Sometimes the hardest part about raising children is keeping our own relationship in good shape whilst there are so many needs of the children to meet.
I love this pic of Pete and Margy Wakefield. Margy is my guest on the podcast this week. And this is what she calls her working laboratory. 50 years with its challenges and victories plus all the knowledge of a psychotherapist and all the experience of the counselling room will enrich us this week as we look at ways to:
Some of you might not currently be in a relationship, so this isn't to discourage you. In fact, it's quite the opposite. You may be hoping you will be in one, so the tools in this kit are great ones to take forward.
I welcome you to pop over and have a listen to the podcast this week. Margy's great fun and full of rich insights. Here's a lightening tour of her wisdom and knowledge for you.
First of all it's worth knowing that we're all wired differently. So let's look at a bit of psycho-education. In the last six or seven years it has come to light the there are two distinct empathy systems.
Firstly there is the Mirror Neuron System (MNS)
and then there is Temporal poriatol junction (TPJ)
MNS works like this:
I have a problem which I want to share with you. I’d like you to listen, explore, reflect back and help me to look at it from all the different angles.
I don’t need you to tell me what to do, I am capable of making that decision myself, but it would really help me if you could just walk through it with me as I process the situation and my different options.
It’s called the mirror neuron system because the empathiser is mirroring the feelings of the person sharing and really getting into their shoes and walking it with them, making eye contact and understanding without advising.
Research shows that it is the preferred processing method for those with higher Estrogen, so women tend to lean toward this preference.
TPJ works like this:
Tell me the problem. I will listen and then I will do everything possible to help you by telling you what you should do.
Don't go on and on about the situation. I've listened to you and thought about it and am giving you my best advice. Try to take it. It's honestly what I think is best for you.
This is preferred by people with higher Testosterone, so men tend to lean towards this one. They can feel confused and frustrated when their advice and help isn't appreciated.
However, MNS people tend to get very upset by this approach. They feel disrespected and undermined as their partner is 'telling' them what to do, when what they want to do is continue to explore together.
Neural photography shows us that Women’s brains are lit up when they discuss and process. It's the white matter - the connective matter, that is all alight whilst they are considering and pondering an issue.
When a man is talking, the part that lights up is the grey matter; the part that is doing the thinking - doing the cognitive work.
Women tend to connect up all the different aspects of the situation.
Men tend to get specific
They're both really important and work together well.
But it's worth mentioning that this is the generalised version. We are all on a continuous spectrum. We all have both the chemicals and quite where you are on the spectrum will determine your preferred method of empathy. However, science tells us that Estrogen is higher in women and Testosterone in men.
So things will apply strongly or less strongly depending on where you are on the continuum . But it’s a helpful framework.
Where can relationships go wrong?
It's often the case when we've been in a relationship for a while that we relax in our relationships and don’t hold the same level of consciousness as when we work or are with our friends.
It's great to relax and be able to relax together, but we need to be careful that we're not EXITING.
It's when we're using diversions to avoid connection.
These things can be healthy and important in a balanced life:
Staying longer at work
doing more sport
being more busy with the children
But if we’re making that choice to avoid connection that is exiting.
Exits can slip into more serious exits...
Without us being fully conscious, often couples turn up to counselling and just can’t believe they’ve got there.
During counselling they often begin to realise that they’ve been exiting slowly over time and that the space between them has become barren and dry and empty with nothing to build on.
Recognising our motives for spending time apart or distracting ourselves as well as raising our consciousness is the first move in repairing the damage by being intentional about time together or talking through the things that are causing you to drift.
What should we avoid?
John Gottman* identified fourn things that damage a relationship if they are regularly present:
He called them the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Strong language! But his research shows there is over 90% chance of relationships folding if some of those four things are constantly happening
They can be subtle or more obvious.
Contempt is a harder one to define, it can be so subconscious -
Putting each other down
Raising of the eyebrows
disconnecting or looking away during a conversation
Why it's all so important!
The space between you is the space where your children grow up. Keeping it healthy, open, connected and as vibrant as possible will have a huge impact on the place your children
find their identity
develop their self esteem
Give close friends or a close friend, permission to call you out - to let you know if they frequently see one of the four in your relationship with your partner when they're with you both.
We've looked at one way that Estrogen and Testosterone can influence our brains. Here's another:
Those with higher Estrogen tend to notice things that are going on close by. They see if someone is just not themselves, if one of the kids is going down with something and so on.
Those with higher Testosterone are more outwardly focussed, they're drawn more towards recognition, status and competition so will notice more of what is going on externally.
The high T can find the high E controlling as they are focussed on the home environment.
The high E can feel left out and undervalued as the high T is looking outwards and it can seem that their external life is more important than what's going on at home and in the family.
Needless to say, there are many variances along the spectrum, but these are the common findings. They're all good and worthy, but it's helpful for us to be aware of our natural inclinations and redress the balance.
What Can We do?
There are many ways we can enhance our relationships, but Margy focussed on this one during our conversation:
One heartfelt appreciation a day
Often things do sound prescriptive at first, but once we hardwire them they become more natural. Did you know, one heartfelt appreciation lasts in our system for three days and impacts us in many ways:
stress hormones go down
Heartbeat goes down
Blood pressure goes down
Breathing gets deeper
Immune system goes up
We can make each other healthier - both psychologically and physically.
Looking for what we can appreciate means we start looking for what’s right instead of noticing all the deficits. Slowly the brain changes and you find more things to appreciate.
But significantly, what we focus on is what will grow. So the more we focus on what we love about our partner, the more that aspect will flourish. It's hard because it's so much easier to criticise. But a specific encouragement regularly offered is a whole focus shift.
One small thing every day is life changing!
All the above points made by Margy are so useful. I know that they make a great difference in relationships when we become conscious and make small changes.
However, if you're struggling, don't wait for your relationship to be in trouble before you look for a bit of help.
We invest in so many thing in our lives and take care of our cars and our homes, but the most significant relationship and the one that has the greatest influence on our kids is worth nourishing.
Pop across to the podcast here
Learn more about Margy and get in touch with her here
If you enjoy looking at the brain, relationships, enhancing life and seeing how little changes in family life can reap great rewards, you will probably love my book Parenting For Life. It's available, including postage for the special price of £14.99 here
*John Gottman is an award winning American psychological researcher, clinician and professor who did extensive work over four decades on divorce prediction and marital stability.