Megan Dimmer is the marketing and communications coordinator for THRIVEtoday. Her journey with the 19 relational brain skills started in 2019. The practical nature of the skills has been transformative for her marriage, parenting, and even her career. Megan owns a local marketing agency, Menuha Studios, in Grand Rapids, MI, devoted to teaching relational skills to entrepreneurs who desire to build better relationships with their audiences. Though the skills are still newer to Megan, her story displays how Immanuel can quickly change relationships through exposure to the skills.
I have been married to my partner Luke for three years. We have had many moments of deep joy and love, but also notable moments of disconnection. Six months into our marriage, we had our world turned upside down after learning I was pregnant with twins. This unexpected turn of events left us transitioning into a full world where life was no longer just about the two of us.
Becoming parents drove us into survival mode for over a year. Our one goal was to keep our two preemie babies alive and we relationally disengaged from one another. For over the next year and a half, our joy gap grew and we became more disconnected than we ever were. Our relationship was marked by solving problems, pointing out what was wrong with each other, and just trying to take care of our basic needs. Over this time, we logically remembered loving each other and enjoying each other – but we didn’t feel it – and often we didn’t show it to one another.
I have always been aware of relational brain theory because of the work of Dan Siegel and his book, Whole-Brain Child. This was going to be the foundation of how we parented, but we were not yet aware there were similar solutions for adults found in the 19 relational brain skills. In 2019, I became more educated in relational circuitry and emotional capacity, laying the foundation for what would improve Luke and my relationship. Our pastors and mentors were aware of our relational struggles and gave us the book, The 4 Habits of a Joy-filled Marriage by Chris Coursey and Marcus Warner. Desperate to feel more connected in my marriage, I read the book in one night and I showed Luke the sections that stood out.
We agreed that CAKE felt like a doable first step into trying out these principles. So we ate some CAKE: Curiosity, Appreciation, Kindness, Eye Contact. We focused on this especially when we were finding ourselves fighting or dealing with big emotions. Because we spent over a year with our relational circuitry mostly off with each other, we had to practice this every day. In the midst of disconnection and oftentimes anger, we ate a whole bunch of CAKE – which transformed our marriage:
Instead of practicing the arts of story assumption (telling stories that feel true, but are actually not reality), we slowed down and intentionally asked a ton of questions to clarify statements were making. Then Helped other party figure out why we’re feeling the way we’re feeling. Curiosity generally wasn’t possible until we had turned on our relational circuits and often flowed naturally after we practiced the other skills 4 Habits had to offer. In the midst of upset, curiosity isn’t often easy.
Sharing appreciation is the spark that can light up your relational circuitry. This step was essential for us to get out of problem-solving mode and into relational thinking. For a long time appreciation felt forced or fake because of how upset I was with Luke. The stories in my head that Luke wasn’t there for me were louder than the appreciation I could muster for him. For me, thankfulness felt like a chore at first, but over time became easier the more we used this approach to interacting in emotional situations.
When appreciation successfully turns on your relational circuitry, kindness flows easily. We were able to validate each other’s feelings and ultimately see we each wanted the best for the other person. We both started to become aware of the other’s emotional capacity and practiced honoring their needs above everything else. Kindness helps answer the relational question: Are you there for me?
Eye contact has been the foundational key to relational transformation. It was essential for us to see the non-verbal cues of love and appreciation before we could even accept the verbal offerings of appreciation that would come. Taking time to look at each other in the eyes has become a normal part of our relationship. We don’t just do it when we begin escalating emotionally, but when we want to have the other person feel fully seen and loved.
In all honesty, when I am in an emotional upheaval, everything in me rejects Luke’s eye contact. My body gets tense, my anger feels hot on my skin, and I want to writhe away, because I know if I choose to look into his kind gaze my anger will go away, and sometimes that anger protects me from having to be vulnerable or face really big fears. I have never regretted choosing to accept his non-verbal love and peace. His eyes always tell me more about the love he has for me than the appreciation and kindness that follows.
Because of our intentionality with eating CAKE, our joy gap began to shrink. Our relational circuits turned off less often and our ability to be aware of each other and hold kindness for each other became our standard. Most of the time during this process, we didn’t even try to practice all 4 habits, because our relational circuits turned off so quickly. We just focused on CAKE whenever we interacted. From that place, establishing rhythms of play and rest became natural, creating even deeper intimacy, then eating CAKE cultivated.
To end, the circumstances of our life didn’t change much over the months we employed these strategies. Luke works a very demanding third shift job, we still have two young children at home who demand a lot of our attention, and sleep is often a lacking resource in our life. The difference is that Luke and I are able to share the joy with each other again and we can always easily answer the question: Are you there for me?
I am deeply grateful for the practical yet powerful invitation that eating CAKE is. There is so much hope that comes from understanding God created our brains to be relational and that our brains can actually change to be in relationship better. Because of this reality of real brain change, my marriage with Luke is marked by joy.
If you want to learn to grow your relational capacity with your partner, I encourage you to read The 4 Habits of a Joy-filled Marriage. It is a simple, practical guide. Seriously, I read it in one night!
THRIVEtoday has many resources for increasing joy and relational ability in marriage. Be on the lookout for Online Marriage Groups. If you are looking for more exercises to grow joy in your marriage take a look at the 30 Days of Joy For Busy Married Couples.