she ignored his outbursts, and didn't offer to help with the search. To prevent Scott from hovering over her while she tried to cook, she engineered "incompatible behaviors" by setting a bowl of chips and salsa at the other end of the room. Soon she had a key-finding, salsa-eating mate and, she says, a happier marriage.
Sutherland first wrote about her experiment in The New York Times in 2006, where it became the most e-mailed story of the year. This week her book, "What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage," comes out, and a movie is in development. Sutherland admits that her ideas are not groundbreaking: in the 1890s Ivan Pavlov experimented with dogs to study stimulus and response. In the 1930s, B. F. Skinner used rats and pigeons to develop his theory of "operant behaviors," the idea that behavior is affected by its consequences. That doesn't mean the strategy is not controversial: critics bristle at the idea that humans are as easily manipulated as dogs or marine mammals, and contend that books such as Sutherland's reinforce war-of-the-sexes stereotypes about women using their feminine wiles to manipulate simple-minded men.
The idea of women training simple men is a well-worn trope of pop culture. In the 1963 film "If a Man Answers," Sandra Dee's mother hands her a canine-training manual with the advice "If you want a perfect marriage, treat your husband like a dog." More recently, the BBC reality show "Bring Your Husband to Heel" featured a professional dog trainer teaching wives how to get their husbands to sit and stay.
While Sutherland claims that animal-training techniques work on both genders, in another new book, "Seducing the Boys Club," Nina DiSesa advocates a gender-specific approach to changing people's behavior. DiSesa, who was the first female chairman of the ad agency McCann Erickson, argues that women should use their femininity to manipulate the men they work with and advance their careers. Instead of criticizing an employee's ad proposal, she flatters him for his "brilliant" idea, then sweetly asks if he had any other inspirations. "Women use these tactics with men all the time," she says. "We're mothers, wives, girlfriends, sisters. We know how to handle men, we just don't do it at work."
While DiSesa's tactics may appall feminists, the appeal of Sutherland's approach is obvious: no tearful couples-therapy sessions, no tantrums about unmet expectations. But Sutherland says it's not a quick fix. In fact, she was the one who wound up being retrained, as she taught herself not to take her husband's actions personally, and not to react when he did things that annoyed her. DiSesa also says she retrained herself to stop criticizing and confronting the men she worked with, and instead use "S and M," seduction and manipulation, to get her way.
And, she says, we shouldn't admit to our manipulations. "If people think I'm being conniving, I am," she says. "But if men see it coming, they'll duck." Sutherland's husband eventually caught on to her experiment (it didn't help that she wrote a book about the animal-trainer school), and even started using the techniques back on her. Now they use the word "shamu" as a verb, as in "Did you just shamu me?"
Shamuing might work to get your husband to stop leaving his socks on the bathroom floor, says psychotherapist Marlin Potash, author of "Hidden Agendas: What's Really Going On in Your Relationships." "In small doses, it's really a good idea," she says. But she's skeptical of the idea that the technique will work with real marital problems such as lack of communication or sexual incompatibility: "I don't really believe that changing these small behaviors is how one transforms a marriage." Sutherland makes no claims to be a relationship expert. And she's not opposed to therapy, although she says, judging from the enthusiastic response to her essay, "Psychologists might want to consider bringing more animals into the mix."
Sit, Beg, Roll Over, Stay
Animal trainers use lots of tricks to train their charges. Try the techniques below at home.
Reward positive behavior:If your mate picks up just one dirty sock without being asked, give lots of praise. Or a tasty fish.
Ignore negatives:Don't nag about the rest of the filthy laundry still piled on the floor. Trainers call this Least Reinforcing Scenario.
Don't take it personally:Laundry is just laundry, not a symbol for how much your spouse loves you or values your marriage.