The key to a happy family, thriving romance is emotional flexibility, study finds

MONROE COUNTY, N.Y. — What makes a happy family? Is it communication? What about honesty? A new study finds the answer may be just staying flexible. Researchers from the University of Rochester say emotional flexibility can keep both families and romances healthy for the long haul.

The report examined the results of 174 separate studies on commitment therapy, mindfulness, and emotion regulation in relationships. Study authors wanted to find out how being psychologically flexible, or not, impacted the dynamic of a couple or a whole family.

“Put simply, this meta-analysis underscores that 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,” says co-author Ronald Rogge, an associate professor of psychology, in a university release.

How emotionally flexible can you be?

The study defines psychological flexibility as the ability people have to respond to difficult and challenging emotions, feelings, thoughts, and experiences. This ability includes many skills such as:

  • Being open to new experiences, both good and bad
  • Being mindful and aware of the present moment each day
  • Experiencing thoughts and feelings without clinging to them
  • Maintaining a healthy perspective on life even during difficult times
  • Actively maintaining contact with deeper values
  • Continuing to take steps towards a goal in the face of difficult setbacks

Researchers say the opposite is basically true when describing psychological inflexibility. These people tend to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings. An inflexible person can go through life in a distracted or inattentive manner. They get stuck focusing on difficult situations without moving on.

The study adds psychological inflexibility also causes people to see difficult thoughts as a reflection on them and feel judged or shamed for thinking that way. They often lose track of their priorities and get derailed by obstacles in life. Ultimately, this kind of rigid thinking is often classified as dysfunctional by psychologists.

Our flexibility shapes the relationships we have with others

For families, Rogge and co-author Jennifer Daks find high levels of parental psychological flexibility result in greater family cohesion and less child distress. These households also benefit from less parenting stress and fewer incidents of lax or negative parenting strategies.

On the other hand, couples dealing with psychological inflexibility suffer from lower sexual satisfaction and less emotional support. Partners report having less satisfaction with their relationship and experience more conflict and anxiety.

The new report backs up a study by Rogge in 2013 which focused on the benefit of couples who watch movies together. The research revealed that couples who watch films and then talk about them afterwards enjoyed more meaningful relationship discussions than others. Researchers found this approach could cut the separation rate from 24 to 11 percent after the first three years of marriage.

“The results suggest that husbands and wives have a pretty good sense of what they might be doing right and wrong in their relationships,” Rogge explains regarding his earlier work. “You might not need to teach them a whole lot of skills to cut the divorce rate. You might just need to get them to think about how they are currently behaving. And for five movies to give us a benefit over three years–that is awesome.”

Study authors add this technique can be a relationship “lifesaver” during quarantine.

The study appears in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science.

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