Friday, October 31, 2008


I love books that make you see the world differently, that change your perspective so much you can’t go back to seeing things the way you did before. Some books that have changed my thoughts and actions are When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robinson, Spontaneous Healing by Andrew Weil, and of course Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Amy Sutherland’s small book What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage (Random House, 2008) can stand proudly in this category. I tore through it two days, thinking all the while, “I want to try this!”

The premise is simple. While writing her previous book, Kicked, Bitten and Scratched, Sutherland acquired a thorough knowledge of cutting edge animal training techniques, and couldn’t help thinking, ‘would this work on my husband?’

Before you laugh, consider that people are animals, too, and that these are not the old fashioned techniques of choke collars on dogs and whips for subduing lions. In fact, I would love it if everyone I know read this book and decided to use these techniques on me. The approach that Sutherland nicknamed Shamu and describes in her books is far more forward-thinking than many of the ways people interact with each other, especially in intimate relationships such as parent-child, siblings, and romantic partnerships.

To simplify, the Shamu approach is to focus on positive feedback and to avoid negative or punishing feedback as much as possible, even completely. The first part is easy: if your partner does something you like, let him know. Thank him, and do it as close to the time of the action as possible. The second part, avoiding negative feedback, is harder, but it is worth it.

I already had a taste of how effective these ideas can be before I read the book. Several months ago I saw an article promoting What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage. I put the book on hold at the library, and in the intervening months I used the ideas briefly outlined in the article as best I could.


I tried the Shamu approach with the housekeeping situation. At the time, I felt I did more than my fair share of housework. I nagged The Poet to no end and to no avail. I also tried explaining my feelings of frustration to him, and that got us into fights. Then I tried pointing out the political implications of letting your girlfriend clean up after you, and that lead to more fights.

And then I tried Shamu. I stopped nagging and I started thanking. I thanked him for whatever he did, however small. The fighting about the house keeping went away, and now The Poet pitches in cheerfully, albeit erratically, with housework.

I haven’t transformed him into Mr. Clean, and there are still a few squabbles about dirty dishes from time to time (I usually slip off the Shamu wagon when I’m upset about something else—it’s so easy to transfer your emotions to the kitchen sink), but along the way something happened that was more important than turning The Poet into an anal retentive house cleaner. I learned to focus on what he was doing instead of focusing on what he wasn’t. As I thanked him, I truly became appreciative.

And that is the beauty of the Shamu method—the training trains the trainer.


OK, but what about more difficult situations? The Poet and I fight—I mean really fight: arguments worthy of daytime TV. In fact, I’m not sure they would even put us on daytime TV, we’re so over the top. Neither one of us likes it, and we have tried everything we can to stop, but the fights just keep happening. The Poet has a short temper, and the Lyme disease makes me easily upset—OK, to be more honest, prone to hysteria. There are times when I’m so exhausted that I lose all perspective and at that moment tears and fury are apt to take over at the slightest provocation.

This brings us to the second component of Shamu: avoiding negative feedback.

This goes against the grain. It’s instinctual to shout back, or to even say “stop it!” when your feelings are hurt. It is second nature to try to get through to the other person by showing how unreasonable they are, or how much they upset you, and to try harder when you feel they aren’t listening—even if that means shouting louder, or expressing your feelings more vehemently.

It also gets you nowhere. Interactions feed on each other, whether they are positive or negative.

I know from enough out of control fights that upping the ante only gets more shouting and anger. Even when I use the therapist recommended technique of saying “Hey, let’s calm down now and take a time out,” he often keeps raging, throwing one more insult at me before he stalks off.

Sutherland’s alternative to this pattern is the LRS, or Least Reinforcing Scenario. This is how she defines it:

When a trainer, faced with an animal offering an incorrect response to a cue, does not respond at all for a few beats so as not to encourage that behavior. A neutral way of telling an animal “Wrong.”

In her own marriage, Sutherland tried avoiding any interaction, even eye contact, while her husband fumed about losing his keys. Instead of the long tantrums he had thrown in the past, this time, deprived of the attention he usually got from his wife, he quickly calmed down and set about finding his keys.

That’s all well and good, but the fights The Poet and I have are a little trickier than this. How do I apply Shamu when I’m faced with a raging Egyptian poet, twice my size and mad at me, not mad at losing his keys? I didn’t have a sure answer, but I was so enthralled with the book that I decided I would try anyway.

All the other couples advice books I’ve read (OK, they were only two, but they were by the guru John Gottman) said to make sure your partner feels you are listening to him by maintaining eye contact and giving lots of verbal and visual cues to show you are listening. Turning your back or shutting the other person out is considered stonewalling and will only make him angrier.

Lots of eye contact and verbal feedback is the very opposite of the LRS, so I decided to strike a balance. As long as The Poet was trying to get a point across to me, I would engage with him, even if he raised his voice. As soon as he slipped into merely throwing out insults, or threatening to break up with me (his favorite way to get me upset, and also my favorite way to get upset), I would try the LRS.

For the LRS I wouldn’t turn my back, but just shift my gaze away from him and let my expression go blank. I wouldn’t say a thing.


I wasn’t hoping for it, but Saturday morning was my first opportunity. This is a time when The Poet and I often get into fights. I have been mostly by myself all week, and I am excited he is home. He, on the other hand, has been working and socializing all week and is ready to be alone. We clash, and he is often at his most volatile because (guess what) he really does need to be alone.

Early that morning he said he was going out and he would be back at 5pm. I was disappointed, but then I realized he must need time to himself, and there was no point trying to persuade him to spend more time with me.

I said, “OK,” but my temporary disappointment must have flitted across my face, and he noticed it.

“You know what, I don’t need this! I don’t need you pouting and making me feel guilty when I want to spend time alone!” he moaned.

I assured him that I wasn’t trying to make him feel guilty. I wanted him to go, besides, I would probably be napping or writing most of the day.

But it was too late. He had started the day in a touchy mood, and once he was upset the argument was unavoidable. Soon enough he shouted, “If it’s going to be this way, I’d rather not have a girlfriend!”

I put the LRS into action, moving my gaze away from him and remembering that I shouldn’t say anything.

And a strange thing happened: instead of feeling like I was choking back my emotions, I felt freed from having to respond. I relaxed. And once I relaxed, I had time to think! I remembered that The Poet had shouted this at me thousands of times before, and had always told me later, long after the fight ended and he was calm again, that he didn’t mean it, he was had just said it because he was angry.

That kept me cool. Different replies did come to mind, the types of things I would usually shout back at him. But since I had taken the pressure off myself to say something, I considered these replies from all angles and realized that they were the kind of things that just made the argument worse. Keeping silent was better.

Eventually The Poet broke the silence. He was still arguing, but his responses were back to addressing the reasons for our conflict, and not just shouting insults. He threatened to break up several more times in the next twenty minutes, but I whipped out the old LRS. It quieted him down, it quieted me down. The argument was a little less heated than usual, and I wasn’t nearly as upset.

And then a strange thing happened. He threatened the break up one more time. I LRSed. There was silence. And then he said, and I quote: “You know I don’t mean that, sweetie. I don’t want to break up with you. I just said it because I’m mad right now, but I really don’t want to break up with you at all.”

Yes, he’s taken it back before, but not in the middle of an argument, not just a moment after making the threat. That was a first.

I called it a success. He went off to have Poet time, and I went for my morning nap.

It was an auspicious start. It wasn’t a miracle, but it cut the element of escalation from the argument, and had an overall effect of slowing and calming down our interactions by perhaps 30%.

Over time, who knows. I will update you on what happens.

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