Can Women Train Their Husbands and Get Men to Do What They Want?

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There is a nagging question that some women often ask themselves. How do they train their husbands? In a world where the rate of divorce is equal to the rate of marriage, any fresh ideas or techniques that can salvage marriages becomes enticing.

Two books — one new and the other old — deal with this issue of training husbands. Angela Christian Pope’s e-book, How To Train Your Husband, released on Sept. 5, 2013, is short, concise and to the point. She offers practical recommendations to help women cope with their husbands and illicit from them the positive responses that will make their marriages better. Amy Sutherland’s one, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage, published in 2007, is unique because the author uses animal training techniques to train what she calls “that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband.”

Pope acknowledges that not all husbands and wives are the same, of course, but many do share common traits. She then makes a bold statement, one that sums up the needs of that complex male creature we call a husband: “Other than love, which everyone needs, the two biggest things most men need in life are respect and sex.” If only women would understand that simple fact, their lives would be a lot easier. Simply put, according to Pope, men are biologically and inherently “wired for” these needs. While many men would find this characterization of them very simplistic (alas, whatever happened to men’s obsession with male comradeship, sports, and power?), Pope interjects her expertise to bolster her claim. Other than her educational credentials, which include degrees in psychology and education, she has also counseled many couples. Still, her biggest accomplishment is the fact that she was once in a volatile marriage that lasted for 16 years and then later experienced and survived a bitter divorce. She has since been happily married again. In other words, she has seen it all: what works in marriage and what does not.

Training husbands is no easy task because men bring into their marriages some long entrenched behaviors. Interestingly, Pope also delivers a cautionary note for women: You can’t train your husbands unless you are willing to train yourself. In fact, the author makes it clear that what men do is generally react to what women do. She gives some general pointers to women as part of her husband-training:

1. Avoid criticizing your husband in public, and especially in front of the children. Such scathing criticism will “tear a man like nothing.”

2. If you have to fight, do so fairly. That means no name-calling. There are certain words one has to avoid like “never” and “always.” Accusing your husband by saying he “never” cleans or is “always” late will make him defensive and unwilling to change.

3. Don’t act like you are fine when in fact you are angry with him. Tell him why you are upset with him, but in a calm way.

4. In terms of intimacy, avoid always having a headache. Men are not dumb and they know when they are being rejected with untenable excuses.

5. Don’t play games with your husband because being honest is the best policy.

6. Compliment him as much as you can. These acts of appreciation, indeed, will strengthen your relationship. In other words, don’t ever take him for granted.

7. Keep your private life private. While it is a good idea to have a special friend whom you can confide in, it is always better not to divulge your marital secrets to others. Keeping your husband’s secrets is also paramount because it is a matter of trust.

Pope adds other recommendations such as making all important decisions together, praising him, showing your love instead of simply saying, “I love you” and never using sex as a weapon because if you do that, he will see you as “the enemy” instead of the “object of his affection.” And finally, men need their personal space, so let him have guy time.

While Pope’s advice might seem paradoxically geared to making men happy, she, in fact, deals with the subject of training husbands as a kind of teamwork that can occur between couples. When the author tells women to respect their husbands, she also makes it clear that wives must also be respected in return; respect is never a-one-way-street.

The other book by Amy Sutherland is a bit controversial because her techniques will raise some eyebrows. Sutherland was already an accomplished writer and the author of a bestseller, Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the World’s Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers (2006), when she wrote an interesting article (the most viewed and e-mailed piece in the New York Times in the year 2006), called, “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage.” Her book bears slightly a similar title.

According to Sutherland, the “key to marital bliss is to ignore negative habits and reward positive ones, the same approach animal trainers use to get killer whales to leap from their tanks, and elephants to stand on their heads.” Animal trainers use a method called the Least Reinforcing Scenario (LRS) which is: You reward the behavior you like and ignore the one you disapprove of. When a trainer notices a dolphin has done something wrong, he stands still for a few seconds without looking at the animal in the eye, and then he returns to work. The idea is that any response from the trainer, either positive or negative, “fuels a behavior” but if an unacceptable behavior does not provoke any response that behavior simply dies out.

While Sutherland admits that her animal training technique is neither original nor a quick fix, she is adamant that the approach works for both genders.

Sutherland was leading what seemed to be a happy life. Her loving husband, Scott, had many good traits but she was annoyed by his habits of constantly losing his keys and then bugging her about their whereabouts, leaving his dirty laundry on the floor, putting empty milk cartons back in the refrigerator, coming late to dinner appointments as she waited for him in restaurants, and crowding her in the kitchen as she cooked. Her concern was: how to deal with Scott’s annoying habits and free her marriage from these irritants. While researching her first book, she thought of adopting the techniques animal trainers use. Sutherland began to ignore Scott’s nagging questions about finding his keys. She started giving him snacks to munch in the living room while she prepared for dinner, and rewarded him by complimenting him every time he placed his dirty clothes in the hamper.

Her technique did work, and her marriage, in her own words, became “far smoother, her husband much easier to love.” She realized that her habit of taking his negative traits personally had been counter-productive. As the animal trainers’ motto says, “It is never the animal’s fault.”  She added, “The more positive I was with my husband, or more importantly, the less critical I was, the faster his husbandly defensiveness faded away.” When Sutherland asked her husband to do something, he responded positively. “He seemed at ease,” she noted, “maybe in a way he hadn’t before, he begun to trust me.”

Humans have the habit of not noticing good deeds and instead focusing on only the negative habits. For instance, parents do not notice the times when their children are riding in the car peacefully, but when one makes a mistake, there is an urgent need to dwell on that negative behavior. Husbands are also not noticed for all the good things they do for their family, argues Sutherland, but when one does not take out the garbage, all hell breaks loose.

When Sutherland says the technique works for both genders, she is right. One day, she went to the dentist and had crown work. For a week, she was in excruciating pain and kept complaining to Scott about her physical condition. Then, she noticed that her husband was quiet and kept listening to her as she whined without uttering a word. Suddenly, she realized what was going on. “Are you giving me an L.R.S? [i.e ignoring my constant whining] You are, aren’t you,” she asked. Scott smiled. It became evident to her that he was training her, the American wife. The phrase “Did you just shamu me?” became her husband’s typical response when he felt subjected to Sutherland’s tactics.

Sutherland implies that we are all animals but men are different animals than women animals. While humans are more complicated than other animals, there are universal “rules of behavior” that indeed “cut across all species.”

Husband training conjures up the notion that women have all the answers for making their marriages work better. Why is it that only women have to work harder than their husbands to make their marriages successful? Why do men need to be trained? As a rule, a trainer has the knowledge and the information a trainee lacks, but the two cited authors here see husband training as more of an effort to educate women about the simplicity of men’s needs and the predictability of male behavior. In reality, men are neither dogs nor dolphins who simply respond to certain stimuli. The trainer method of reinforcing the positive and ignoring the negative, however, is very effective in learning. But men are more complex species than animals because animals don’t react to power the same way that humans often do. Animals see their trainers as their masters; humans don’t see others that way. Moreover, men are, of course, capable of training their trainer.

Hassan M. Abukar is a freelance writer and Sahan Journal contributor. He can be reached at

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