Psychological flexibility: The most underrated quality in a marriageWritten by Heather Drabinsky
What's inside this article
“Sorry, sir, I don’t see your names in our system,” the receptionist said.
David looked at his wife, Jen, in disbelief. They had planned a much-needed getaway months ago, and he was certain he’d booked the room.
After asking several questions to make sure their booking really wasn’t anywhere in the system, David replied, “OK, thanks for your time. We’ll figure something out.”
David and Jen could have reacted in frustration, lost hope for an enjoyable time and returned home. They could have turned on each other, blaming and shaming the other for not doing their part to prevent the mix-up. But they decided to take a step back and re-evaluate the situation. After all, they still had tickets for a concert and other events during the week.
Because of their calm, adaptable approach to the problem, Jen and David ended up finding a much nicer room with a better discount than what they had originally reserved, and on top of that, received a refund for the resort’s slip-up.
Within a marriage, each spouse has their own shortcomings. When you add those weaknesses to the unforeseen stressors of life, it can be easy for couples to react to each other in anger or frustration.
Yet God urges spouses to “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14). Along with this love comes a rather underrated quality: psychological flexibility. While “psychological flexibility” is a term that comes from the study of the mind, God’s principles can help us develop this beneficial ability.
What does psychological flexibility look like?
Relaxed. Not easily agitated. Steady. These are just a few words that describe the characteristics of psychological flexibility.
According to Jennifer Daks and Dr. Ronald Rogge of the University of Rochester1, psychological flexibility is a “set of skills that individuals engage when presented with difficult or challenging thoughts, feelings, emotions or experiences.” In other words, it’s the ability to handle others’ differences and life’s difficulties in a healthy manner.
Wendy Brown, licensed marriage and family therapist, says psychological flexibility in a marriage is the “ability to overlook things that can be overlooked and to accept my spouse for who he or she really is, who God created them to be, and allow for my spouse’s thoughts, feelings, behaviours and beliefs.”
Being easygoing and flexible, however, does not mean staying in an abusive relationship. “It doesn’t mean you have to be disrespected and demeaned consistently,” Brown explains. ”There are times to set very firm, inflexible boundaries for self-protection and preservation.” Seek support and safety to help end any abuse in your marriage.
To help clarify, some characteristics of psychological flexibility include the ability to:
- Accept the reality of experiences and feelings as they occur, both positive and negative (without denying or avoiding them).
- Engage in the present moment instead of fixating on the past or worrying about the future.
- Let thoughts and feelings pass over, without obsessively clinging to them.
- Maintain a broader perspective amid difficult thoughts and feelings.
- Remember your priorities amid stress and chaos.
- Continue taking steps toward goals even when troubles come.
How can a marriage benefit from psychological flexibility?
When a couple lives in a calm, easygoing manner – even when obstacles arise – they can reap numerous benefits. Psychological flexibility “promotes a more positive pattern – whether that’s cultivating appreciation for each other or having fun together,” Brown says.
Psychological flexibility allows space for couples to notice each other more. For instance, let’s say a spouse volunteers to make dinner and uses a utensil a different way than the other spouse. The other spouse could be psychologically flexible by thanking them for cooking dinner instead of fixating on the different method.
In addition, psychological flexibility in marriage can reduce negative reactions when conflicts occur. Brown explains that it can lessen the “reactive cycle,” or the cycle of communication in a relationship that gets out of control when responding to a fight, flight or freeze mode.
For example, let’s say a woman notices that her husband has left for work without doing his regular job of taking the trash out for garbage day. If this wife starts feeling angry, she could either react from the “fight” mode or take a minute to think about her emotions. She could ask herself, “Are my feelings in line with my values?” She could choose to respond with grace, realizing that her husband might have been running late and simply forgot the task. Responding in a gracious manner would more likely prevent an argument.
What’s the opposite of psychological flexibility?
While psychological flexibility is good for a marriage, psychological inflexibility can damage a relationship. Psychological inflexibility is characterized by:
- Avoiding difficult thoughts, feelings, emotions and past experiences.
- Being distracted from what’s happening in the present moment by needlessly focusing on the past or worrying about the future.
- Staying stuck in negative feelings and thoughts.
- Judging or shaming oneself for having difficult thoughts and feelings.
- Losing track of your priorities because of stress.
- Being unable to take steps toward higher goals.
According to a meta-analysis of over 100 studies on people in romantic relationships1, couples demonstrating psychological inflexibility experience:
- Lower overall relationship satisfaction.
- Lower sexual satisfaction.
- Reduced emotional supportiveness.
- Increased negative conflict and physical aggression.
“Without flexibility we can get stuck in that survival brain mode [fight, flight or freeze response],” Brown says.
Being psychologically inflexible can also lead to spousal abuse. Someone who refuses to accept their spouse for who they are and doesn’t recognize their spouse’s value in the relationship most likely leads with domineering control, Brown explains. If that’s the case, the couple should receive professional help and/or the abused spouse should seek safety and guidance.
How do you increase psychological flexibility in your marriage?
See emotions as information instead of excuses to react
It’s not uncommon for spouses to become frustrated, hurt or fearful, and then behave in ways they may regret later on. Heated remarks easily spill out, and either you or your spouse can make unwise, impulsive decisions in an instant.
When you feel your emotions intensifying, take a step back and evaluate them. Maybe this means telling your spouse you need to leave the room for five minutes before responding.
Ask yourself: What do I think about my feelings right now? And are my feelings aligned with what I value in my marriage? Remember what you consider most important in the relationship and what you value as a Christian, and act accordingly. James 1:19 says, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
Focus on connection instead of control
Dwelling on past instances of your spouse’s faults is easy to do, but living with unforgiveness and resentment only leads to distance, division and a desire to control your spouse. Choose to forgive instead and let go of past hurts. Consider Philippians 3:13-14: “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Once you’ve let go of the past hurt, engage with your spouse in the present moment. Go on a fun date. Ask your spouse what’s been positive and what’s been hard for them recently. Connect with them emotionally by listening to them and acknowledging their feelings.
Meditate on God’s Word
While the Bible doesn’t explicitly tell husbands and wives to be psychologically flexible, it does contain verses that encourage the same quality. Meditating on God’s Word can help you become more psychologically flexible as you relate to your spouse.
Consider Philippians 4:6-7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” As stressors surface, instead of reacting negatively, pray. Give the Lord all your concerns and expect his promise of peace.
Here are some other helpful verses to meditate on:
- “Take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
- “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24).
And when you and your spouse have conflicts, remember Ephesians 4:1-3:
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
While Paul didn’t know the term “psychological flexibility,” he knew the power of God’s love, which can renew minds (Romans 12:2) and prevent unnecessary conflict in your marriage.
Heather Drabinsky is a Content Producer in the Marriage department at Focus on the Family.
1 Jennifer S. Daks and Ronald D. Rogge, “Examining the Correlates of Psychological Flexibility in Romantic Relationship and Family Dynamics: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, October 2020.
© 2021 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.
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