Some years ago, Suellen and I were vacationing in England when we came across a tempest in a teapot in the local newspapers. It seems that a woman who was widely regarded as the best dog trainer in the country had written a book about husband training. Titled Bring Your Husband to Heel, the book suggested that training a husband was really not that different from training a dog. (Disclosure: I may have misremembered the book’s title. I can’t find it on the web.)
Letters to the editor in the local papers fell into three categories. The first group lamented, “This is terrible. It’s an insult to husbands.” The second group wrote, “This is terrible. It’s an insult to dogs.” The third group, which was composed only of women, wrote, “This is terrible. How dare she divulge our secrets?”
So what were the secrets? The essential advice was: Ignore bad behavior. Reward good behavior. As the author pointed out, dogs don’t really understand what they’ve done wrong, even if you tell them in a very loud voice. On the other hand, they do understand what it means to get a treat. If they need to behave a certain way to get a treat, then they’ll do it.
The secret to ignoring bad behavior is to not take it personally. With a dog, that’s easy. We usually don’t conclude that Fido is angry and vengeful just because he knocked over a lamp with a wagging tail. With a spouse, however, it’s harder. We may conclude that he or she is taking it out on us.
The author’s advice: get over it. Criticizing gets you nowhere. Telling a husband he’s messy doesn’t change the behavior. Besides, he probably already knew that. Telling him repeatedly doesn’t change the equation. So, ignore it and focus on rewarding the behaviors that you like. As “good” behaviors accumulate, they start to crowd out “bad” behaviors.
I was reminded of the book by one of David Brooks’ recent columns in the New York Times. Brooks tells the story of another Briton, Nick Crews, who wrote a letter telling his three grown children that they were “bitter disappointments” and he was sick and tired of them. The letter went viral (it’s known as the Crews Missile) and many parents, apparently, wished they had written it. As Brooks’ points out, however, “…no matter how emotionally satisfying these tirades may be, they don’t really work…. There’s a trove of research suggesting that it’s best to tackle negative behaviors obliquely, by redirecting attention toward different, positive ones.”
So the dog trainer apparently had it right. Want a better-behaved husband? Easy. Just give him treats.