Psychological flexibility is fundamental to healthy living, so it’s not surprising that within the context of romantic relationships, flexibility is also important for healthy functioning. Being in a relationship and balancing the wants and needs of a partner along with one’s own interests requires compromise and the ability to adapt; both of which require flexibility. When conflict occurs, the level of flexibility that exists between a couple is tested.
“The way in which people deal with conflicts—and in particular the level of rigidity or flexibility that they bring to them—shapes their relationships and to a great degree determines the level of vitality therein,” writes JoAnne Dahl, PhD, in the book ACT and RFT in Relationships: Helping Clients Deepen Intimacy and Maintain Healthy Commitments Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Relational Frame Theory.
“Confrontation tests a couple’s ability to solve problems while staying on a valued track. In order to strengthen rather than weaken their relationship, however, partners need to be mindful of the rigid, self-defeating behavior patterns that often arise during conflicts,” Dahl writes.
According to Robinson, Gould, and Strosahl (2011), psychological rigidity includes: not being present; loss or diminished connection with what matters (or values), fusing with story lines about the self; and attempts to control, alter or avoid certain private events, especially distressing ones.
In the context of couples, these four patterns of psychological rigidity can wreak havoc on relationships. They can be addressed in therapy sessions through a range of interventions that are specifically geared toward boosting psychological flexibility.
Pattern 1: Not Being Present.
Think back to the last conflict you’ve experienced in a relationship or the last interpersonal conflict you discussed with a client in therapy. More than likely, an overemphasis on the past or future played a role.
Couples who spend a lot of time worrying or getting worked up about injustices that have occurred earlier in the relationship tend to suffer much more than those who are able to move forward. As one views the present through the lens of the past, the beauty of the present becomes tainted. The benefits of otherwise fulfilling moments become less accessible.
Similarly, when we become preoccupied with anxious thoughts about the future and what may or may not happen, we also miss out on the benefits of being available to experience what’s occurring in the present. This, too, blocks us from receiving the richness of simply being in the moment with a partner.
Pattern 2: Loss or Diminished Connection with What Matters
Our values are like our compass. They help guide us toward who and what matter to us. When we’re out of touch with our values, our behavior is more likely to go astray from the path we’d truly wish to choose for ourselves. Alternately, when we maintain a solid connection to our values, we can always check in to see whether or not our behavior—whether as individuals or as members of a couple—is aligned with what is meaningful.
One alternative to living according to values is living somewhat arbitrarily according to certain constructed rules. This way of life may provide a sense of control which has the potential to reduce discomfort momentarily, but in doing so it may also distract or pull us away from what truly matters.
“People who tend to follow rules rather than their own values may be less skilled and flexible in dealing with the complicated problems that can emerge in a long-term, intimate relationship. Rules pull people away from the natural contingence or life. Being on the “right” side of a rule is no substitute for vitality in a relationship. Is your life going to be about being right, or living a vital life?” Dahl writes.
Pattern 3: Fusing with Story Lines About the Self
The way we define who we are and why can be both useful and destructive when it comes to our intimate relationships. We tell stories not just about our selves as individuals but also about our relationships, our partners and how they came to be the way they are, too.
An important point to remember is that stories provide subjective perspectives only. They do not provide literal truths, but our minds often trick us into forgetting this fact. Stories can be harmful for intimacy, or in some instances they may be useful. Regardless, over identification with stories is a pattern of rigidity that is bound to cause problems eventually.
Attaching ourselves to storylines becomes an issue when we attach ideas about who we are to a particular self-story. When we fuse with our storylines, change becomes very difficult.
Remember that flexibility and compromise are of the utmost importance in romantic relationships. We certainly don’t need to change who we are to find harmony in a relationship, but we do need to have a certain level of flexibility in the way we choose to view things.
“The inevitable new behaviors and new situations that arise in a relationship necessitate both partners taking a new perspective on themselves and the relationship. Thus it’s important that partners have a flexible consideration of each other, allowing them to integrate these new experiences,” writes Dahl.
Pattern 4: Attempts to Control, Alter or Avoid Certain Private Events
The fourth pattern of psychological rigidity, also known as experiential avoidance, can include things like impulsive confrontation, emotional or physical withdrawal or a refusal to participate when an issue emerges that needs attention. Experiential avoidance can also include things like using substances, being unfaithful, sleeping too much or “checking out,” and withdrawal of participation in activities that were previously done together.
Avoidance provides temporary relief or escape from an unwanted internal experience, but as one would imagine from the examples, it can be a source of great tension, disconnection and miscommunication in relationships.
Another example of psychological rigidity through a pattern of experiential avoidance is a person who avoids intimacy by choosing to keep a safe distance from partners. A woman who chooses a partner who she doesn’t fully believe is right for her in attempts to minimize the potential heartache when things fall apart, is also caught up in this pattern.
Lastly, someone who does things just to please her partner is also caught in this pattern. While it’s possible that doing things to please a partner may be aligned with long-term relationship goals, doing things solely with the aim of pleasing others leaves less room to also act in accordance with one’s values.
“When people who are in a relationship spend a great deal of time and energy trying to control the uncontrollable, they get stuck in rigid, non-vital patterns, which eventually break down the relationship,” writes Dahl.