“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Leo Tolstoy wrote famously in the opening paragraph of Anna Karenina, one of my favorite novels.
Cohesive families seem to share a few critical traits, as most family psychologists agree. Being emotionally flexible may be one of the most important factors when it comes to longevity and overall health of romantic and familial relationships.
That’s the finding of a recent University of Rochester meta-analysis (which is defined as a comprehensive study of studies), published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, which statistically combined the results of 174 separate studies that looked at acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), mindfulness, and emotion regulation in relationships. The research goal was to clarify how mental flexibility, on one hand, and rigid inflexibility on the other, were linked to the dynamics within families and romantic relationships.
Overall, the psychologists found that rigid and inflexible responses to difficult or challenging interpersonal experiences to be dysfunctional, ultimately contributing to and exacerbating a person’s psychopathology, leading to poor overall life adjustment, less satisfactory relationships, and impoverished romantic relationships.
Mental flexibility versus inflexibility
In my practice, I define psychological flexibility as a set of skills that people use when they’re presented with difficult or challenging thoughts, feelings, emotions, or experiences. Such skills encompass:
-Being open to experiences, both good and bad, and accepting them no matter how challenging or difficult they might be
-Having a mindful awareness of the present moment throughout day-to-day life
-Experiencing thoughts and feelings without rigidly clinging to them
-Maintaining a big picture perspective even in the midst of difficult thoughts and feelings
-Paying attention to small moments of joy throughout the day, which I call “stones across the river” in my practice
-Learning to actively maintain contact with deeper values, spiritual or personal, no matter how stressful or chaotic each day is
-Continuing to take steps toward a goal, even in the face of difficult experiences and setbacks
-Learning how to forgive the flaws or mistakes of others, rather than using them as a tool for conflict or blame
-Using spirituality, personal rituals, social support, service to others, and psychotherapy in the face of difficulties
The opposite: mental inflexibility, also has specific behaviors that I discuss with patients, including:
-Actively avoiding difficult or painful thoughts, feelings, and experiences
-Going through daily life in a distracted and inattentive manner
-Having rigidly set ideas, and not listening to others
-Getting stuck in negative thoughts and feelings
-Seeing difficult thoughts and feelings as a personal reflection and feeling judged or shameful for having them, or shaming others
-Losing track of deeper priorities within the stress, chores, and chaos of day-to-day life
-Getting derailed easily by setbacks or difficult experiences, resulting in being unable to take steps toward deeper goals.
-Not being able to handle small changes, such as fluid schedules, timing, or the mistakes of self or others.
In the Rochester study, researchers found the following, regarding individuals and families who are mentally flexible versus inflexible.
Greater use of adaptive parenting strategies
Fewer incidents of punitive, harsh, and negative parenting strategies
Positive regard or opinions of family members
Lower perceived parenting stress or burden
Greater family cohesion
Lower child distress
Within romantic relationships, higher levels of various forms of psychological inflexibility were linked to:
Lower relationship satisfaction for themselves and their partners
Lower sexual satisfaction
Lower emotional supportiveness
Greater negative conflict, physical aggression, poor communication, attachment anxiety, and attachment avoidance
Mental flexibility is an executive function that can be taught through coaching and therapy. Clearly, the benefits for the mental health of families and couples are penultimate.