Real Chick Lit: What Shamu Taught Me About Not Being An Annoying Nag

One of the things you learn very quickly in a relationship is that people have really annoying habits. This becomes especially apparent when you move in with someone and suddenly their little eccentricities become part of your everyday life, from the way they leave empty paper coffee cups on the table for weeks on end, to their belief that the perfect place for that wet towel is bunched up on the bed and not on the hook in the bathroom. You also realize that changing these aspects of their personality is a task that is much easier said than done. Before anyone jumps all over me with the whole “you don’t want to change someone you love”, let me call B.S. When confronted with a bathroom sink filled with your love’s tiny black beard hairs, yes you do. You don’t love them any less because of those annoying habits, but you might love ‘em a tiny bit more without them. It was with that in mind that I sat down to read Amy Sutherland’s What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers. And as most Hallmark story endings go, in the end, I ended up training myself. The three tricks that worked the best, after the jump. The book is based on a New York Times “Modern Love” column that Sutherland wrote, which quickly became the most emailed article of 2006. Sutherland then spent a few years researching how the techniques of animal trainers, specially positive reinforcement, can be used on the people in our everyday lives. Here’s what I learned, in brief.

1. Don’t Nag Face it, we all do it. I do it A LOT. I am a nagging queen. Partially it is because I am OCD, and many, many things get on my last nerve, but instead of examining my own responses to things, I’ve obsessed over my fiance not folding to my needs. Nagging is the exact wrong approach to getting what you want—it irritates the person and often times has no long lasting results. Sure, you may pester your boyfriend or girlfriend into doing the dishes after dinner instead of in the morning, but chances are you’re going to have the same battle day after day, not to mention develop quite a rep for being a pain in the ass. Before I could start addressing the things about M. that really drove me crazy, I needed to think about which of my complaints were justified, which I could get over, and which I really needed something to be done about. Turns out, after some reflection, there were really only a handful that truly made me upset. Those were the ones worth working on. The others I needed to let slide. A relationship is a partnership and requires compromise. I knew M. had things that bugged him about me, but he very rarely actually brought them to my attention, because he knew better than I that they weren’t worth being upset about. I needed to cut him the same slack. So I did.

2. Ignore Him One of the things my dude does that drives me absolutely bonkers is that when he misplaces something, even if only for a second, he immediately needs my help in locating it. It’s not that I don’t want to help, it’s that I know 99% of the time the item that’s missing is actually right in front of his face. I have no desire to give him the impression that I am the only person in the house who has the magic power of locating it, which is what happens if you give in to such a whining need for help. Sutherland advices not entertaining such mini-tantrums, even in the slightest. “Honey, where are my keys?” should go with zero physical or verbal response. At first your partner may think you’re being an ass, but eventually they’ll wear themselves out asking—and then discover the missing item on their own. The objective is behavior modification without directly telling the person what you want them to alter. This is the essense of positive reinforcement training—when the person doesn’t do what you’d like them to do, you ignore, you don’t nag and you don’t acknowledge. That way they have no feeling whatsoever associated with their “misbehavior”. The last thing a proponent of positive reinforcement wants is the animal or person doing something out of fear of punishment. I have to say, that this has started to work well. This morning while I was getting read for work, the feef called out for me from the bedroom—by the tone of his voice, I could tell it was to request some sort of service. I went about my morning with nary a response and didn’t hear a thing from him until I went to kiss him goodbye on my way out the door.

3. Say Thank You For the things that really drove me up a wall, I needed to first understand why M. did (or didn’t do) what he did. Sutherland says that most peoples’ annoying behaviors have been a part of them for a very long time, have probably never been pointed out before on an ongoing basis, and are not as simple for the person to change as you’d want them to be from just a simple request. For starters, Sutherland suggests thanking your partner more often for the things that they do “right”—chances are, you don’t get thanked enough in your life and they don’t either. That doesn’t mean going overboard by any means, but a simple thank you when someone takes out the trash without asking can do wonders. I started paying close attention to the little things M. did that I had always been too busy to notice. For starters, when it was his turn to cook dinner, he always put a lot of effort into plating. It was one of the ways he liked to make dinner special on his nights and I very rarely said thank you for that. After he started feel more subtle appreciation for what he did naturally (and I genuinely was more grateful), I started asking him to make the bed if he got up later than I did, to hang up his wet towels, and to put his shoes in the closet when he came home. When he did those things, I immediately acknowledged them. And as I previously noted, when he didn’t do them, I didn’t say anything. Lo and behold, I’d say about 75% of the time since I started using Sutherland’s methods, I have come home to a made bed. It doesn’t have my insane perfectly folders corners and folded down duvet cover (what I lovingly called “hotel bed”-style), but it’s something. We’re still working on the towel-thing though.