Reposted from January, 2007, and just as pertinent now as it was then:
High on the list of The New York Times' "most e-mailed articles" is one that's catchily titled "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage," by a writer named Amy Sutherland. Apparently it's a well-regarded, influential essay. I think it's misleading and wrong-headed, and I think that couples who heed its advice will soon find themselves not in a happy marriage but in one that's sterile and empty.
Amy's column is at this address, and will be available unless and until the strapped and greedy Times decides to put it behind a paid wall. A summary: poor Amy is perpetually annoyed by Scott, her husband of twelve years. He loses his keys and asks her help finding them; he keeps her waiting at restaurants; he "hovers around her in the kitchen asking if she has read this or that piece in the New Yorker." She's tried nagging, but it doesn't work. As it happens, Amy is writing a book on animal training and she's watched people "do the seemingly impossible," such as 'teaching baboons to skateboard" and "hyenas to pirouette on command." She decides to adopt the animal model and "train" her husband. "If he threw one dirty shirt into the hamper, I'd thank him. If he threw in two, I'd kiss him." She rewards "approximations." She uses "least reinforcing syndrome" in which the trainer doesn't respond in any way when an animal does something wrong -- just stands and stares. When Scott loses his keys, she ignores his pleas for help, and eventually he finds them by himself. By the end of the article, Scott has changed. "After two years of exotic animal training, my marriage is far smoother, my husband much easier to love."
What's so awful about this advice? Let's take the shirts-on-the-floor crisis. Amy can imagine only two methods to deal with this problem. There's nagging, which she now rejects, and there's re-training. But there are other responses. The first is for Amy to gain a bit of perspective. Marriage isn't about whether the dirty shirts are in the hamper or on the floor. People have had long and happy marriages without resolving such issues. Amy seems to assume that getting her way about the shirts is crucial. But when she and Scott married, they agreed to love, honor, and respect each other; they didn't agree that every single shirt would immediately find its way into a hamper. Perhaps Amy should re-think her priorities and try to keep the larger picture in view. Secondly, Amy can't seem to imagine any ground between nagging and animal training. But there is -- there's an enormous territory. There's discussion, negotiation, and compromise. Amy: "It bothers me that you expect me to pick up your shirts." Scott: "I'll try not to drop them. I'll pick them up myself." Amy: "And I'll try not to make such a big deal out of it."
When Scott comes into the kitchen and wants to read to her from a New Yorker article, Amy could say, if she had any imagination, "Oh, good. Scott wants to involve me in his intellectual life. He wants to talk to me." But she doesn't see it that way; she wants him out of the room so she can "concentrate on the simmering pans." But what's important about marriage, or about life? Is it the pans, or is it the conversation? Once again, Amy has it all wrong. She cares about her cooking, and getting the soup exactly right, more than she cares about the marriage. It shouldn't be beyond her ability to stir and to listen at the same time; it's been known to happen. Amy is, let's face it, a bit of a narcissist. She wants to make Scott into an extension of herself; she wants to subordinate the marriage to her own convenience.
Readers and friends, here's my opinion. If your spouse comes to you and says, "I've lost my keys, I'm distressed," you should stop whatever you're doing and you should start searching. When you do so, you're treating your spouse with respect and you're taking your marriage seriously. And if you happen to misplace your own keys, it's perfectly fair to ask your spouse to help find them. Because sometimes finding keys is a team activity. I'll go even further: sometimes it's less important to find the lost keys than it is to search for them together.
But you should engage yourself with the problem of the keys, or the shirts, only if you want a relationship of equals. If you think that it's so important to train your spouse to stay out of your damn kitchen, then go ahead and follow Amy's advice. But you might wind up with not with a husband or wife, but with a pirouetting hyena or a skateboarding baboon.
Amy and Scott: here's some valuable advice. It comes to you courtesy of Mr. Hart, who lived a couple of houses down from us. He died at age 90, in the same month as his equally aged wife. The Harts had been married for 60 or so years. "What's the secret of a long, happy marriage," he was asked. He said, "find out what your wife wants and make sure that it happens." Which is, if you think about it for a moment, only a variation of the traditional golden rule and of its even more practical cousin: "do unto others as they want to be done unto."