How psychological flexibility can help your relationship

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by Farah Gulamoydeen


Just like a rigid muscle can cause pain and restrict our range of movements, so can psychological rigidity - fixed thoughts and patterns of behaviour can have a negative impact on our relationships.

Fixed thoughts could sound like “I must not let others down” or “My partner is not good enough.”

Naturally, fixed thoughts lead to fixed patterns of behaviour. If your fixed thought tells you that you mustn't let others down, your fixed behaviour may include prioritising others' needs above yours and failing to look after yourself.

Or, if your fixed thought relates to your partner not being good enough, then annoyance, resentment, and irritability could build up, leading you to snap at your partner.

One way to counter the impact of fixed thoughts and behaviours on your relationship is to engage in a bit of psychological flexibility. So what does being psychologically flexible look like? Read on to learn more.

TIP 1: Change your relationship with your thoughts

A common choice amongst many unhappy couples is to focus on changing their partner. In reality, focusing your efforts on changing something that isn't within your control may prove to be a frustrating exercise.

With this in mind, how about focusing on what's more within your control and look to changing your relationship with your thoughts? Do your thoughts currently hold a lot of power over you? Do you give it a lot of your attention and obey what it says most of the time?

If so, could you shift the power back to you so that you decide if a thought is helpful or unhelpful - that is, are the thoughts helpful for you in striving to be the person you want to be in the relationship?

TIP 2: Come back to the present more often

Our minds are good at recalling the past such as what our partners have done to make us feel hurt.

We have constructed stories about our partners in our heads often based on our interpretation and evaluation of what they have done. When these old stories show up, it's easy to get stuck in 'here we go again...' thoughts as opposed to taking in new things that our partner may be saying or doing. 

Being present with your partner (pretend it’s your first date again!) and not stuck in the past with our stories is one way to increase engagement and perhaps even find new ways to relate to them.

TIP 3: Use emotions as data instead of them having control over you

When tempers flare or you feel fearful, you can often behave in ways that you end up regretting. The next time you feel angry or worried in your relationship, step back from the emotion and reflect on why you feel this way - could this emotion be telling you something about what you value and care about?

For example, If you're angry that your partner won’t listen to your repeated advice to take better care of their health could it be that you care about their wellbeing? If this is the case how can you convey this from a place of concern, rather than raising your voice about feeling unheard? 

TIP 4: Connect with your relationship values

It's easy to get stuck in the daily grind when it comes to relationships (particularly long term ones). So, why not check in with your relationship values to see if you're on track with where you want to be? It's a great way to get in touch with your relationship values.

So, what type of partner do you want to be, and what are you doing in this relationship that is consistent with these values? What proportion of your time in the relationship is spent focusing on these values-consistent behaviours? And what proportion of your time in the relationship is spent on behaviours that are incongruent with your values? By (re)setting the compass, it allows you to evaluate whether your behaviours take you in the direction that you want to head.

TIP 5: Do what matters vs being reactive

Unhelpful relationship patterns often persist because both partners have learnt to become reactive towards each other. We all have our own ways of reacting such as yelling, blaming, or withdrawing.

Reactions are often inconsistent with our values. If you want to be a respectful partner, perhaps having a heart-to-heart conversation may be in order. If the idea of doing that brings up a lot of stories, memories and unwanted emotions, revisit points 1, 2, 3, and 4!

Psychological flexibility involves practicing all of the points above (sometimes simultaneously!) especially when it comes to trying times in relationships. Like building muscles, practice is key, so keep practising and keep persisting!


And if you find conflict and tension have taken hold of your relationship why not check out our Resource Library Tip Sheet on How to get unstuck from conflict in relationships? Written by our clinical psychologist Annie Malcolm, here’s a sneak peek below, and you can sign up for it (and access to all of our other Tip Sheets on wellbeing, mental health, and performance in our Resource Library).

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