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The Space Between Stimulus and Response

Originally posted in May 2009

Close friends and family members are typically surprised when they learn that my wife Margaret and I have had a good number of fights over the years. At first glance, both of us are generally viewed as being kind, thoughtful, and maybe even a bit shy. So jaws tend to drop when people find out that we're far from being the Cleavers.

I'm not talking about getting a smidge annoyed and being sullen for a few hours after having a disagreement; we've had fights that have included world-class hollering, slamming of doors, and Margaret hopping on a bus to flee to Toronto.

I don't hesitate to openly share some of the difficult times that we've gone through because I believe that being open and thoughtfully honest about our relationship can make it stronger, and my hope is that sharing our intermittent struggles might be helpful to others who pause to wonder if they're the only ones who struggle badly at times.

The first two years of our marriage were the toughest. Just a few days after getting married, we opened our doors to a residential fasting clinic that I put all of my savings into, and from that point on, we were responsible for caring for fasting guests close to 24/7 on top of me running an outpatient practice.

I would work with patients and clients upstairs from about 8 am to 10, sometimes 11 pm, while Margaret would do what she could behind the scenes in our basement apartment.

By the time I got downstairs at night, all I wanted to do was take a shower, get a bite to eat, pray that none of the guests would require emergency attention, and go to sleep.

Margaret, having spent most of her days by herself, would want to spend some time together when I came downstairs.

Having an immigrant's "survive first, enjoy life later" mentality, I couldn't understand how she could get upset with me for not wanting to do much else but sleep after I had spent most of the day working to do right by our patients and provide for our family.

Having just gotten married and being transplanted to a new city straight out of graduate school and the comforts of her parents' home, Margaret couldn't understand why I wanted to get married if I didn't have time to enjoy our marriage.

I thought she was spoiled, selfish, and ungrateful.

She thought I was unbalanced, arrogant, condescending, and a mama's boy who only got married to have children.

With these dynamics in place, you can imagine how getting stuck in the clinic after standard working hours on a daily basis precipitated the same basic fight over and over again.

There was no magical cure for our troubles. We didn't go from having a tension-filled marriage to being a close couple overnight, or even over a few months.

But we have made huge strides over the years, and what's helped us more than anything was mutually agreeing to embrace the following principle:

Between every stimulus and response, there's a space. Within this space, we have the capacity to choose our response.

I learned this principle many years ago from Dr. Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

The idea is to use the space between stimulus and response to work at transcending a gut response that we know will lead to trouble, and in its place, to choose a response that honours our feelings and gives the other person a chance to understand our perspective, which will hopefully lead to a resolution that both people can truly feel good about.

Before I committed myself to applying this principle to everyday matters, when Margaret would show me that she was unhappy being married to a workaholic, I would seethe inside and flippantly say something like "I wish I had waited to marry you after you worked full time for at least a couple of years so that you could understand what it takes to make a living in this world."

Believe it or not, that was my best attempt be diplomatic.

Of course, Margaret would be all over the underlying "the-problem-here-is-you" tone like white on rice and she'd tell me in no uncertain terms what she thought of my self righteous, one-sided observation of our circumstances.

As I tried to embrace that sliver of a space between her wound-creating stimuli and my wound-generating responses, I found that it became natural to empathize with her feelings. I gradually went from feeling like she was constantly complaining to feeling her genuine pain over our circumstances.

It became natural for me to better understand and appreciate the differences in our upbringings; Margaret's parents were able to provide for all of her basic needs, including tuition, room and board right through graduate school, while I had to penny-pinch my way through university and chiropractic school with next to no help from my folks, who just didn't have financial help to give.

As Margaret also worked at choosing constructive responses to my tendency to get lost in work, I think she also began to better understand my mentality.

I became more grateful for her liking me enough that she got upset when she couldn't spend lots of time with me.

And I think she became more grateful for my devotion to providing for our family doing work that I believe in.

Thankfully, we're at a point now where there's a nice balance between work time, family time, and personal time. But there are still plenty of ongoing opportunities for us to remember to use the space that exists after every stimulus that comes our way to choose responses that stand a good chance of leading to peace and closeness rather than hurt feelings.

Even after we have a contentious moment, I consider the moment itself to be a new stimulus, and I strive to respond to this new stimulus by discarding every emotion but the desire to stay genuinely close. This attitude makes it relatively easy to own anything that I've done to contribute to the struggle, and to offer a sincere apology. To the best of my recollection, every such apology has resulted in an almost immediate return to a warm and loving atmosphere in our home, which is what both of us ultimately want.

I suppose this is the question that all of should ask ourselves whenever a new stimulus comes our way - when our child, a life partner, or a close friend is feeling grumpy and is short with us on some matter, we can use the space between stimulus and response to ask ourselves what we want. If we breathe deeply and calmly within this space and we aren't too terribly wounded, our answer will almost always be that we want everyone to be healthy and at peace. With this thought fresh in our minds, it should be natural to respond in a way that promotes harmony.

My experience has been that the more I consciously choose responses out of this mindset, the more compassion comes my way when life has me down for a few hours or more. And when I can see Margaret and others mindfully choosing to support and encourage me when I'm not at my best, I'm inspired to pick myself up and do the same for them.

This mindset of cherishing the space between stimulus and response can lead to all sorts of uplifting moments as we go about our daily lives. For example, when another driver is careless and almost hits us on the road, if we're in the zone of choosing peaceful responses, we're likely to give a friendly wave to indicate that we've all done the same thing before, which is just about guaranteed to lead to the other driver being kind to the next person that he or she is around. On the other hand, if we react with anger, we're likely to bring that person down and have both him and us give off more bad energy that day and perhaps beyond.

Between every stimulus and response, there's a space. Within this space, we have the capacity to choose our response.

May we all strive to choose peaceful responses.

 
 

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Comments

Wow--that kind of honesty is uncommon. I'm sure that there are many couples struggling with short tempers and frustration today as they cope with severe financial problems. This is a great lesson for them, demonstrating that even during tough times we can choose our response to what life throws our way.

Thought Dr Kim was saying 'give in be passive' but after I read it again, it is true for me all I want is a calm peaceful home and family, why wouldnt we in this sometimes dreadful world. I want nothing more to have my family around for all time, so the space between is a space I will hold my breath then count my blessings as I look at the people who mean the world to me. We can still say how we feel, but without that hurtful way we kinda give off to our loved ones. Just because we love each other gives us no right to vent tempers on them..I know it's hard but I will try. Thankyou Dr Kim always great to read your blog.

Dear Dr Ben, Thanks so much for sharing yours and Margaret's story - well part of it. Laughter and humor help flame the fires of staying together also, but who can be laughing when things are not understood. Tomorrow, my husband Craig and I celebrate our 27th anniversary. It's been a long strange trip as the saying goes....but I wouldn't change a thing. We have beeen blessed with five amazingly bright and well adjusted children who are kind and compassionate and they are worth every difficulty Craig and I ever endured with one another. Thanks for sharing <3 and many blessings to you and your family.

I welcome the personal story and the paradigm of 'a space between stimulus and response'. Thank you!

I would like to add that we can further "enter into" and, in fact, *live* in that space between stimulus and response. It is there, a new 'being' is born. This is the being of man and woman, and the being of "the couple".

It is possible to do this, with just a few shifts of thinking and the attitudes will follow. We really can change the way we want to "pattern" ourselves, if we are careful and vigilant. What it does take is extreme honesty about "what" is necessary or 'not really' necessary. In other words, examining all your personal expectations scrupulously, and then not having any(!) That's right. If both people have done this honestly, a relationship has a chance to live and grow.

My husband is quite a deferential person, which leaves lots of room for our relationship to grow, for us to raise our children together, cook and plan meals together, spend time together and do other things that are enjoyable and continually build intimacy. I have also chosen that deferential quality (which we all possess, by the way) for the purposes of serving our relationship. And it does serve it well.

Other women cannot believe the perfect relationship I have. Other men would be envious of my husband for his wife (me) should he be remotely honest about the way he is cherished at home.

We can all have this. We can give ourselves to each other; but only when we have first become honest enough with ourselves about dropping expectations and really wanting to be strong enough, and trusting the other person enough to know, that we will both live for each other unselfishly while we create a life together.

That does mean, however, choosing the right person, trusting them as well as yourself, guiding both of you gently, as well as having the capacity to passionately enjoy every moment. This means using the tricks that each gender knows, to continue to attract their mate! A real love will never tire of this honest flirtation. My husband attracts me 24/7 and because it is a true love I never tire of this, or his piano playing!! I do my part by responding, which is what women do best and is all that is necessary. IT REALLY WORKS!

Dear Dr. Kim,

I've been reading your e-newsletter for several years, and many times have been touched by your candor and humility, but never so deeply as by the recent sharings of your marital struggles. To every issue you described, I can relate profoundly! My husband is an emergency doctor, and we have had all the kinds of relational trials you mentioned, starting right after our wedding when he became an overworked, underslept, barely-paid, barely-there intern. The challenges have continued over the years as we have dealt with the stresses from his 12-hour shifts in the emergency room, while continuously switching from day shifts to night shifts.

You and Margaret have a lot to rejoice over, because you have already learned, quite early in life, the basics of how to approach and resolve each misunderstanding. At 54 years of age, my husband and I are just now, during the past year, learning how to live peacefully and lovingly with one another. Can you believe it, that it would take a couple this long to wise up?! Although we married nearly 28 years ago, it has taken us THIS LONG to become a consistently loving couple!

You and Margaret are a GREAT inspiration to me, and surely to many others. How uplifting, to know of a husband and wife who have attained to such wisdom at a relatively young age! By the time you reach my age, you will surely have built an awesomely beautiful and precious relationship, the kind most of us have only dreamed of.

I didn't mean to write so much, but would like quickly to mention a book that helped me immensely, more than any other: HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR MARRIAGE WITHOUT TALKING ABOUT IT by Patricia Love and Steven Stosny. Before this, I had no idea of the deep biochemical/physical differences between the way men and women react to the same things. A tremendous eye-opener for all of us! I urge everyone to read it and be amazed. What I learned and have applied from this book is what changed my marriage for the better.

Dr. Kim and Margaret, thanks for sharing. Please keep on sharing!

Melanie

That's better than gold. Thanks so much for being honest and for sharing. I'm 30 and married and need advice like this as often as possible. I will also be forwarding this to my other 30 something friends. Thanks again.

The 'pay it forward' concept, good idea! Your story is common for many marriages; the learning of 'being on the same page' and learning how to truly communicate how we feel. I've been married over 30 years and I do remember having to learn these lessons way back when we were young and life was more intense. In those difficult moments we are looking for our feelings to be validated and then we can move forward.

I look forward to reading your blogs every chance I get. The wisdom and practicality of your messages to your readers is priceless. I have been practicing to choose a more positive response to those in my life, and I have reaped the benefits of true inner peace and happiness. Those around me are benefiting from it as well. Thank you Dr. Kim!!!!!!!!!!!!

I rather enjoyed your article and your reference to the seven habits.
When I studied the seven habits for work years ago, I noticed how similar the advice given in the book was to the principles found in the Bible. The basic things are love of God with one's whole, heart soul(life), mind and strength and love of neighbor as oneself. This embodies all the other principles such as "all things therefore that you want men do to you,you must do likewise them"(Mathew 7:12), and for husbands to "be loving their wives as your own body"(Ephesians 5:28). Of course there are many other principles such as those found in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Hopefully, his books will prompt more people to look into the Bible itself to find even more successful habits to cultivate from the One who created man and knows better than anyone else what it takes to be successful at marriage, parenthood and any worthwhile endeavor.

So very helpful and true.

This advice will be helpful to many. However in an abusive family, the outcome may not be positive. I say this because abused people tend to blame themselves (or get blamed) when there are unresolved family problems.

Lovely essay. Glad to see this again.

I believe the 'stimulus/ response' idea was originated from Dr. Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor.

Thank you for this helpful description. It seems to fit together, at least for me, with helpful articles by Steve Stosny on compassion power, core values and ways of not getting caught up in "anger matches." You and S. Stosny offer valuable guidance that is in short supply. It's wonderful to discover. Like precious gifts. Thank you.

 

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