Training Animals is Simple but My Marriage/Family is a Mess


A New York Times article, “No Sound, No Fury, No Marriage” by Laura Pritchett appears just as I am reading Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor.


What does the founder of “clicker” training, an observation based approach to shaping animal behavior using positive reinforcement, have to say about human relationships? How is it that families fall apart but dogs can be well trained?



Are human relationships immune to the power of reinforcement?

Or is it just hard to notice what is going on in relationships and therefore very difficult to interrupt the negative and reward the small positives when change begins?

Training animals requires that one carefully observe the details of behavior, rewarding only positive behavior with food or praise and then reinforcing these behaviors over time till they become established. Sounds simple.  But it’s difficult to do when it comes to humans.



We are social animals that are not as oriented to food but to being a part of the pack.  The human animal has been trained by a multigenerational social system.

Our genetic inheritance is complex.  Our brain controls our social/emotional functioning and both make it difficult to change ourselves over the long term.

Can any of us see how our current life has many of the same patterns that have guided family members in the past? If so how is it that we end up doing the same kinds of things or the opposite that our grandparents did?

The challenge is to stay focused on our own part, to avoid over-reacting and falling into the psychological traps involved in changing others.



grandparetns mom dad and ams


Who thinks that their behavior is being guided by these four ancient mechanisms? Distance, conflict, reciprocal relationships and projection onto others may be analogous to behavioral reflexes, like responding to the offer of food. The four relationship patterns respond to our intolerance for stress.

Anxiety goes up and we are more vulnerable to distance, etc. The other option – differentiation of self – is based on our ability to stand on principles and find ways to manage self with others.

Karen Pryor can train all kinds of animals.   Even as primitive a life form as a hermit crab can be taught to ring a bell.  She is a great storyteller, clarifying how behaviors can be developed, learned, and altered based on the work of Pavlov and later Skinner.[i]

Laura Pritchett describes beautifully the stress-absorbing mechanism of distance that has crept into her relationship with her husband under the pressure from increasing stress, and cast a pall over her efforts to speak her truth to her husband.

Shakespeare had it right: “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart, concealing it, will break.” I never spoke of the anger in my heart, the mounting resentments and hurts, and neither did he. I never demanded attention or care, and neither did he. And that’s why we broke.[ii]

Of course it is more complex. Pritchett speaks of both parental families using conflict as their major mechanism and the allergy to conflict that this created in each of them.

Then there is the list of stressors that may have corrupted each person’s ability to take on more stress and anxiety, impairing their ability to be more independent and mature selves.

Yet who does not know the urge to keep things normal for the sake of the children as in recent years they have already been traumatized by things beyond their control: evacuated for wildfires, cut off by historic flooding and exposed to loss and devastation.[iii]

It all seems very rational, the many challenging reasons to be quiet, to get along, to pretend.   Yet how many people think of this urge to protect as letting a primitive mechanism, distance, guide one’s behavior?

There is a cost to take on the challenge of being more of a self in relationships and to learn to tolerate the disruption in the system. After all, who wants upset?  Not your children, your spouse or even your extended family not to mention your friends or even the neighbors. Yes, the difficulty of defining yourself to important others without receiving love and approval from them cannot be overstated.

That is the beauty of the piece by Laura Pritchett.   You can see the logic and how much easier it is to (try to) change partners than to tolerate the upset in the “stuck” relationship.

The alternative of striving to be open and being willing to take the rejection that often follows any attempt to disrupt the pattern of relating by being more self-defined, is not understood as an option.

Pritchett speaks of her inability to demand attention and care without really understanding that this is a long way from being self-defined. This automatic “other focus” is a “reflex-like” behavior. It leads one to see the other as the one that needs to change.   This “other focus” leads to polarization, blame etc. with all its negative ramifications.

If you could solve marital problems as Karen Pryor does in training a dog, you would still have to focus on self not just the other. The trainer decides when and how to reward and reinforce the desired behavior with a pat on the back or something like “good dog.”

Karen Pryor also admits to her problems with animals, describing her part in relationship failure and the heart breaking depressions that even fish or monkeys fall into when the trainer is inconsistent.

Capuchin monkey eating_3

In my book, Your Mindful Compass, the process of self-definition asks any of us interested in becoming more mature, to define what we will or will not do to change self in the system.

Focusing on what it is “I” can do and take responsibility for, takes the “other focus” off the table gives others greater freedom. The idea that one can change self and thereby alter the system moves beyond behaviorism.

The long-term nature of defining yourself in multiple relationships requires that the family leader not react to any negative reaction from others.

Yes, people object to change but usually family members do not get depressed when someone defines self. Often they simply criticize the leader for upsetting others. Therefore, the one who is willing to change self in a system understands the complex nature of the emotional process.

  • They are aware of the inevitable resistance to any change in the system.
  • They have impersonal knowledge as to how systems function: understanding how families are automatically organized, how to extinguish or reinforce behaviors, and focus on relating to others while being a more separate self in the system.
  • They have a willingness to use system knowledge to steady self and to manage without love and approval while the system itself changes.

Systems knowledge gives one the ability to act in more self-aware ways. People speak of standing on principles when defining what they will or will not do. Others speak of describing the nature of the emotional system as a way of putting more information into the system.   Overall systems thinking allows people to choose a more mature way of interacting in the hope that changing self can influence the larger system over time.


[i] Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals June 8, 2010 by Karen Pryor





One comment

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