Saturday, July 10, 2010

What I Learned from Shamu

Every now and then I catch myself engaging in old behaviors or thought patterns.

It happened to me recently in the most awful and unexpected way. I was talking to a sponsee who was finding it difficult to reconcile her desires with her partner’s habits.

She admitted that he was making efforts.

I suggested that she thank him from those efforts, and refrain from complaining about how much more he wasn’t doing.

So far, so good. But I didn’t leave it at that.

For some reason, my brain went straight to an article I read in the New York Times several years ago. It appeared in a regular Sunday feature called “Modern Love.” The title of this essay was “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage.”

I loved this essay, and so did a lot of other people. It became one of the most read and e-mailed articles on I even sent it to my daughter, who was beginning to have trouble in her marriage.

The gist of the story is that, in the course of writing a book about a school for exotic animal trainers, the writer got the idea that she could use these techniques on her husband.

The writer would be taking notes on how to walk an emu or have a wolf accept you as a pack member, and scribble in the margin: “Try on Scott.”

For example, she wrote about a technique called “approximations.”

“You can’t expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session, just as you can’t expect an American husband to begin regularly picking up his dirty socks by praising him once for picking up a single sock,” she wrote.

“With the baboon you first reward a hop, then a bigger hop, than an even bigger hop. With Scott the husband, I began to praise every small act every time: if he drove just a mile an hour slower, tossed one pair of shorts into the hamper, or was on time for anything.”

As I recounted this article with my sponsee (my sponsee!!!), I felt an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. There was only one word for what I was advising: manipulation.

Ughh! I felt like I had just put my finger to a flame. I couldn’t believe I had just said that. I actually felt a physical revulsion.

“Never mind about that,” I said quickly. “That’s a bad example, and turned my attention to proven Al-Anon principles. Like powerlessness and acceptance.

Just to satisfy my curiosity, I looked up that article and read it again. It was as clever and delightful a read as I remembered, but it was manipulation, pure and simple.

I took my gut reaction to talking about it as a marker of growth. When I first read it, I thought the writer was brilliant.

But rereading the essay, I did find points that seemed perfectly aligned with Al-Anon principles.

Like when she stopped taking her husband’s fault’s personally. In Al-Anon, we call this detachment.

The writer did this by thinking of her husband as an exotic species, which allowed herself a measure of objectivity. Could I imagine my alcoholic as an exotic species? Not so much a stretch.

She also realized 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 keys,” she said. In Al-Anon, we call that acceptance.

One technique seemed right out of the Al-Anon playbook. It was called least reinforcing syndrome (L.R.S.). When her husband used to lose his keys, she’d drop what she was doing and help him hunt, which only made him angrier, and usually resulted in full-blown drama.

The idea behind L.R.S. was to completely ignore behavior that bothered her, under the assumption that by not reinforcing a behavior, either positively or negatively, it would stop.

The next time her husband lost his keys, she kept her mouth shut and continued what she was doing. A few minutes later, he emerged, keys in hand, the storm clouds having passed.

In Al-Anon, this is what we call “dropping the rope.” Our alcoholics are used to engaging us in a certain way. They dangle a rope in front of us, and we dutifully pick it up for a little game of tug of war.

Tug of war only works if there are two parties. When we drop the rope, the game is over.

But that’s where it ends. Because if we are working this program with integrity and allowing the people in our lives the respect they deserve, we don’t get to manipulate. No matter how clever it sounds or how tempting it is.

If we are living this program with integrity, we allow others the dignity to make their own choices.

So what advice did I ultimately give my sponsee? I talked about awareness, acceptance and action.

I have a red coffee cup. I’m aware that red is not my favorite color. I wish it were blue. But no amount of wishing will change my coffee cup from red to blue. I have to accept that.

With that acceptance, I understand that I have certain choices: I can get a new cup, give up coffee, change how I feel about red.

But my choices do not involved changing the color of the cup.

So let’s say the problem is that her partner refuses to pick up his clothes. Her choices are either to figure out how to be okay with clothes on the floor or pick them up herself.

I tell her to ask herself “How Important is It?”

If it’s terribly important, and she must say something, I tell her she can say it once. Then she has to let it go. Any more than once is trying to control.

Shamu lady calls this nagging, and even she recognizes that it generally produces the opposite of the desired effect.

Specifically, I suggested that she not try to force a solution, but keep the focus on how the problem makes her feel and not her partner’s behavior.

“The clutter on the floor makes me feel uncomfortable. Is there something we can do about the situation that would make us both happy?”

In my own marriage, have found this approach to be helpful. My husband doesn’t like to be told what to do. So I present my problem, but not the solution.

Generally, my husband is happy to try to fix it. Often, his solution is different from the one I had in mind, but that’s okay. It generally works. And we both get what we want.

But I also have to accept it if he refuses. I can state my needs. I can ask for help. And he can say no.

That’s what it means to allow people the dignity of making their own choices. If I am living this program with dignity, I have to allow people to make their own decisions and not try to force my will. In every situation.

As for manipulation, I think I’ll leave that to the animal trainers.


  1. Very perceptive. Manipulation is a cunning and baffling affliction. Just when you think you've got it licked, it comes back dressed as something else.

  2. My husband always has clothes and books strewn all over the floor on "his' side of the bed. It used to drive me nuts. Now it only drives me nuts if I'm trying to sweep and mop, the rest of the time I just try not to look at it. I'm not tripping over it and it's not hurting anything. Acceptance 101.

  3. Great post! I can't imagine purposefully trying to train my husband. The animal training seems like a telling perspective, because if you are thinking of your spouse as an animal you have to train, that's hardly an equal, mutually respectful relationship, is it? I never wanted to be in a relationship where either person was dominant. But I've found that I do engage in a share of controlling behavior. It took me a long time to realize it. It's not so much "getting him to do what I want." but about trying to control my fears and manage my own emotions by putting pressure on him to feel a certain way. i.e. he needs to be happy so i can be. Now I see I can be happy even if he isn't. That we are two separate people who can take care of our own emotions. Have space and exist in a shared space - not a mutual enmeshed one. I can make myself happy. Thanks kathy!

  4. My problem has been the mirror opposite; and I've become really aware of it since my husband left. Instead of controlling his behavior; and (unconsciously) became a martyr by doing it all for him. I thought I was being kind and helpful and a good wife. I am starting to see that I know better. At that too, of course, is a form of manipulation...make him feel guilty. I've got a lot to learn.

  5. It is always nice when I see where I have grown or become more aware.

  6. I see your point to a certain extent. My husband and I bought a business together and he knows a lot more about running it then I do. I'm trying to learn how to run the business and get very frustrated when he doesn't realize when he taking over and being controlling. I do not think it would be manipulating if I praised him when he explained something to me, to make us both aware that he just taught me something and didn't blow me off.

  7. I never realized how much I tried to manipulate and control until Al-Anon - at least now MUCH of the time I can see it for what it is and re-tract it/acknowledge it. Progress...
    I forgot about the tug-of-war, thanks for reminding me -it is a good illustration.
    God bless.

  8. your posts are always such a wealth of information for me.

    i love that I mention dropping the rope, not even two weeks ago at my meeting, and here it is again.

    thank you for your prayers and support. it means the world to me and I appreciate it immensely.

  9. I love your blog. It actually has me thinking about finding a meeting here in town. I loved the coffee cup analogy. I would like it tattooed on my forhead. "changing the color of the cup is not an option".

  10. I can remember when I was a young new bride I heard women much older laughing about how the train their husbands. It sounded like dog training to me. I did not care for it at all. I like how you share what works for you with your husband. My husband does not like to be told what to do either. He also does not like to be questioned. I think the being questioned is some of the baggage he brought with him from previous marriages. I have learned how to tell him what is bothering me and let it go.

  11. Great post Kathy. I loved the reminder about dropping the rope. I am as addicted to picking up that rope as any alcoholic, and in my mind, I am responsible for all loose ends. I'm going to try to learn to leave it lie!

  12. thanks for visiting our blog and leaving a comment; so sorry about your corgi; they are wonderful dogs, aren't they?

    I enjoyed reading your entry; lots of things to think about indeed. Because Jesus is my "higher power" I tend to try to live like he lived so in dealing with my husband (and this has taken years for me to get here, LOL) I try to see the plank in my eye rather than the splinter in his. We aren't dealing with any addiction issues but there are things that I do that I know bother him and things he does that bother me and I try to treat him with kindness/respect and let go of those things that could cause lots of conflict but do they really matter in the long run? (hope this made sense :)

    best wishes to you and yours :)


  13. Hey Kathy, I responded to your comment, but I wanted to come back here and touch base with you (just in case you don't go back to check for a response to your comment).

    I was wondering if you could email me (address is in my profile). I was going to email you, and ask you about the acceptance and resentment prayers, but I couldn't find your email address.

    I really appreciate the guidance you gave me. I'm really glad I asked.

  14. Kathy, another very informative post. Thank you. Blessings.

  15. I had never heard that term before "dropping the rope" but it really resinated with is something I won't soon forget. Thank you.

  16. Al-Anon has taught me to let go of so many things that used to bother me. I mind my own business. It is not possible for me to "train" an alcoholic even if I wanted to. I will not beat them at their own game but have to simply take care of myself.