26 June 2006

Eros et Orca

Thanks (I think) to Kathryn for alerting me to Amy Sutherland's "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage," published in yesterday's edition of The New York Times. Now, maybe I'm particularly sensitive because I have just just finished reading The Four Loves for the third time (not including the time Lindsay Terrel and I listened to CS Lewis' recording of the book en route home from Tulsa). After all, when I sit on my couch and muse on the nexus of affection, friendship, and eros in my marriage, I just smile.

Should I should chill out? Maybe Sutherland is writing with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Doubt it. Some knotty excerpts:

I also began to analyze my husband the way a trainer considers an exotic animal. Yes, this will do wonders for the marriage union, as though your mate is just some appendage to domestic life that needs to be let out at lunchtime. Even those wives who regard their husbands as "another child" do not yet regard their husbands as pets.

Later, Sutherland delights in applying the "least reinforcing syndrome" or LRS: animal trainers do this when they refuse to respond to animals that do something wrong. In human communication, we call that "ignoring the man you love" and "manipulating through silent treatment." IML. MST. Sutherland has a vocabulary problem here: LRS might work with husbands as well as it works with dolphins, but husbands are not dolphins and deserve better respect.

Problem is, Sutherland testifies that it works. Ah, the postmodern gospel of pragmatism: if it works, it must be right. And then she concludes:

After two years of exotic animal training, my marriage is far smoother, my husband much easier to love. 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 didn't blame Scott. Rather, I brainstormed new strategies, thought up more incompatible behaviors and used smaller approximations. 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.

Instead of "thinking of my husband as an exotic species," what about "thinking of my husband of another human being while thinking of myself as a human with faults too. A little humility gave me the distance I needed to consider our differences more objectively."

Instead of "the trainers' motto" how about this motto for wives: "I share some at least blame here because I am not yet perfect."

And instead of taking the "this didn't work" data as motivation to change the procedure, how about taking it as motivation to change the hypothesis to something more like "Maybe treating my husband like an exotic animal wasn't where I should have started. Maybe the problem is more in my own heart and my inability to love him sacrificially, practicing longsuffering when faced with his idiosyncrasies."

This is the scientific method gone bad wrong. Evidence suggests that my husband is perhaps better than average: he contributes to the household economy (perhaps more than I do) and is characterized by real meekness. Still, wherever he can, he leaves piles of unexplained papers and clothes and old things that clearly should be thrown away while he fritters away down time playing Gamecube football. Does this mean I should try to train him like a killer whale? Heaven forbid. Let us live together in love, not manipulation.


Brent A said...

Jenn - Well said! Kat didn't mention this article to me, though! I think she's keeping it in reserve just in case she has to start the IML treatment on me if I get too ornery.

It does explain the sudden emergence of the clicker and the bucket of fish that she flings my way periodically... Interesting!

Jen Strange said...

Just wait until you're actually married. . . .