Thursday, June 29, 2006

Nagging in the Animal Training Approach to Marriage Age

Via Lindsay, I discovered this true gem from the NYTimes: "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage." I laughed through the whole piece. The author describes using techniques for training exotic animals on her alpha-male American husband. The core insight is that if you want your husband to stop dropping dirty clothes on the floor, leaving a mess of papers all over the surfaces of the house, or crowding you in the kitchen while you try to cook, then stop nagging and start rewarding the behavior you like.

Intuitively, this makes perfect sense. Just recently I had a similar epiphany in relation to a relative. I realized that this relative was not going to stop using all sorts of guilt inducing behaviors and so, rather than get upset at it, I decided to only reward the good behavior. I simply ignored the annoying behavior. It worked like a charm for my mental health, and perhaps over time it will smooth over our rather strained relationship. Sutherland writes:

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.

Sutherland also points out what should be obvious to all of us: nagging does not work. I have always hated turning into a "nagger." Just the other day I was riding back from the airport with my friend and talking about relationship stuff. We were talking about the different thresholds that men and women have for messiness. He then asked me if I was a "nagger." I admitted that at times I have had to resort to nagging, particularly with important things like: send this to X company or call X person back. But, defensively, I said: I hate "nagging." I don't want to be one. But, if I don't do it, I have only two options left to me: (1) accept that major and minor decisions/tasks that my partner doesn't want to do, but that can negatively impact me, will not get done or (2) Do them myself. Neither of these options seemed all that attractive. I also pointed out how much I resent having to "nag," since I don't understand why he would trust me to take over so many of the important tasks. Afterall, what if I screw him over?

That was when Josh said something quite soothing: you are not nagging. When you remind him to do things that he either doesn't want to do, or didn't anticipate, or didn't remember to do, you are helping clue him into what is important to you to get done. You are reminding him. Ok, maybe I am reminding him. But, part of me smolders when he doesn't anticipate things that I would. But, Josh made plain that would never happen. So, I could spend the rest of my life annoyed, or I could positively reassess what I had negatively framed as "nagging." I am not sure if what I am doing is nagging or being helpful. My own attitude to what I am doing, however, might be harsher than the reality of my action; my dogged desire to not be someone's mother might be clouding my perception of what is actually happening. Afterall, Josh is probably right that I am more attuned or better skilled at some things that my partner isn't skilled at, so sharing those skills and helping him get things done need not devolve into mere nagging.

Josh's more important insight, however, was that I shouldn't be suspicious or judgmental that my partner trusts me to handle some of the important aspects of our relationship. I thought, however, that he shouldn't trust me, but rather go over everything I plan, or every document we sign. I knew that he has been burned before when he trusted another. And, frankly, I have always been mistrustful of others handling important affairs. Alas, what I was perhaps missing is that my partner's trust in me could, in fact, be a sign that he is a good guy. I don't have to frame it as he is a dolt, or careless. Sutherland points out:

I used to take his faults personally; his dirty clothes on the floor were an affront, a symbol of how he didn't care enough about me. But thinking of my husband as an exotic species gave me the distance I needed to consider our differences more objectively.

Alas, the daily misunderstandings between romantic partners need not be taken so damn seriously. In fact, perhaps what this article demonstrates is the final death of psychoanalysis or talk therapy. The idea that we have to read into every little action or inaction of our partner is a waste of time; we don't have to mine these actions for some deeper story of their earlier abandoment. Why not just give them some radishes to chop for the salad while we prepare dinner so they won't crowd us in the kitchen.

Btw, once Za reads this, I am sure he will begin to hatch plans for training the irritating behaviors out of me.