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by Ron L. Deal

Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being. Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.

Saint Augustine

A high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.

Tennessee Williams
[ NOTE: This is the first of a three part series on Couple Flexibility and marital intimacy. ]

The world has seen a plethora of marriage books. Bookstores are filled with rows of books that address the commonly held aspects of healthy relationships: communication, resolving conflict, managing money, a healthy sexual relationship, etc. They pretty much have a lot in common. But when was the last time you read a marriage book that encouraged the couple to be more flexible? Likely, never. Until now.

Research conducted by myself and Dr. David Olson of over 50,000 couples in stepfamilies has discovered that a healthy dose of flexibility in the couple’s relationship and individual attitude toward the management of their family was one of the top five predictors of a satisfying remarriage (number five to be exact). But what is flexibility? Sherry knows.

Five years into her remarriage, Sherry had discovered just how life sustaining and conflict-reducing having a flexible attitude was. Surrounded by four children (two from her previous marriage and two from his), she and her husband dealt continuously with the hectic schedules, between home conflicts, and parenting dilemmas that most stepfamilies face. When asked how she was able to cope with the stresses and pressures that were out of her control, Sherry replied, “I’ve learned how to let go. I learned early on, for example, that letting the other home have the kids on Christmas Day was not only a gift to them, but to myself. I really wanted the kids with us on that special day, but I realized that giving my children and my ex that time helped everyone enjoy the holidays more. Besides, I found that Christmas alone with my husband was not a bad thing. In fact, it was a marriage building thing. There are so many situations you find yourself giving, not because it’s your turn, but because it creates peace for your children—and that is more important than the measurement of fairness. Besides, in time, I have seen this giving attitude returned to us by the other home.”

What Sherry discovered is that flexibility—the quality of being adaptable—allowed her to find a bearable solution to the natural desire of her and her ex-husband to spend Christmas day with their children. Not only did a flexible attitude help her find her way around this seeming impasse, it empowered her to find a blessing or two along the way.

Finding Balance

Should Sherry always take the “back-seat” when dealing with her ex-husband? Absolutely not. Flexibility must be tempered with stability and consistency. Finding the balance is important.

Flexibility refers to how open to change a couple’s relationship is in the areas of leadership, relationship boundaries, roles within the marriage, and problem solving. Healthy couple relationships maintain a balance between a predictable pattern of interaction (“stability”) and the ability to adapt or change when circumstances call for it (“flexibility”). Olympic pairs ice-skating duos are amazing to watch. With tremendous fluidity and seemingly effortless grace the man and woman dance on the ice while performing difficult maneuvers that require careful coordination. While they make it appear easy, two difficult actions are at work: flexibility and stability. Flexibility is required to bend, spin, turn, or move in sequenced motion while stability allows them to share the weight of each maneuver, brace when returning to the ice after an aerial wonder, and support one another’s movement on the ice. Marriage requires this same delicate dance.

When it comes to financial management and commitment to the relationship, for example, a husband and wife need to know that they can expect stability and consistency from the other. This gives the marriage a sense of security because each knows what to expect from the other. On the other hand, couples need the capacity to change as life demands. As children grow and enter new phases of life, for example, parenting responses must change. Without flexibility parents try to manage their teenagers the same way they did the children when in preschool. Making a child’s decisions regarding bed time, meal time, and play time was fine when the child was four; doing so when the child is fifteen is sure to bring conflict within the home. Therefore, stability and flexibility are both important to the couple relationship over time.

Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.