What does it take to create a happy marriage? There are so many different parts that work in unison to keep a good relationship hum. We all know the big ones: Love. Trust. Hard work. Commitment. Understanding. A good sense of humor. However, a new paper by researchers at the University of Rochester that was published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science reviewed 174 different studies and found that all happy marriages have one big trait in common: Psychological flexibility.
Great. But, what exactly, is psychological flexibility?
“Psychological flexibility is one of the most essential and valuable skills that you can take with you in your life,” says Katie Ziskind, a marriage and family therapist in Connecticut, who runs Wisdom Within Counseling. “It is about being easy going, using acceptance, and choosing to think on the bright side despite what changes have to happen.”
According to the review, psychological flexibility is “defined as a set of skills that individuals engage when presented with difficult or challenging thoughts, feelings, emotions, or experiences.” In other words, those who are psychologically flexible are open to new experiences, regardless of the challenges they face. They don’t linger on thoughts or feelings and keep things in perspective. They tend to be goal-oriented and aren’t put off by setbacks.
Conversely, people who are psychologically inflexible tend to avoid difficult thoughts and, when confronted by them, often will obsess over them incessantly. Setbacks and challenges are much harder to navigate for a psychologically inflexible person, which can make reaching goals difficult.
It’s easy to understand why this is such an important trait in a happy marriage. Very often in a marriage, things do not go the way of one partner or the other, frustrations mount and then spill over. Couples who employ psychological flexibility (which can also be termed “mindfulness” or “emotional flexibility”) can roll with the changes much easier and deal with the curveballs that life throws at them.
“If plans change,” says Ziskind, “something you were looking forward to can’t happen, or the friend that you wanted to see has to change plans on you, use flexible thinking skills and be adaptable. Mental frustrations can get in the way of being adaptable.”
Kate Engler, a licensed therapist in Chicago, says she thinks of psychological flexibility “as being able to stay presently connected with another person.”
“It is possible for a person to be present within themselves but not connected with another person,” she says. “This is what we generally think of as mindfulness, and it is, of course, incredibly beneficial.”
Beneficial as it may be, it’s not easy to acquire. Per Engler, can be a challenge for one partner or the other to be psychologically flexible, because we are so often conditioned to react to changes in our circumstances.
“Part of what makes psychological flexibility or present connection so difficult is that if you are triggered at all, a part of your brain takes over and sends you into fight/flight/flee/freeze,” she explains. “We are particularly prone to being activated in this way in intimate or romantic relationships because of the high levels of vulnerability. Once you are in the zone of fight/flight/flee/freeze, there is zero chance of flexibility.”
To illustrate the challenges that can arise from psychological inflexibility, Engler drew on an example from her own couples therapy practice. The wife of one of her couples was in an accident, one which had the potential to be life-threatening. Her spouse was now left to grapple with the possibility of losing a partner while also raising their five children.
“Thankfully the woman survived,” Engler says, “but it has been a very long recovery process. When she first came home, any time one of them shared what it was like during the time she was in the hospital, the other became very triggered and either shut down or got angry.”
Because the trauma was still so fresh and unprocessed, this person quickly went to fight/flight/flee/freeze mode, making it impossible to stay presently connected enough to offer empathy to their spouse. “This, of course, felt awful,” says Engler. “With time, therapy, and a lot of practice, they can now be psychologically flexible with each other and offer comfort, have a broader perspective, and bond over their shared goals of healing.”
In order to be psychologically flexible in a manner that benefits you and your partner, you first have to be accepting of your circumstances and the way you react to them. This requires developing self-awareness, meditating, and being reflective on your own feelings and what may be triggering them. Ultimately, you need to focus on the goal, which is building a strong relationship with your spouse.
“Focus on compromising, while also sharing your core needs, and compromising on the things that are less important,” says Ziskind. “Psychological flexibility is about choosing which things you want to be flexible about, while also voicing what really matters.”