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"I can't believe the difference those three seconds make in my marriage," Jeff told me during a recent Marriage Intensive.

"What do you mean?" I asked, uncertain about what he was referring to.  "I mean the medication I'm taking has given me three extra seconds to consider how I want to respond to Meredith, and those three seconds make all the difference in the world." 

Meredith, his wife of fifteen years, smiled broadly, nodding her head in approval. 

"He used to blurt out whatever was on his mind," she added. "No matter what I said, he had a comeback. Whatever was on the forefront of his mind, he blurted out. And it usually didn't go well." 

"I don't know if it's our counseling, my new appreciation of her, or these magic pills, or maybe a combination of all of them," Jeff said firmly. "But let me tell you something, I'm a different man." 

Having worked with Jeff and Meredith over the phone before they came to Seattle, I knew that Meredith had been quite upset with Jeff's impulsivity. She gave a history of Jeff blurting out what he thought before she finished. She noted his short temper and hypersensitivity to criticism. She was concerned about their fighting, and the fact that she could get drawn into a battle she didn't want to fight.

Now, several weeks later, after suggesting Jeff visit his physician to see if some of his impulsive anger might be related to issues with depression or possible Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Jeff and his doctor decided medications might help. His physician gave him a trial of medications designed to assist with impulsivity.  Jeff and Meredith then decided to see me for a Marriage Intensive, and during our three-hour sessions I noted many times when Jeff was tempted to react. While there were times he did react — usually to his detriment — there were many times when he paused, waited three seconds, considered his thoughts, and then responded. 

Proud of himself, Jeff noted, "In the past I would have blurted out my reactions, and they wouldn't have been good. We'd have been in a fight before you knew it. But," he added smiling, "now I follow your advice and take three seconds to consider how I want to respond — and I take my medications."

As I worked with Jeff and Meredith I couldn't help but wonder how many couples are impacted by impulsivity, and the underlying causes of these problems. How many couples have one or both partners who don't stop to consider the impact of what they're saying? How many fail to heed Scriptures that encourage us to be "slow to speak and quick to listen." 

A man wrote to me about such a problem with his wife:    

Dear Dr. David. My wife has such a short fuse that it scares me. If I do something she doesn't like, she reacts before I can even explain myself. My wife is dominant and forceful, and that's part of what I was attracted to about her. But, I often wish she'd take just a little time to consider her response and the reaction she is likely to get if she lets go with whatever she thinks. I'm shocked at some of the things that come out of her mouth, even though she is a Christian. What can we do to "bite our tongues" so we don't cause so much damage? How can I get her to see that if she took a little more time to consider her actiosn, she would often get a much better reaction from me? Please help. 

First, we cannot change what we do not see. Both you and your wife must be willing to critically look at the way you interact. Kindly suggest to your wife that a "three-second pause" will help both of you render a more thoughtful response. 

Second, lead the way. When discussing heated issues with her, stop and pause for three seconds. This will assist you in not getting hooked emotionally by her reactivity. Even if she will not pause, you lead the way. Gently note that you are going to slowly consider everything she is saying before you respond. 

Third, point out the impact of her reactivity. Point out the impact of your wife's reactivity. When she says something hurtful, let her know. Gently share with her the impact of her words, using feeling words such as "I felt hurt by what you just said," or "What you just said didn't land well with me. Could you say it a little softer?" 

Fourth, consider together whether there is a deeper problem, such as impulsivity stemming from ADHD, depression or suppressed hostility. Gently bring up the question of whether or not there might be a larger problem that needs to be addressed. Be careful not to diagnose or label, as this will only create defensiveness. Make sure you are doing everything to own your part of the problem before suggesting something amiss in your mate. 

Fifth, seek the advice of an expert. Encourage your mate to attend counseling with you, making a note of the issue of impulsivity. Ask the clinician if there might be something underlying impulsive reactivity. Read about depression, anger and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, among other issues, to determine if this problem might exist in your marriage. 

Finally, be gentle and go slowly.  No one wants to think there is "something wrong with me." No one wants to be labeled or blamed for a problem. Don't use information, as accurate as it may be, to manipulate your mate into changing. Reassure your mate that you care about them, will work diligently on your part in the problems, and will support them as they consider other issues pertaining to them.
Practice some of these tools and let me know how they work for you. I'd like to hear your experiences with impulsivity in marriage.  Please send your responses to  and visit my website at www.TheMarriageRecoveryCenter.com.                

August 31, 2010

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.