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 nytimes.com. 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.