15 January 2007


Shamu is back.

Last June, the New York Times published an article in their weekly Modern Love column: What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriageby Amy Sutherland, who had recently written a book about exotic animal training.

Within a few hours, it was at the top of their "most emailed" list. Modern Love columns frequently make brief appearances on the list -- this week's I Fell For a Man Who Wore an Electronic Ankle Bracelet isn't there yet, but it may be before the day is out -- but fall off after a day or two, replaced by Baby-Boomer health news and righteous editorials decrying the latest Bush Administration outrage.

Not so with Shamu. It remained number one on the list for nearly the entire summer, inspiring countless blog postings, and at least one radio program devoted to its idea.

Which is this: that husbands can be trained out of bad behaviors, and into good ones, by applying the principles used by exotic animal trainers. Your husband doing the dishes, a seal jumping through a hoop -- same thing.

Most of the conversations I had about the article dismissed the idea entirely, and for good reason. Contemporary marriages are supposed to be built on communication and respect. Those things might be undermined if one of you suddenly becomes the star in a SeaWorld show. Have we made no progress at all, or are we stuck in the '50s?

One of Sutherland's approaches is "least reinforcing syndrome," which is essentially not having a reaction when an animal (or a person) does something you don't like; ignore it and it will go away. Which might be okay if your husband is in a different room from you when he's ranting about his lost keys, but across the dinner table, can you imagine? A blank stare when he says something that annoys you? This is the basis of a good marriage?

Shamu has reappeared at the top of the most-emailed list six months after it was first published; I'm not sure why. Maybe the author has written something else that links to it. But I don't think people are sending it to their friends for the inanity factor alone. Aren't we all trying, all the time, everyday, to figure out how relationships work? That's all life is, in the end. Can I make you understand what I want, will understanding what I want make you act in the the way I want you to, and if not, can we at least agree on what we don't agree on and where do we go from here?

But that kind of rational discourse is the ideal. In reality, when you live with someone, they never wash the dishes the way you want them to, or, if you don't care about dishes, it's the pile of mail on the desk, or letting the cat jump on the kitchen table, or staying up too late, or getting up too early, or why don't you just do everything the way I do it because I love you but my way is right and yours is wrong.

Anything that purports to have a solution to these everyday annoyances -- and friends who have been married for as many as ten years say they never go away -- is worth reading, right? But secretly, I think there are more people who think there's something to the animal-training approach to marital harmony, as risible as it is, than are comfortable admitting it. Which says... something.



Blogger alimum said...

Our son was given a very small, SHAMU stuffed. It is about the size of a hand. Perhaps it would improve one's marriage if one were to toss the stuffed Shamu AT one's spouse when the spouse does something unacceptable. It is an excellent way of expressing dissatisfaction without causing any real pain and is way less annoying than ignoring someone.

Except I sometimes get the feeling that for many people, it isn't about the small annoyances of daily life with another person, but the larger expectations that people have that someone else will, magically, wake up one day and be the person of their fantasies.

Anyway, I am glad I stumbled upon your blog....wait, the orca that just flew by is my husband's way of saying that it is time for me to get off the internet and come to bed.

11:16 PM  

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