Flexibility is a sign of mental health, psychiatrist Tom Smith used to say when we were colleagues San Francisco’s Alcoholism Evaluation and Treatment Center.
I was single then and in my late twenties. The men I dated were usually flexible. They had to be, because it was usually “my way or the highway” when it came to restaurants, outings, and so on.
But I thought Tom was talking about our patients, not moi! Although I was the agency’s couple therapy expert, I was not yet ready for marriage. I dated a lot but was more interested in getting my way than forming a sound, lasting relationship.
Key Element for Good Marriage
Now that I’ve been married for nearly thirty years, and continue to counsel couples, I can add to Tom’s wise comment by saying that flexibility is also a key for a happy marriage. Of course, it helps to have a spouse who is flexible, but really, both partners need to be willing to live with an awareness of the other’s wants and needs as well as their own.
This is not to imply that you should have no boundaries; that you need to turn yourself into a pretzel because you get so twisted up trying to please your partner that you get confused about who you are and lose sight of your own needs.
So how do we learn to practice flexibility in a way that respects both our own and our partner’s needs? Here are a few ideas:
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” states Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He’s right, of course, and applying his advice to marriage helps change rigid patterns into more flexible ways of being. Getting practical, if your main thing is to have a good marriage, this should be more important in the big picture of your life than how you’ll spend leisure time together, exactly how a chore should get done, who does it, or something else.
A wise friend advised me early in my marriage, “Don’t argue with your husband about anything except for your child’s education. To her, this is where she needs to show she has a backbone. For you, it could be something else. “Choose your battles” is as relevant to marriage as it is to child rearing. When both partners are prepared to bend regarding relatively minor concerns they are cooking up a recipe for a good marriage, because while no one is keeping an exact score, they will both appreciate how the other accommodates her or him. Both feel secure, safe, loved, and loving.
How to Be Flexible in Your Relationship
Another wise friend showed me his tip for a good marriage. You might want to try it out visually by positioning your hands and fingers as he demonstrated in this order:
- He raised his hands in front of his chest.
- He pressed the fingertips of one hand against the fingertips of the opposing hand’s fingertips and said, “Here’s what it’s like when both spouses insist on getting their way.”
- Then, keeping all fingers spread out, he moved his hands apart, then slowly moved them closer together but placed the fingers of each hand into the spaces between the fingers of the other hand. “Here’s a good marriage,” he said.
Eureka! I got the message. He was showing me in Step Three what it looks like when spouses make room for each other’s wants and needs. Insisting on getting our own way can “work” for a while. But eventually the relationship will suffer, because, no one likes to feel squished by a dictator.
Personally, I learned to let go more often, to get along by going along with my husband’s way of doing things much of the time. Usually, what I could choose to insist on is really no big deal. But when something is important to me, of course, I’ll speak up. In a healthy relationship, both partners want to satisfy each other’s wants and needs. They don’t block each other from moving forward. Instead, they grant each other ample space for self-expression and for each other’s desired outcome.
If I Can Grow, You Can Too
My husband David is quite flexible. On a scale of one to ten, he’d get an eight or nine. When writing this entry, I asked him, “How flexible would you rate me when we first got married?” “Three,” he said. “And now, about thirty years later?” I wondered. “Seven” he said.
Good enough for now, I thought, with room to grow.