Author Archives: Amy

Smores and Synapses

Cooler weather was forecasted one weekend this past October and as I was mowing the yard the thought occurred to me to roast marshmallows in our rarely used orange chiminea on the back porch.  “My daughters would love it,” I thought.  It took a little more time to pull out my chainsaw, get it lubed and working from long hibernation, and cut down some old firewood leftover from last year so that it would fit into the little furnace.  My four young daughters, triplets aged 6 ½ and a 4 ½ year old, were excited when I called them from inside the house to help me stack the wood for burning tonight.  “What are we going to do with it?” they asked.  “Why are you cutting the wood?” they queried.  “We’re going to roast some marshmallows tonight,” I said.  “Really, Daddy?  Why?”  “Because, they’re good and it’s fun,” I said.

That night after dinner I could feel myself propel backward to my childhood as my kids and I took the small pieces of firewood and I handed them a hand axe and carefully supervised them as they cut kindling.  “What’s kingling, Daddy?”  “It’s called kindling and it’s what you use to make fire.”  “Oh!!!  We’re going to make fire?!!”  “Really?!  In there, in the chimea?” “It’s called a chiminea and yes, right in there.”  While one was cutting the others were nimble at pulling the paper-like strips of thin bark off of pieces of cedar and putting it into hairy piles.

The chop of wood, and the crunkle, and snap of bark brought back a memory of hunting and exploring with my childhood best friend Greg.  I could see Greg in my mind at his family’s farm one night on the other side of a blazing fire – both of us stoking it with hardwood sticks from opposite sides to work the fire bigger, the yellow-orange embers flying up as we both would step in to poke it then hop back as flames spit out toward us.  We were both about 12 at the time and had just finished a full day of walking open pasture for quail then exploring a nearby creek.  Now, we were working the fire much like we hunted and explored together – knowing each other’s pace, distance, and instincts.  Greg and I never had an accident together or feared getting into range with each other because over the years of our friendship we had become so aware of each other in hunts plus our many experiences of playing together.

After remembering Greg for a few moments I returned my attention to my girls as my wife, Jill, brought out skewers of marshmallows.  I showed my girls how to roast one – putting it into the chiminea over hot coals and watching until it became puffy on the bottom, then gently turning it to roast the other sides and the last part, oh the best, just long enough for it to catch into a blue fire.  Such a cool sight to lift it out flaming and putting it out right before it gets charred.  Then melting in your mouth delicious.  The same exact taste as when I was their age.

Now, you may wonder, what’s the point of this article?  The point is: get out and make experiences with your loved ones.  Here’s the why.  There are these little structures inside the nervous system called synapses that function to pass electrical and chemical signals between neurons.  Synapses develop when genes are activated or expressed and produce proteins that facilitate the growth of neurons and synaptic connections.  In his book The Developing Mind, Daniel J. Siegel, MD indicates that it is experience that directly shapes gene expression and the resultant neural connections in the brain and that “interpersonal relationships are a primary source of the experience that shapes how genes express themselves within the brain,” (p. 14).

So, what this means is that this specific relational experience with Greg (which in this case was positive) strengthened a neural net within my brain associating positive feelings of friendship, outdoors, hunting, exploring, and building fires.  Fast forward to the autumn of 2012 with my daughters and I hear the chopping of wood and crackle of fire – the same positive neural net was activated and I remembered Greg.  But there is a lot more to this.  That memory of Greg was the explicit or factual part.  Before all of this was just the idea – what was likely an implicit memory with Greg and longing to connect with my wife and daughters in a fun and positive way.  And I am banking on the fact that this positive experience with my family will go down in their neural networks as a positive experience with Daddy connecting the outdoors, marshmallows, fire, being together, Mom and Dad working together to make it happen.

You see, you simply cannot sit around on your duff hoping things will get better in your relationships or in your own life.  You have to get out there and make the experiences happen.  If you wait for the feelings to come before you act you may never act.  This is because feelings (among other things) are also physiological electrical and chemical firings in the body dependent on neural pathways and experience.  This does not mean you need to get out there and make other people do things.  I was committed in the story above with no demands on anyone else.  I invited my girls and I can guarantee you even if they had stood at the window and watched I still would have chopped that wood, built that fire, roasted those marshmallows and chomped down the sugary-smokey delights all by myself.  But I was assured the offer would draw them and I was right… because I remembered it drew me at their age.

It was interesting to hear some of my girls’ responses.  “Why are we doing this?”  Which happily shows the beginnings of their own brain development of reasoning in the pre-frontal cortex.  That night, it was not important to impress answers to their “whys” only to respond with “because it’s fun!”  I already felt it but as we sat and Jill put together the graham crackers, hot marshmallows, and M&M’s (because at last second we had no Hershey Bars, Alas!) two of my daughters leaned into me and said, “I love you, Daddy,” and I said the same to them.  That experience touched something deep within them (and me) that was positive.  I had no moral lessons or practical teachings to impart.  We experienced something fun and warm together.  We built that fire together, put our skewers in the embers together, and tasted the smores together.  All of that combined meant “love” to them and I am certain that evening there were a few synapses stronger as a result in all of us.

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Reversing the Predictors of Divorce

Marriage is similar to a garden – when nurtured, cared for, and cherished it grows to become a place of solace for those responsible for it. With an attentive eye and hard-working hands the soil can produce lovely and fruitful plants as well as shade and shelter for winged guests. Gardens, like marriages, are not static – they are living and dynamic. Left alone and neglected, what was originally planned can be overcome by drought, weeds, and harmful hosts. Marriages, like gardens, require attention and work to be enjoyed and endure. If you love gardens and wanted a really great one would you listen to a master-gardener tell you four things you must do to cultivate a prize-winner? What about for your marriage?

Therapist and researcher, John Gottman, Ph.D.,in collaboration with Robert W. Levenson, has done this in his work with couples. Through extensive research spanning 18 years including seven longitudinal studies with a total of 677 couples Gottman was able to predict whether or not a relationship was headed for divorce. He found that if certain attitudes and behaviors were present in a relationship it actually predicted divorce. He termed these “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling (Gottman, 1999).

Criticism is not complaining about the other partner – it is attributing negative characterization to the other person. Criticism goes beyond the irritation of certain behaviors in a relationship to directing this negativity to the other person’s personality and identity. Defensiveness is the inability to be accountable for anything that might contribute to problems in the relationship. It is a self-righteous stance against the other partner. Contempt, the greatest predictor of divorce, is different from criticism in that whereas criticism directs negativity to the other person’s character in individual matters of behavior contempt is like a wholesale slaughter of the other person. Contempt includes forms of verbal abuse such as name-calling. Last is stonewalling. This is just as it sounds – putting up an impenetrable wall against the other person. Stonewalling is a silent killer of emotional withdrawal; the refusal to interact humanly with the other partner.

So how does one notice these weeds in their relationship and go about counteracting them? Gottman suggests that instead of criticism a couple focus on gently starting discussions about complaints in the relationship. This is in contrast to harshly starting an argument which usually escalates sending the other partner into defense mode. Defensiveness can be replaced with mutual responsibility. Each partner must fully face their own accountability in the matters of the relationship and what they contribute to the problems they experience. You cannot expect your partner to be accountable unless you are willing to go there yourself. Contempt must be replaced by building a culture or atmosphere in the relationship of appreciation and respect. It is about removing superiority and viewing the other person with gratitude, love, and respect. Lastly, instead of stonewalling partners can do physiological soothing of self and one another. This is noticing when you feel in your body the signs of escalation during a conflict and counteract this with calming yourself in order to emotionally engage with your partner in a mutual calming manner.

People experiencing possible separation or divorce come at this from different angles –some feel shocked the other person wants out, while others have felt in a long tug of war eventually given up and possibly lost. Relationships, like gardens, can be turned around. The counteracting agents, however, are not static one-time remedies – they are dynamic ways of living and being with this other person that must be lived out personally on a daily basis.

Recommended Reading: What Predicts Divorce? and Why Relationships Succeed or Fail by John Gottman.

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