Earlier in the summer the New York Times Sunday magazine featured a story that ultimately proved so popular that it was emailed around the globe and became the fodder of many a blogger. I blogged about it too, after my husband emailed a copy of the article along with the note, “Now that one woman has revealed this tactic, husbands everywhere will be free from the ‘Shamu maneuver’.” If you know Rod, then you know he wrote this with a chuckle.
The New York Times article, What Shamu Taught Me about a Happy Marriage, chronicles the author’s visit to exotic animal trainers as part of research for a book she was writing. “The central lesson,” she learned from exotic animal trainers, “is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don’t. After all, you don’t get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging.” The author then goes on to relate her experiments with this approach in her own relationship with her husband.
I wrote a quick little blog post about the article because it had made both Rod and me laugh. Many people emailed me in response to my post, most with humor and good wishes, but a few with a surprising – to me, anyway – amount of anger. The people who took time to email me seemed to fall into one of three general camps:
The Appreciative Camp. The overwhelming number of responses came from this group. These folks told me they got a laugh from my blog post and from the original Times article. They appreciated the reminder that we can respond to behavior we don’t like in simple, gentle ways that reduce nagging and bickering. These were the folks I generally believed got the point of my blog post.
The Anti-Manipulation Camp: These folks were annoyed that I seemed to be advocating the idea that women should manipulate their husbands. I figured these were mostly first-time visitors to my site, since regulars know I’m an advocate of direct and straightforward conflict engagement instead of covert manipulation. But perhaps these writers had a point, because the post did advocate a low-conflict approach to dealing with behaviors that drive us up the wall, especially from those closest to us.
The Humans Aren’t Animals Camp. It’s this group that’s left me musing, as these folks were the most acerbic in tone and message. These folks appeared outraged that human behavior should be compared in any way to the behavior of other members of the animal kingdom. Shamu, it seems, was a major trigger.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, then you know I’m guilty of the “lessons from animals” approach. Our dogs, Luigi and Hugo, are occasional teachers I mention, more so than the cats, Marbles and Kimball, who tend toward the inscrutable. I’ve written about chimps, gorillas, snakes, rescued Hurricane Katrina pets, assorted other critters, and now, an orca.
Why is it that blurring the line between human behavior and animal behavior so gets some folks’ goat? Why does taking a lesson from the animal make some as mad as a wet hen? And why do a few folks go ape when I write that my little dog is better at assertiveness and conflict than many humans I know? Hold your horses, folks!
Apparently I hold animals in higher esteem than some readers believe I should. They were clearly insulted that a training approach for a member of the lowly dolphin family should be considered apropos – even when accompanied by a wink and a smile – for the marriage relationship. Maybe they think we’re too complex for such simple approaches.
But what if some of the behaviors that most trip us up in our relationships could be managed with dogged commitment to a simpler approach than whining, nagging and constant bickering?
I guess I’m in the dog house with some of you by now. Ah, well, at least I’ve got good company.