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by Ron L. Deal, President, Smart Stepfamilies

NOTE: This is the third article in a series of three on Couple Flexibility. Before reading this one read the first article here and the second here.

So what makes someone flexible? How do you teach someone to be flexible? When our research uncovered the importance of flexibility, these questions began to trouble me. Is flexibility a natural personality trait which people either possess or they don’t? What attitudes lay at the heart of a flexible lifestyle?

“Does counseling work for everyone?” my (Ron) twelve year-old son asked one day? He knew I worked as a therapist and he wondered if it worked the same for everyone. No, it doesn’t. “Well, why not?” he wondered. I explained that there are many reasons; sometimes people just aren’t feeling enough pain in their life to find the motivation they need to change. Another common struggle for people seeking couple therapy is pride. Admitting and taking responsibility for how they (read: “I”) negatively contribute to a relationship is often very difficult. And yet, intimacy will be short-circuited when one or both partners refuse to own their stuff in the marriage. They remain rigidly stuck in their behavioral exchanges because they are struggling with humility.

One of the attitudes at the heart of flexibility is humility. The unpretentious person who is not prideful or self-seeking, but able to surrender themselves in loving service to their mate will find making adjustments (flexibility) in life much easier. They are not a “door-mat” or “codependent” as some fear (notice that the fear of hurt leads many to label this relational posture as vulnerable or self-depreciating), rather one who is open to the influence of their partner, able to learn what is pleasing to them. Instead of maintaining a wall of pride when a complaint is offered, they calmly receive it and consider its merits. Self-change follows when necessary.

Humility also shares power in a relationship, rather than posturing for it. This leads to the joint decision-making of healthy couples and ability to compromise that we found in our research. And when both persons demonstrate a humble servant’s heart in the marriage, a competition is created, but not one that most people fear. Instead of a competition for power or control, humble couple’s create a competition for kindness. This environment mutually feeds and cares for each person as they build one another up in the marriage.

A second relational attitude that feeds couple flexibility is grace. Most people recognize that in spiritual terms grace broadly defined refers to any good thing that comes from God. Narrowly defined it refers to the undeserving gift of forgiveness offered by God to those who trust in his Son, Jesus. Activated by faith, this gift bestows favor on those who have not earned it. Expressed in marriage, the graceful person seeks to bring good things to the life of their partner (and extended family). They seek the good of the other and try to nurture the well-being of their mate.

But perhaps more importantly, a person filled with grace offers forgiveness—even when undeserved. They seek to reconcile the relationship when a conflict or barrier exists; this leads to giving “second-chances” and the creative problem solving discussed earlier. Of course, forgiveness is emotionally much easier to grant when the other is humbly accepting responsibility for how they have hurt you, but forgiveness should not be offered only when they other “deserves it.” At times, it is simply a free gift.

Lisa married Jacob, the father of two teenaged children, about three years after his first wife’s death to cancer. Obviously the children had strong emotional ties to their mother and struggled—despite their generally amicable relationship with Lisa—to accept their dads remarriage and the presence of a stepmother. “It just feels like mom is dying all over again,” his fourteen year-old son explained. But the children’s resistance wasn’t all that Lisa and Jacob were dealing with. His deceased wife’s parents remained very close to their grandchildren and they too found it difficult to adapt to any one who would “try to take their daughter’s place.”

Time and time again, Lisa found herself isolated as an emotional outsider, especially when her husband appropriately ministered to his children’s sadness. And yet, a grace-filled heart led her to return “good gifts” to her stepchildren and in-laws. She reminded herself that their sadness was not a personal affront to her, but an appropriate response to their loss. She acknowledged that she would never hold “first-place” in their lives—and didn’t need to in order to have a respectful, likeable relationship. Even though her heart was open to deepening her bonds with them, she knew she had to give them the gift of time as they worked through their grief. Similarly, her humility empowered her ability to serve her husband even when he found himself consumed by the sadness of his family. Eventually, over time, grief found it’s place in the home, not as a barrier to new relationships, but as an expression of honor for the past, and Lisa and Jacob’s marriage matured. Her relationship with her stepchildren also continues to deepen.

Together, humility and grace form the foundations of couple flexibility. They reshape the heart of each individual away from selfishness and toward mutual consideration, surrender, and trust—qualities of every great, intimate marriage.

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.