I keep a toy Gumby on hand. Not only does it provide me with a zany sense of childhood nostalgia, but as a marriage therapist, I use it as an object lesson sometimes if I’m teaching a marriage class to university students. I purchased one particular Gumby a few years ago (on purpose—thank you, Ebay), because its chest was emblazoned with the words, “Always flexible.” He (it?) became something of a mascot.
I show it to my classes not just so I can feel old when they have no idea who or what Gumby is, but to ask them to guess what important quality Gumby possesses that I believe is one of the most important characteristics of an incredible marriage partner: flexibility. In fact, if I am ever asked to identify one of the most important qualities one should look for in a potential mate, I respond with “flexibility,” every time.
Psychological flexibility has long been considered one of the hallmarks of mental health, and I am a witness that this is accurate. Rigid thinking and its multi-faceted behavioral manifestations shows up in a variety of ways in the therapy room, and perhaps most frequently in marital relationship patterns.
You have probably heard the question, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be married?” Well……it makes sense to answer, “Married, of course,” but in the heat of an argument, it’s so easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of reactivity that our choices actually become more constrained and rigid over time. We start anticipating behavioral sequences and react as we always have without even realizing that we have the choice to be different.
The process is really no different than practicing a musical instrument over and over. We practice relationship patterns over and over in the same way and stop being intentional in our actions.
I have a confession. I like to be right (I know…shocker). When my husband and I have conflict, we can sound like two firstborn children (read: power struggle). He is a biological firstborn, and I am a youngest, but in the context of birth order theory, considering that there are six years between my older brother and me, I have many characteristics of a firstborn.
Add that to the fact that I was raised by two firstborn, depression era, parentified, pragmatists, and there you go. Even though the limited research shows that firstborns and youngest children seem to be a winning combination in marriage, and most of my marriage reflects this complementarity, the firstborn in me rises up at times, and I find myself on a merry-go-round of competition.
Some ideas for stepping off the dysfunctional merry-go-round and creating new, healthier and more flexible patterns of behavior are to:
- Slow down. Take a deep breath. Talk slower and softer. Rigid patterns tend to be lightning fast and seem automatic. Slowing down is hard, but it can be accomplished if it is purposeful.
- Notice what is happening. Map out your conflict patterns. An easy way to do this is to answer, the more I..……., the more my partner………, and then the more I……….., and then the more my partner……….This is when people can see how paradoxical the patterns can be. In other words, the more you engage in reactive behavior, the more likely you are to get back the very behavior you don’t want from the other individual.
- Write down alternative approaches. I endorse the act of writing to articulate reactions and intentions because the act of writing often engages parts of the brain that facilitate problem-solving.
- Most importantly, realize that you CAN develop more flexibility. Yes, you can. However, it does require that you RISK doing something differently. You still can.
Just as an FYI, Ebay has plenty of toy “Gumby,” dolls available for purchase if you need a tangible reminder…..except I’m not so sure about his little pal “Poky.” And if you’re old enough to remember who Gumby is, consider yourself thanked…you just made me feel a little less ancient.