I have often been asked the secret to a happy marriage, especially during weddings. I don’t think there is any secret although there are many different parts that work together to have a happy one. We all know the obvious ones – Love. Trust. Hard work. Commitment. Understanding. A good sense of humor. But researchers reviewed 174 different studies and found that all happy marriages have one big trait in common: Psychological flexibility.

According to the review, psychological flexibility is defined “as a set of skills that individuals engage when presented with difficult or challenging thoughts, feelings, emotions, or experiences.” In other words, those who are psychologically flexible are open to new experiences, regardless of the challenges they face. They don’t linger on thoughts or feelings and keep things in perspective. They tend to be goal-oriented and aren’t put off by setbacks.

And people who are psychologically inflexible tend to avoid difficult thoughts and, when confronted by them, often will dwell over them endlessly. Setbacks and challenges are much harder to maneuver for a psychologically inflexible person, which can make reaching goals difficult.

It’s easy to understand why this is such an important trait in a happy marriage. Very often in a marriage, things do not go the way of one partner or the other. Couples who employ psychological flexibility can roll with the changes much easier.

If plans change, for example, something you were looking forward to can’t happen, or the friend that you wanted to see has to change plans on you, use flexible thinking skills and be adaptable. Mental frustrations can get in the way of being adaptable.

Psychological flexibility is also being able to stay presently connected with another person. It is possible for a person to be present within themselves but not connected with another person. This is what we generally think of as mindfulness, and it is, of course, very beneficial.

Part of what makes psychological flexibility or present connection so difficult is that if you are triggered at all, a part of your brain takes over and sends you into fight/flight/flee/freeze. We are particularly prone to being activated in this way in intimate or romantic relationships because of the high levels of vulnerability. Once you are in the zone of fight/flight/flee/freeze, there is no chance to be flexible.

In order to be psychologically flexible in a manner that benefits you and your partner, you first have to accept your circumstances and the way you react to them. This requires developing self-awareness, meditating, and being reflective on your own feelings and what may be triggering them. Ultimately, you need to focus on the goal, which is building a strong relationship with your spouse or partner. Focus on compromising, while also sharing your core needs, and compromising on the things that are less important. Psychological flexibility is about choosing which things you want to be flexible about, while also voicing what really matters. By Manny Palomar, PhD (EV Mail Feb. 20-26, 2023 issue)