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Will Ignoring Your Spouse’s Undesirable Behavior Fix It?

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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 twelve 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.

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About Sujatha Bagal

  • sr

    Words of wisdom spoken by sujatha #7. Must admit my aim is piss poor the older I get just like eyes, ears and etc etc. For you gentlemen, if their is such a thing anymore, drop the pet peeves along with the toilet seat. My wife of 25+ years read my comment #3. She then slapped the crap out of me. Just kidding. For me marriage is like fine wine. It’s gets better with age. So does me rum. Condor the duck tape idea was great. When I wake up in the night and our dog follows me into the bathroom, then jumps into the bed with the wife she wants to know if she was out in the rain. Duh.

  • I forgot to mention something: the point is that ignoring your significant other or the annoying things they do (no matter what your pet peeve is – whether leaving the toilet seat up or down or whatever) is not the means to a rocking relationship. One or the other in the twosome is bound to get frustrated, IMO.

  • Victor, Condor, sr, I agree with you about the toilet seat and had half a mind not to use that example, 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 early on, 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 and quite a bit of real estate around, but talked myself out of it.

    Orchid, The most important thing in the Amy Sutherland article quoted here is the part about taking a partner’s behavior personally.

    As I mentioned, I think this was a crucial part of the reason why the Sutherland’s relationship improved. Your comment is a balanced, mature approach to relationships.

    Thank you all for your comments. 🙂

  • sr

    Orchid, no disagreement from me. Think your hubby of 17 yrs is a very lucky man. sr

  • Orchid

    The most important thing in the Amy Sutherland article quoted here is the part about taking a partner’s behavior personally. In fact, there’s a lesson to be learned in all interactions in that regard. People are so self-centered that they feel all actions which upset or frustrate them must be intentionally harmful or in blithe disregard for their needs or desires. The truth is that most people never give a second thought about others in regards to how they conduct themselves.

    Once you set aside the notion that the behaviors of others are a personal affront to you, you can start to deal more rationally with communicating in a manner which will more effectively deal with the offensive behavior. In the case of spouses, this means not reacting emotionally in a way which causes a destructive confrontation and results in no progress toward a compromise which will satisfy both parties.

    On the part of women (and I’m a woman so I know this motivation), they have to set aside what they feel are the “right” ways of living such as always leaving the toilet seat down. The fact that the toilet seat argument is lengendary shows that women feel their way should take precedence. Why can’t women put the seat down and men put it up? In 17 years of marriage, I have only mistakenly sat down with the seat up twice (and that was early on before I got used to checking). Is it so hard to accept a fair arrangement?

    The same applies to notions of cleanliness and order. If women want a greater degree of cleanliness, they should simply do the extra bit themselves. Men, of course, should do their fair share but when it comes to a level of cleanliness above and beyond what safety and hygiene require, one spouse should not be harrassed into meeting the other’s standards.

    I think most couples would find that they would get a lot more cooperation from each other if they acknowledged that their standards are different and tried to find a reasonable halfway point. There’s no need to reduce men to the level of animals or children who need to be behaviorally conditioned to get their reasonable cooperation. The first step is for the party with the higher standards to communicate properly and to be empathetic to the desires of her (or his) spouse.

  • sr

    Sir Victor. How perfect. To lift the toilet seat or not to lift the toilet seat. For me I always put the toilet seat down out of respect for the lady of my life. I also put the lid down. Have always wondered why women complain about the toilet seat left up. Do they look before they leap/sit? Now if you put the lid down over the toilet seat you have created and extra problem. The lid must be uplifted prior to ones particular position on placement of the buttocks on the toilet seat. I must conclude that women being the weaker sex are not physically capable of lifting the toilet seat cover and the toilet seat lid. Ladies just get use to that cold porcelain on the sensitive areas of your body and prepare for a late night plunge into cold waters.

    Will get into toilet paper later.

  • Condor

    Duct tape will keep the toilet seat in either the up or down position.

    Except…. men like to pee standing up.

    Oh well.

  • Maybe proper training can cure women of the annoying habit of leaving the toilet seat down.

    I might get in so much trouble for this one, the wrath of the Jacksonites will pale in comparison. (Pun definitely intended.)