Stop the presses. Somebody figured out the number one thing that makes relationships work.
The Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science has published the results of a major study in which researchers analyzed data from nearly 44,000 participants and claims to have zeroed in on the top factor in healthy relationships. It’s something called “psychological flexibility.”
Here’s how the British Psychological Society explains the term in its Research Digest:
A psychologically flexible person is characterised by a set of attitudes and skills: they are generally open to and accepting of experiences, whether they are good or bad; they try to be mindfully aware of the present moment; they experience difficult thoughts without ruminating on them; they seek to maintain a broader perspective when faced with a challenge; they continue to pursue important goals despite setbacks; and they maintain contact with “deeper values,” no matter how stressful a day might be …
Wow. Just wow. Who in the world are these “psychologically flexible” people? I aspire to have that kind of flexibility and so does my wife, Raquel, but the problem is that we’re just so … human. Yes, we love (and like) each other very much, but we’re often unaware of the present moment; we get mentally stuck ruminating on problems; and on stressful days, we often lose sight of our “deeper values.”
Yet, it’s our “deeper values” that eventually pull us together at the end of the day, and those deeper values are rooted in our faith. As cliché as that may sound, it’s anything but that. It requires us to be serious about three critical things: forgiveness, prayer and genuine self-reflection. And although Raquel and I are awfully clumsy in the execution of these three habits, we can’t live without them.
Raquel and I have spent entire days getting on each other’s nerves — speaking in unkind tones and being hypercritical of each other. But before the day is over, we own our part (oftentimes reluctantly), apologize to each other and write off our debts before going to sleep. Seriously, forgiveness simply isn’t optional if we’re going to pray the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”). Letting go of offenses keeps our hearts open to offering each other a fresh start every day.
While we can forgive individual offenses all we want, some of our conflicts are rooted in long-running personality traits or preferences that may never change. That kind of stuff has ruined people’s marriages over the course of years. We’ve found that the antidote to that is daily fostering a deep, trusting relationship — basically, it’s intimacy. And spiritual intimacy (like physical intimacy) makes it hard for us to stay irritated at each other.
There’s something about taking each other’s hand, pausing and saying a humble prayer — even a clumsy one — that washes over so much hurt and frustration. (If you need some ideas about how to pray together, you can find them in my book, Confessions of a Happily Married Man). But sometimes it’s hard to know what to pray about when it comes to marriage. That’s where sincere self-reflection comes in.
While Raquel and I may not be psychologically flexible enough to be “mindfully present” in the moment, occasionally, we’ll step back and try to evaluate what we’re really like as a spouse. For example, someone recently offered a criticism of me that stung but I knew it was true. As I drove to work one day, I asked myself: “What has it been like for Raquel to live with this side of me?” That time alone gave me a chance to pray and invite God into the ways I can change, which will inevitably be a blessing to Raquel.
Kudos to all the “psychologically flexible” spouses out there. But the best a lot of us can do is focus on being “spiritually flexible” — spouses who are willing to release offenses, do the best we can to pray together, and care enough to ask ourselves how we can love each other even more every day.
Check out my book, “Confessions of a Happily Married Man,” which tells the story of how God has worked in the ordinary (and extraordinary) of my marriage — and how you can see the ways He’s working in yours too.