Emotional flexibility is key to a happy and healthy relationship. We can liken partners in healthy relationships who possess this quality to a willow tree. The willow tree serves as an excellent metaphor for a healthy and enduring marriage, bending and swaying with the wind and sometimes cracking but unbreakably resilient.
In the face of stress and challenge—for example, a heavy wind—a willow tree bends. This flexibility, as opposed to rigid resistance, helps the willow tree withstand and recover from even the strongest of challenges. In the same way, the ability and willingness of romantic partners to be flexible with each other help them handle and bounce back from life’s inevitable challenges.
We’re not just talking poetic, either. A recent study published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science determined that a trait known as psychological or emotional flexibility is a major predictor of healthier, more satisfying romantic relationships.
What Does it Mean to be Emotionally Flexible?
Emotional flexibility doesn’t mean being wishy-washy, flaky, or moody. On the contrary, psychological research suggests that emotionally flexible people are more resilient and better equipped to handle challenging thoughts, emotions, and experiences.
Generally speaking, the emotionally flexible person is able to:
- Accept all experiences for what they are, even challenging ones
- Experience the full range of emotions without being overly controlled by them (they won’t repress nor cling to their emotions)
- Keep working toward meaningful goals even when presented with obstacles or setbacks
- Frequently maintain a degree of mindful awareness of the present moment
- Keep the “big picture” in mind and maintain a broader perspective even in the face of difficulties or conflict
The emotionally inflexible person has a vastly different lived experience. They exhibit dysfunctional coping mechanisms, beliefs, and behaviors and often:
- Avoid difficult thoughts, feelings, and experiences
- Frequently become distracted or inattentive
- Perseverate on negative thoughts and feelings
- Feel shame or guilt over their negative thoughts or feelings
- Lack focus on priorities and instead become lost to the whim of day-to-day stresses
- Easily get derailed by setbacks and struggle to achieve goals
We might think of psychological flexibility as a spectrum. As you might imagine, wherever you fall on this spectrum has a huge influence not only on your own well-being but on your closest relationships, too.
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The Payoff of Emotional Flexibility
The featured study, published in October 2020, was a meta-analysis of over 170 studies that looked at concepts like emotional regulation, commitment therapy, and mindfulness. In the paper, titled “Examining the Correlates of Psychological Flexibility in Romantic Relationship and Family Dynamics: A Meta-Analysis,” the co-authors conclude that psychologically flexible couples have significantly greater relationships and more sexual satisfaction. On the contrary, being psychologically inflexible was correlated with:
- Decreased relationship satisfaction
- Decreased sexual satisfaction
- Decreased levels of emotional supportiveness
- Increased levels of negative conflict, physical aggression, and maladaptive attachment styles, including attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance
The benefits of emotional flexibility go beyond the intimate relationship, too. In families, emotional flexibility was correlated with decreased child and parent distress, better family cohesion, and fewer incidences of harsh parenting strategies.
Co-author and University of Rochester associate professor Ronald Rogge state simply:
“Being mindful and emotionally flexible in tough and challenging situations not only improves the lives of individuals, it might also strengthen and enrich their close relationships.”
3 Ways to Improve Your Emotional Flexibility
Like many human characteristics, emotional flexibility is a skill that you can develop with time and practice. Here are three strategies to hone more of your own:
- Practice mindfulness exercises, like journaling or meditation
- Learn to label and pay attention to your emotions, especially where and how you feel them in your body (e.g., tension in the jaw, heaviness in the chest, etc.)
- Explore individual and/or couples counseling to gain objective insights and tools (imago couples therapy, for example, has been shown to help improve mutual understanding within a relationship and prevent couple burnout)
Contact the Marriage Restoration Project today to learn more about how we can help.
- Nazarpour, Davood & Zahrakar, Kianoush & Pouryahya, Mostafa & Davarniya, Reza. (2019). Effectiveness of Couple Therapy based on Imago Relationship Therapy: Its Impact on Couple Burnout. The Neuroscience Journal of Shefaye Khatam. 7. 51-60. 10.29252/shefa.7.4.51. Retrieved January 19, 2021 from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/339851722_Effectiveness_of_Couple_Therapy_based_on_Imago_Relationship_Therapy_Its_Impact_on_Couple_Burnout
- Daks, Jennifer & Rogge, Ronald. (2020). Examining the Correlates of Psychological Flexibility in Romantic Relationship and Family Dynamics: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science. 18. 10.1016/j.jcbs.2020.09.010. Retrieved January 17, 2021 from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344484649_Examining_the_Correlates_of_Psychological_Flexibility_in_Romantic_Relationship_and_Family_Dynamics_A_Meta-Analysis