“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Leo Tolstoy wrote famously in 1878 in the opening lines of Anna Karenina. Turns out the Russian author was onto something.
Cohesive families, indeed, seem to share a few critical traits—psychologists agree. Being emotionally flexible may be one of the most important factors when it comes to longevity and overall health of your romantic and familial relationships.
That’s the finding of a new University of Rochester meta-analysis, published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, which statistically combined the results of 174 separate studies that had looked at acceptance and commitment therapy, mindfulness, and emotion regulation.
The researchers’ aim was to clarify how mindful flexibility—on one hand—and inattentive, mindless, and rigid inflexibility on the other—were linked to the dynamics within families and romantic relationships.
“Put simply,” says coauthor Ronald Rogge, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, “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.”
Psychological flexibility versus inflexibility
Psychological flexibility is defined 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 attentive awareness of the present moment throughout day-to-day life
- Experiencing thoughts and feelings without obsessively clinging to them
- Maintaining a broader perspective even in the midst of difficult thoughts and feelings
- Learning to actively maintain contact with our deeper values, 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
The opposite—psychological inflexibility—describes six specific behaviors, including:
- Actively avoiding difficult thoughts, feelings, and experiences
- Going through daily life in a distracted and inattentive manner
- Getting stuck in difficult thoughts and feelings
- Seeing difficult thoughts and feelings as a personal reflection and feeling judged or shameful for having them
- Losing track of deeper priorities within the stress 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.
Psychologists consider the rigid and inflexible responses to difficult or challenging experiences dysfunctional, ultimately contributing to and exacerbating a person’s psychopathology.
How flexibility shapes interactions
Through their analysis, coauthor Jennifer Daks, a PhD candidate in the Rochester Department of Psychology, and Rogge discovered that within families, higher levels of various forms of parental psychological flexibility were linked to:
- Greater use of adaptive parenting strategies
- Fewer incidents of lax, harsh, and negative parenting strategies
- 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, attachment anxiety, and attachment avoidance
The results suggest that psychological flexibility and inflexibility may play key roles in both couples and families in shaping how individuals interact with the people closest to them, the two write.
The meta-analysis, also commonly referred to as a “study of studies,” cements and adds to the findings of Rogge’s earlier work in which he and a team tested the effects of couples’ watching movies together and talking about the films afterward. In that work, Rogge and his colleagues demonstrated that couples could bring mindful awareness, compassion, and flexibility back into their relationships by using movies to spark meaningful relationship discussions, leading to both immediate and long-term benefits.
That study, conducted in 2013, found that an inexpensive, fun, and relatively simple watch-and-talk approach can be just as effective as other more intensive therapist-led methods—more than halving the divorce or 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 said about the earlier study. “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.”