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If You Do This, You May Be "Poisoning Your Relationship," Expert Says

This is “what dysfunctional relationships have in common."

If your relationship is beginning to sour, you may find yourself wondering where it all went wrong. And while any number of things could be at the root of your mutual malcontent, experts say there's a common culprit to consider. According to Steven C. Hayes, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada and author of numerous books on relationships, one of the most common relationship problems is the result of a particular personality trait that can quickly "poison the relationship." He says that psychological inflexibility, a "maladaptive response to life's challenges," lays at the heart of many unhappy unions and is responsible for more than its fair share of break ups. Read on to hear why this trait could spell trouble for your relationship, and for more essential relationship tips, If You and Your Partner Can't Agree on This, It's Time to Break Up.

Hayes says he has spent decades studying "human misery" and has gleaned one groundbreaking insight into its causes. "Thousands of independent studies make it clear that suffering is often the result of something called psychological inflexibility," he says. "This may sound complex," he acknowledges, but in layman's terms, it simply means you tend to prioritize short-term gains over bigger picture goals or values "at the cost of long-term pains." Conversely, psychological flexibility is "the ability to focus on the present moment fully and, according to what the situation affords, change or persist with behavior in the pursuit of goals and values."

Being psychologically inflexible tends to affect many areas of a person's life, beginning with their mental health, and causing ripple effects through their personal relationships, careers, and more. Hayes calls this trait "a recipe for personal disaster," and notes that it has been linked to anxiety, depression, addiction, and abusive relationship traits.

"People who are psychologically inflexible not only experience more distress and suffering, they also experience less satisfaction in their relationship. They are less satisfied with their sex life and show less emotional supportiveness towards their partner. Naturally, their partner doesn't get much satisfaction out of the relationship either," says Hayes.

The good news? The doctor says these patterns are not set in stone, and can be rewritten with help from a particular type of therapy called Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), which helps individuals and couples build flexibility skills. Read on to learn how you can practice better psychological flexibility in your own life, and for more relationship insights, If Your Partner Is Asking You This One Question, They Could Be Cheating.

View emotions not as good or bad, but as information.

white man talking to male therapist

According to counselor Steve Rose, PhD, many people become psychologically inflexible because they're avoidant of negative emotions. For that reason, developing more flexibility hinges on a willingness and ability to experience and process those more difficult feelings. He suggests that rather than looking at difficult emotions as good or bad, "a flexible approach views emotions as information."

For that reason, "Opening up to emotions does not imply being consumed by them. Rather, it means opening up to the lessons they are sharing with us," Rose explains. He suggests that accepting painful emotions and embracing a fuller emotional spectrum can also create more openness to positive emotions. And for more relationship tips delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Get out of your head.

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Kosim Shukurov/Shutterstock

A major feature of this psychological trait is that you may tend to ruminate unhealthily on your own negative patterns. "When you are psychologically inflexible, you get stuck on fears, worries, and self-doubts—and then judge yourself for having these thoughts and feelings in the first place," says Hayes.

That's exactly why Rose suggests stepping back from your thoughts and letting go of your constant need for "coherence and understanding" to become more flexible. Rather than getting caught in a cycle of fear, doubt, and shame, Rose suggests making an effort to be aware of those thoughts, but also choosing how much attention to give them and letting go of them if they're not benefitting you. And if you want to keep your romance on steady footing, If You're Having This Argument, See a Couples Therapist, Experts Say.

Practice keeping your impulses in check.

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Those with psychological inflexibility tend to be more impulsive than others, since they often put short-term gains ahead of their long-term goals. "Instead of living by your better intentions, you get sucked in by moods, thoughts, and momentary urges, making you act in ways detrimental to your health and well-being," Hayes explains.

This can lead to some dangerous relationship patterns, he adds, explaining, "People who are psychologically inflexible are more likely to act in destructive and abusive ways…And ultimately, they are more likely to feel insecure in their relationship and struggle to build a close bond with their partner." If your own patterns have reached this point, your best bet is speaking with a counselor about your concerns.

Stay present in the relationship.

young couple making dinner together

Relationships aren't always easy, even for the most "flexible" among us. For those who experience the sort of inflexibility Hayes describes, the normal ups and downs of a relationship may be so distressing that they cause those involved to retreat entirely. "Instead of being present with their partner and themselves, by paying attention to their partner's emotional world and their own deeper needs, they defend. Instead of actively engaging in difficult (but necessary) conversations, they avoid them, or resort to blaming, insulting, and yelling," Hayes says.

Instead of falling into these old patterns, set aside distractions to give your partner your full attention when you can. Try to engage with the things that matter to them, and view their feelings not as a threat, but as more information that allows you to connect on a deeper level. And for some surprising factors that could be affecting your relationship, If You Have This in Your Blood, Your Marriage Is Better Off, Study Says.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more