By Emma Young
What makes for a happy family? The answer — whether you’re talking about a couple or a family with kids — is psychological “flexibility”, according to a new paper in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science. Based on a meta-analysis of 174 separate studies, Jennifer S. Daks and Ronald Rogge at the University of Rochester conclude that flexibility helps — and inflexibility hinders — our most important relationships.
The pair analysed data from 203 separate samples, comprising almost 44,000 participants in total. They homed in on measures of psychological flexibility and inflexibility within these studies (which often gathered other data, too), and how they related to measures of family and relationship functioning.
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 (so, for example, a parent confronted with a screaming child who holds the value of being a kind, compassionate parent is able to bear this in mind when choosing how to react to the child). Psychological inflexibility describes the opposite of these thoughts and attitudes, and also entails feeling judged or shameful for holding negative thoughts and feelings.
The pair identified a host of specific links between aspects of flexibility or inflexibility and family functioning. For example, they found that inattention to the present moment and a tendency to respond to challenging experiences in a rigid, inflexible way were linked to weaker family bonds. These factors were also linked to lower levels of satisfaction with romantic relationships, and less “adaptive” parenting, suggesting that such an inflexible parent “might have a more difficult time responding to their children’s misbehaviour in sensitive, compassionate and responsive ways.” (In contrast, greater flexibility was strongly linked to more adaptive parenting). A lack of awareness of the present moment was also associated with more shouting and violence among couples and, along with some other measures of inflexibility, to stronger feelings of insecurity in relation to the relationship.
It’s important to note, however, that the overwhelming majority of links were correlational, so the direction of cause-and-effect is not clear. It could be the case that consistently poor child behaviour drives parental inflexibility, for example — or that the two exacerbate each other. The researchers themselves highlight this issue, calling for longitudinal studies to explore the direction and strength of the associations that they report.
But Daks and Rogge also point to potential practical implications of their findings. It might not seem especially surprising that psychological flexibility has emerged as being good for relationships. But in the past, research on flexibility has tended to focus on how it enhances an individual’s wellbeing, rather than the quality of romantic or familial relationships. In revealing the links between flexibility and family functioning, the work suggests a possible target for new interventions. A form of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) encourages the development of flexibility, and there is plenty of evidence that it improves an individual’s own functioning, the pair notes. Perhaps, given the new results, it could help family functioning, too — especially if a parenting-focused ACT intervention were to be developed. Since links between greater psychological flexibility in parents and in their children have been reported, such an intervention might in theory have benefits that transmit down through generations.