Saturday, July 08, 2006

Will Ignoring Your Spouse's Undesirable Behavior Fix It?

Relationship advice is ubiquitous on the internet and in mainstream media. There are daily/weekly newspaper advice columns (which make for fun reading - at the expense of someone else's misery - on a lazy Sunday morning), television and radio talk shows, entire aisles of books in book stores, pages of links on Amazon, and alluring magazine covers on how to improve communication with your partner, how to have better sex, how to win an argument, whether and when to dump, trust, propose to, accept a proposal from, move in with, buy a house with, and meet the parents of, your significant other. Self-appointed relationship gurus will put you through relationship boot camp to clean house (and your wallet) and help you start anew in your relationship. Not to mention well-meaning relatives.

Joining the ranks of the above-mentioned forces is Amy Sutherland whose essay for The New York Times' Modern Love column, "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage" (via India Uncut) recounts the problem in her own marriage of 12 years, her failed attempts at fixing the problem and a serendipitous discovery that has put her about-to-be-derailed-but-not-yet-there marriage back on track.
These minor annoyances [recounted earlier in the piece] are not the stuff of separation and divorce, but in sum they began to dull my love for Scott. I wanted - needed -— to nudge him a little closer to perfect, to make him into a mate who might annoy me a little less, who wouldn't keep me waiting at restaurants, a mate who would be easier to love.

So, like many wives before me, I ignored a library of advice books and set about improving him. By nagging, of course, which only made his behavior worse: he'd drive faster instead of slower; shave less frequently, not more; and leave his reeking bike garb on the bedroom floor longer than ever.
But, before the situation could get out of hand, the author happily chances upon a gem of a discovery: that humans being what they are - i.e., animals - the methods used to train animals for circus acts, theme park shows (hence the reference to Shamu in the title) are the very same methods that might yield heretofore unattainable results in her quest to "nudge [her husband] a little closer to perfect".
The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don't.


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.
I agree with the "rewarding behavior I like" part. It makes sense. If you praise someone for the likeable lovable things they do, it is entirely likely that they will continue repeating that behavior and as long as you go on liking and loving it, then the odds are pretty damn good that you and your significant other will have a reasonably happy relationship.

But what about ignoring aspects of your spouse's behavior you don't like? The application of this axiom to human relationships is something I cannot bring myself to endorse.

Here is why.

Imagine that your spouse has the nasty habit of leaving the toilet seat up (if this doesn't do anything for you, feel free to add your pet peeve about your significant other here). You don't like it (for good reason too, given the number of times you've found your behind framed by the insides of the toilet bowl and caressing a pool of water). So, having read "What Shamu Taught Me..." instead of having a pre-breakfast showdown every single morning, you decide to ignore this annoying behavior.

What do you expect happens next? Will not raising this issue result in a lightning bolt of empathy striking your spouse and revealing how inconsiderate his/her behavior is? Nope. There is no reason for your spouse to believe that anything is wrong and thus the undesirable behavior is very likely to continue. Silence, as they say, is a sign of acceptance.

Or, to take the author's example, imagine that your significant other is raving and ranting about not finding the remote or glasses or keys or whatever. If the raving and ranting at not finding some important item is the behavior you want to discourage, no matter how annoyingly repetitive that behavior is, ignoring it (while it may have worked for the author's relationship) is far more likely to drive your significant other to get further worked up that you are not helping to locate the missing item. I know I would.

Animals may respond purely to material rewards (such as food) while not getting hot and flustered that their trainer completely ignores certain of their behaviors. But most human relationships, fortunately or unfortunately, do not thrive on material rewards alone. They work on the idea that the other person in the relationship cares about your comforts, discomforts, the highs and lows, crises large and small (in other words, human beings are social animals). It is this sense of sharing that makes a relationship worth having.

The author does concede, however, that not all human behaviors can be modified and, more importantly, her own approach to the relationship underwent changes (that were crucial, in my opinion) during the two-year period she tried these training techniques on her husband.
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.

I adopted the trainers' motto: "It's never the animal's fault." When my training attempts failed ... I dissected my own behavior, considered how my actions might inadvertently fuel his. I also accepted that some behaviors were too entrenched, too instinctive to train away. You can't stop a badger from digging, and you can't stop my husband from losing his wallet and keys.
In other words, human relationships are a tad more complex than trainer-animal relationships.


karrvakarela said...

It's tricky stuff, knowing when to speak and when to hold back. I can't claim to know the magic formoola but I think, over time, after living with a person, and occasionally loving them, you tend to figure out how best to deal with unpleasant differences. Some people (men and women both) talk to each other, others brood and sulk while yet others get on the phone with their best mates and rant. There's lots of ways of dealing with conflicts and I think how you go about it reveals a lot about you and your relationship.

gawker said...

hey, before i say anything, why is leaving the toilet seat up considered to be such a major offense among women? I mean, when you enter the toilet you check the toilet seat first before you perch on it, right? Anyways luckily for me my apartment has two toilets and i have we have divided them amongst ourselves so thats not a problem.

secondly i agree with you when you say ignoring doesn't work. ignoring only causes frustration to build up and that might in fact lead to worse things later on. better to talk it out and make adjustments, if yelling and fighting is in order then so be it. i think of marriage as two people squirming themselves into relatively comfortable positions inside a box. in order to stay comfortable both have to yield some space or grab some space and make sacrifices and it takes time to find out these things.

Sujatha Bagal said...

KK, well put. I indulge in both talking it out, usually after not saying anything for a long time, but very rarely do I pick up the phone and rant to a friend or relative (unless its a rant fest and both V and I are ranting about the other in jest to a group of friends). I think the last option takes away something from the relationship.

Gawker, you know I agree with you about the toilet seat being left up and had half a mind not to use that, but given that its such an iconic example of the differences b/w men and women, and having been at the receiving end of it a few times I thought I should use it. I also toyed with the idea of using the much grosser example of the make species spraying the seat but talked myself out of it.

karrvakarela said...

Sujatha, I agree. I've always believed marriage is a very close form of friendship and if you find you can't talk to your friend then you need to sit down and think about what's going on. It's a naive view, I know, but I prefer it being embittered and cynical about the whole thing.

By the way, I didn't mean you personally in my previous post. I apologise if you understood it that way.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Hi KK, of course no offense taken. :)

manuscrypts said...

hmm, but how about going halfway? like putting the toilet seat in the right place or finding the keys and keeping it in front of the person? but not saying anything.. wouldnt that communicate as well as be a prod in the right direction ?

Anonymous said...

Love advice certainly is everywhere, but it seems to me that in the end it always comes down to 1.) be patient and tolerant and 2.) be communicative. Sounds easy enough, but I still have never gotten the hang of either.

starry said...

nice post. true communication and sharing is important, being considerate of your partner is also important, like u said just materialistic rewards wont take u too far.

Sourin Rao said...

Male species spraying the seat??? C'mon give us a lil credit gurl. This one I've never heard, though the more populat toilet seat is the more cliched rote.

Why do we even think we can ever change someone else? Just let them be, however they are.


Sujatha Bagal said...

Oso, yup, sounds easy, but easier said than done. :)

Starry nights, thanks and thank you for visiting and commenting.

Sourin, better believe it! That's why I hate the carpet thinggies that some people have on the toilet seat covers and at the base of the toilet on the floor. Never know what's on it.

And I agree with you about changing other people, but it is another of those easier said than done things.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Manu, that might work, perhaps. My point was that ignoring does not work. We humans are just not wired that way.

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