The Understudied Trait That Makes for Happier Relationships

Analysis of 174 studies suggests fostering this trait may improve relationships

Posted Dec 30, 2020

We all want to know the key to a happy, healthy relationship, and for good reason: The stakes are high. Healthy relationships support psychological well-being and physical health, help us meet goals, and bring us happiness and purpose. If you feel uncertain about your relationship's health, or if you simply want to make a good relationship better, knowing what changes you can make that would actually improve healthy relationship functioning is critical.

Consider too that, for many of us — now or in the future — our romantic relationships become the foundation for how a family functions. Whether we live in a family context defined by conflict and anger, responsiveness and support, or something in between is tethered to our parents' relationship quality, an idea emphasized in family systems theory (Broderick, 1993). The health of parents' relationships affects each parent's well-being, their children's well-being, and the quality of their relationships with their children. In the complex system that is a family, figuring out factors that support parents' relationship health can have exponential benefits.

What predicts relationship happiness?

A new meta-analysis reveals critical new insight into what makes for satisfying relationships (Daks & Rogge, 2020). Have you heard of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)? This therapeutic approach to wellness encourages mindfulness, self-awareness, perspective taking, value adherence, and persistent action toward one's goals. In other words, ACT promotes psychological flexibility, the mental skills that enable people, even in the most stressful circumstances, to...:

  • be open and accepting of the good and the bad in their lives.
  • live in the present.
  • gently experience difficult feelings and thoughts and then let them go.
  • see the big picture.
  • live a value-consistent life.
  • be resilient in pursuit of important life goals.

People who have greater psychological flexibility are more adept at these skills. Alternatively, those who lean toward psychological inflexibility tend to have rigid responses that can escalate negativity. As such, psychological inflexibility can be considered a vulnerability in the face of stress events.

In a meta-analysis that included 203 different samples drawn from 174 published papers, and thus represented over 43,000 participants, scholars from the University of Rochester identified critically important connections between psychological flexibility and both relationship functioning and family functioning (Daks & Rogge, 2020).

How does psychological flexibility support relationship health? Evidence suggests psychological flexibility benefits...:

  • Relationship satisfaction. Whether we're navigating daily stressors or major crises, people who respond to these events with more psychological flexibility tend to experience more relationship satisfaction.
  • Sexual satisfaction. Distraction and inattentiveness are unlikely to foster intimacy and bonding, so it's no surprise that lower levels of psychological flexibility tend to predict lower sexual satisfaction (though not as strongly as other findings).
  • Negative conflict and aggression. Romantic partners who have more difficulty living in the moment tend to experience more physical aggression (e.g., pushing, slapping) and negative conflict (e.g., anger, aggressiveness). Those who can feel angry feelings but let them diffuse experience less negative conflict. Psychological flexibility seems to make for healthier management of conflicts.

Psychological flexibility also predicted dimensions of families that color their everyday experience, including:

  • The family environment. Living in the moment, as opposed to being distracted and inattentive, was associated with greater family cohesion and less conflict.
  • Parenting style and parent-child interactions. Parents with more psychological flexibility tend to have more adaptive parenting; they are sensitive and responsive when responding to their children. This was a particularly strong link in the current meta-analysis.
  • Parenting stress. More psychological flexibility may allow parents to respond more successfully to challenges and difficulties, making them less stressed by parenting in general.
  • Children's well-being. When parents have more psychological flexibility, they show more attentiveness and react to their children more flexibly and without judgment; these behaviors are experienced positively by children who show fewer internalizing symptoms (e.g., anxiety, withdrawal) and fewer externalizing symptoms (e.g., aggressiveness) than those whose parents have more rigid and inflexible styles.

Psychological flexibility may be a key ingredient in high-quality relationships and in optimal family functioning. Happily, it is something you can cultivate with training. Mindfulness can be practiced individually and it has the potential for supporting healthier responses to daily stressors, which can benefit couples. Further, ACT-based parenting interventions appear helpful in supporting flexible responses to children, which then benefit all aspects of the family system.

This meta-analysis helps emphasize an often-overlooked, but clearly important factor in relationship functioning. In an age when stress is easy to come by, and phones/work/technology are ready distractions, finding ways to stay in the moment, accept feelings and thoughts, and keep the big picture are more important than ever.

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Broderick, C. B. (1993). Understanding family process: Basics of family systems theory. Sage.

Daks, J. S., & Rogge, R. D. (2020). Examining the correlates of psychological flexibility in romantic relationship and family dynamics: A meta-analysis. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science. Advanced online publication.