I’ll admit it — my first read of this article caused me to conjure up a pretty unattractive picture of myself. I, the seal, clapping my fins together, while my wife stands at the edge of the pool, poised to drop a fish in my mouth. But when I read a second time Amy Sutherland’s “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage” (a June 2006 Modern Love essay that became one of the New York Times’ most-emailed stories of all time), I began to look at the article from a slightly different angle.

Amy loves Scott (her husband of 12 years), but she naturally fights deep annoyance over his propensity to lose his car keys, scatter his clothes on the bedroom floor, and hover over her when she needs space. Any direct attempts to address his frustrating behaviors (e.g., nagging) compounded the problems.

Her breakthrough came when she found herself writing a book on exotic animal trainers (think, teaching sea lions to balance balloons or baboons to skateboard). She couldn’t wait to try out some of these tricks on her husband.

  • One technique — “approximations” — rewards small steps toward acquiring complex behaviors. Thus, instead of nagging Scott when he left a dirty shirt on the floor, she kissed him when he threw it in the hamper.
  • I found another technique, “Least Reinforcing Syndrome” (L.R.S.), to be revelatory. A trainer disciplines herself not to respond when the dolphin does something wrong, and then after a pause to return to work. Why? “The idea is that any response, positive or negative, fuels a behavior. If a behavior provokes no response, it typically dies away.” [Amy: “In the margin of my notes I wrote, ‘Try on Scott!’”]

The results of her grand marital experiment?

“After two years of exotic animal training, my marriage is far smoother, my husband much easier to love. I used to take his faults personally; his dirty clothes on the floor were an affront, a symbol of how he didn’t care enough for me. But thinking of my husband as an exotic species gave me the distance I needed to consider our differences more objectively.

Eventually, Amy told Scott that he was the unwitting subject of her experiments, and to his credit “he wasn’t offended, just amused.” Not only that, but when Amy “complained frequently and loudly” about the humiliation of wearing braces on her teeth in middle age, Scott didn’t respond. She confronted him: “Are you giving me an L.R.S.?” Scott initially said nothing. “He finally smiled, but his L.R.S. has already done the trick. He’d begun to train me, the American wife.”

Yes, this article has a sturdy “tongue-in-cheek” feel to it, and its conclusions should not be pushed too far. Still, I couldn’t help but believe that it reinforced many truths Mockingbird has taught me about imputation, about treating your spouse “as a small child,” and about how the law (see “nagging”) increases the trespass (Romans 5:20). We might bristle to think of ourselves as similar to easily-manipulated marine-mammals, but maybe that’s not what’s going on here.

What if spouses, indeed humans, learned to think of each other as exotic species worthy of study? What if all of us realized that we are starved for grace, and a surprising kiss (for doing what any reasonable adult should already do, like putting a dirty shirt in a hamper) feels more like grace and less like a “reward”? What if the investment of tiny kindnesses, like a little ‘cup of cold water’ to one who least expects it (Matthew 10:42), stands out in God’s economy? What if refusing to respond to the worst instincts in another gives just an infinitesimal glimpse of a Lamb, who “before its shearers is silent” (Isaiah 53:7)? Think on these things…while I go in search of another mackerel.