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by Ron L. Deal, President, Smart Stepfamilies

NOTE: This is the second article in a series of three on Couple Flexibility. Read the first article here before reading this one.
Relational Flexibility

Our research uncovered five key dimensions of flexibility: creative conflict management, the ability to compromise, couple organization, shared decision-making, and flexible leadership. Together these qualities contribute significantly to a satisfying marriage relationship. Let’s consider each.

Handling Differences

We it comes to handling differences in the relationship, unhappy couples tend to get stuck in a rut. Every couple experiences conflicts and differences in preference. In fact, research has suggested that happy and unhappy couples alike share the same number of conflicts.[1] Unhappy couples just can’t get through the differences—they get stuck in them. Healthy couples, by comparison, are more than two and a half times more likely to find creative solutions to their differences and work them out (80% versus only 28% of unsatisfied couples). They are able to think outside the box (or outside their own conceptualization of what the solution should be) and are open to explore different ideas. This sometimes leads to compromise.

A second way healthy couples demonstrate flexibility is through compromise. A full 96% of vitalized couples—almost twice as many as unhappy couples—find the win-win solution when it comes to disagreements (which usually means both partners must bend a little). They are open to being influenced by the other, which stands in stark contrast to unhappy couples who fight to personally “win” in disagreement. But why take this stand? We wonder if part of the reason some couples find compromise difficult is because they fear giving over control to the other.

Rhonda had two children out of wedlock; for ten years she was their sole provider and emotional nurturer. When she married Reggie she had no idea how difficult it would be to “release” some of that responsibility to her husband. Giving him influence to be a role model in their life was what she dreamed of during courtship, but after the wedding, it scared her to death. She found herself vetoing his parenting suggestions and discounting his input in decisions. Reggie felt pushed further and further to the outside of the family’s experience and his resentment grew steadily. It was only after Rhonda challenged herself to make room for Reggie’s influence that they were able to work out an agreeable parenting system that benefited the children, and facilitated their closeness.

Getting Organized

Healthy flexibility is always balanced with stability. This is especially true when it comes to the leadership of the home; being able to adapt to life’s circumstances does not mean an erratic, chaotic home environment. Happy couples are twice as likely to feel organized in life as unsatisfied couples (61% of whom feel disorganized). Not only that, but the way they get organized is different, too. A much higher percentage of satisfied couples (by a margin of 37%) share decision-making; they work as a team to manage their home and life while unsatisfied couples take a more independent approach to decisions. Again, we suspect that trust issues may lay at the heart of this disconnected approach to the relationship. To avoid further hurt or rejection, partners may be tempted to maintain more independence, which, of course, only reinforces emotional distance in the marriage. For many then, becoming more flexible in their relationship equals an increase in emotional risk. If you find yourself struggling with this fear remember that without relational risk, there can be no relational gain.

Taking Life as it Comes

A stepfamily is no place for a rigid person. By nature, because of their complexity, remarried families require multiple changes throughout life. Inflexible people—who have rigid ideas of how family life should be—find themselves feeling worn out by the repetitive changes that result when multiple households, parents, and differing levels of bondedness with children collide. For example, stepmothers often report that they had no idea how difficult it would be to have their husband’s ex-wife have so much influence over their family’s schedule. “Just when I think I know what our weekend is going to be like, he gets a phone call from his ex and everything changes. I wish I had more control over my own life.” That is a very familiar feeling for many remarried couples. Yet, since multiple-household families have multiple forces of influence, the ability to adapt—to take life as it comes—becomes a point of survival for many. With multiple forces of influence, people with rigid approaches to life find themselves constantly battling what they cannot control. But a flexible person is able to adapt, bend as needed, and get through the change. Even better is when both partners can adjust to change.

Our study found that in 94% of happy couples both partners showed a willingness to change (compared to just 44% of unsatisfied couples). Managing change is a couple matter, not just the task of one of the partners. When both adapt, the net result for the couple is a sense of unity as together they move around the forces of life.

[1] Gottman, John M. (1994). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last. Fireside: New York.

Next -- Part 3: At the Heart of Flexibility

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.