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Tips you can pick up from experts to handle your spouse

Dolphins flip and balance a ball on their nose, elephants pick up logs, horses show jump and dogs retrieve stuff. Just how are they trained? Amy Sutherland spent time in a school for trainers of exotic animals (to write a book about it) and had a flash. Why couldn't she use the same techniques on her husband, a loveable person whom she wanted to "nudge a little closer to perfect"? She did and recorded how she successfully replicated them at home. Her essay became an instant hit. Training - at least the effort to improve - the spouse (let's leave men-bashing out of this) is not a particularly original idea ("He'd look for a matchbox in the fridge, but now cuts the vegetables, does the grinding", "After years of telling, she's learnt to fold the newspaper and press the toothpaste tube"), but doing it systematically, consciously with tried and tested methods, is. Nagging, you see, is not an option for trainers.

Expert advice

What can we pick up from these experts? (1) Reward good behaviour: Every time the spouse leaves the lights/fans on, forgets to credit a cheque, refuses to dispose of old paper, your natural response is to carp. This flares into foul-mouthing, ends in door slamming. Instead of complaining, try the sugar cube-or-fish-for-performing-the-trick method. When s/he does a chore, thank and appreciate. "That's a neat folding job, dear." Works better than under-the-surface resentment or sarcasm. Be patient. A seal doesn't push the ball to the trainer in one session. (2) Clued-in trainers learn all about the animals they deal with, its social structure, food habits, likes and dislikes. Do the same about your partner. S/he is a loner? Attached to his family? Enjoy challenges? Obsessed with news? Food driven? Behavioural engineering is built on understanding the subject. What comes easily to her? Striking a bargain does, but being on time doesn't. (3) Another concept is "incompatible behaviour". To prevent birds landing on his shoulder, the trainer taught them to land on mats. This way, he made unacceptable behaviour impossible. The birds couldn't perch on his shoulder and alight on the ground at the same time. Try that at home. He has a tendency to crowd you in the kitchen? Give him a job every time he enters. She can't stop complaining about neighbours? Change the topic.(4) Least Response Syndrome (LRS): When an animal does something wrong, the trainer pays no attention at all. With zero response, the action eventually dies away. Shouting at a short-tempered spouse will only start a much louder ping-pong contest. Clam up, do what you're doing. The storm will spend itself. (5) Check your own shortcomings. Do you fuel his/her behaviour? Think of new strategies. Brainstorm new ways of crushing "inappropriate conduct", rewarding small improvements. After two years, Sutherland's "marriage was much smoother and her husband was much easier to love".I put these to friends of all ages. There was near-unanimous agreement on personality profiling. Welcoming small successes had its supporters too. Anuja gives a thumbs up, smiles and says, "Great job!" when her husband doesn't light up for a day. But a new bride wasn't so sure. "My husband is no dumb-head. He would detect the manipulation a mile away." Sutherland's husband caught on and began using LRS on her. But LRS got the thumbs down from the girls here. "Imagine your spouse slurps coffee noisily," said an executive. "You don't like it . You've read Sutherland's What Shamu Taught Me and decide to ignore it. Will the spouse ever know how inconsiderate and irritating the noise is? Nope. So unacceptable behaviour continues. Your silence is a sign of acceptance.". Sutherland, of course, concedes that not all human quirks can be modified. Some are "entrenched and intuitive" (like forgetfulness, temper tantrums and TV addiction?) But positive reinforcement techniques do deserve a clinical trial. Also, human relationships do not thrive on rewards alone. Yes, we are manipulative but we are also thinking, social beings. A relationship works when each believes that the other cares, each reckons with the other's hang-ups, ups and downs and leaps to face crises on the other's behalf. It's all about readiness to share.What makes a happy marriage? In two-income, time-pressured lives, disagreements are inevitable. Learn to handle them. Commitment by itself does not a marriage make. You need to develop skills - for conflict resolution, for expressing admiration and appreciation, to use the right start-ups when you complain. Face your particular peeves as you would a bad back or a creaking knee. You wish they weren't there, but you talk about them and learn to accommodate them. GEETA PADMANABHAN

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