I was having a chat with one of my nearest and dearest last night — let's say her name is Sally — and she said that there was one tiny thing about her new boyfriend she wished she could change.
The one thing? Sometimes, when they go out to dinner — and more frequently when they have dinner at home — he will use a toothpick to clean out his teeth, post-meal, in a particularly vigorous way. (It's a good thing he does it after they eat, because from the sounds of things, it might turn the stomach.)
Sally was like, "Am I being unfair? Should I even mention that it bothers me?"
"Say something," I urged her. "Just do it gently. If you don't, it'll just bother you more and more. Plus, this is the kind of thing that may affect his ability to shine at a work conference or to make friends or whatever. Also, it sounds a little ... unappetizing. And if you're noticing it, surely other people are, too. I think if you can joke about it slightly and make sure it comes across in a loving way, it'll be okay--though I know it's a tough situation."
"I've been ignoring it," she said. "I look at my BlackBerry or something. And isn't ignoring it supposed to work? That's what the Shamu lady said."
The "Shamu lady" is not someone Sally and I have discussed before, but I happened to know she was talking about the woman who wrote a 2006 "Modern Love" essay for the New York Times about how she used whale-training techniques to get her husband to stop doing things that annoyed her. It went on to become the most-e-mailed NYT article of the year — and led to a book deal for the writer, too.
But Sally had taken away the wrong message from the article.
Before I go any further, let me briefly describe the piece for you. In it, the writer describes certain "minor spousal annoyances" that were "not the stuff of separation and divorce, but in sum they began to dull my love for Scott. So, like many wives before me ... I 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 THEN! "Then something magical happened," she continues. "For a book I was writing about a school for exotic animal trainers ... I spent my days watching students do the seemingly impossible: teaching hyenas to pirouette on command, cougars to offer their paws for a nail clipping, and baboons to skateboard. I listened, rapt, as professional trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might work on that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband. The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don't. Back [home] in Maine, I began thanking Scott if he threw one dirty shirt into the hamper. If he threw in two, I'd kiss him. Meanwhile, I would step over any soiled clothes on the floor without one sharp word, though I did sometimes kick them under the bed. But as he basked in my appreciation, the piles became smaller."
It's a great little article that'll make you think.
But in Sally's case, ignoring the behavior wasn't going to work — because there was no contrasting behavior she could reward. She couldn't kiss her boyfriend for not using a toothpick in such a way that he would understand what she was doing unless she told him explicitly: "I am kissing you for not using a toothpick." She also couldn't ignore it in a very specific way; by looking away during their meals, she could simply be attending to her BlackBerry, which is always going off, because she had a high-intensity round-the-clock kind of job.
So, I think, you can't just ignore behavior you don't like — unless there's an opposing behavior that you can clearly reward. Are you with me on that?
Anyway, the article is worth reading, and worth thinking about, if you have a stubborn partner you'd like to change. Have any of you tried out the Shamu techniques?