Occasionally I come across a study that sheds so much light on the struggles that compulsives face that it seems made for people with OCPD (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder). One such study recently highlighted the importance of flexibility in promoting healthy relationships between partners, and with their children.
The study measured family discord by surveying 742 parents across the U.S. in April 2020, which of course was early in the COVID pandemic. The research was conducted by psychologists at the University of Rochester to see how inflexibility impacted stress during the pandemic.
Here’s one of their conclusions: “Higher levels of parent inflexibility were predictive of higher levels of family discord (i.e., family chaos/discord and parenting burden), higher levels of coparenting discord (i.e., coparent conflict, coparent triangulation, and coparent disagreement) and lower levels of family cohesion, suggesting that parents engaging rigid and inflexible responses to difficult and challenging experiences might sow discord into the broader family environment, particularly in the midst of a pandemic.”
On the other hand: “Parent flexibility was predictive of greater family cohesion, lower family discord, and greater use of constructive parenting. Thus, these results highlight that although parental psychological flexibility might not have served to reduce the overall stress parents faced in the early stages of the pandemic, it seemed to promote kinder and more compassionate and supportive interactions at all levels of family functioning.”
So if you want to get through the pandemic without ripping your family apart you’ll need to loosen up. For that matter, if you want your relationship to stay in one piece even once the pandemic is over, you’ll need to loosen up.
But What About Standing Up For What’s “Right?”
But this isn’t so simple for people with compulsive tendencies. (This includes people with OCPD, obsessives and perfectionists as well, but for short I refer to compulsives). To compulsives, being correct is a greater virtue than flexibility. We aren’t adamant about something just to be rigid, but because it seems like the right thing, the conscientious thing, to do.
Compulsives often feel responsible for making sure that things don’t go wrong. We’re naturally more meticulous, future-oriented, and risk averse. And all of those tendencies serve a very important function in relationships.
But we need to be smart about how we use these tendencies. Without flexibility, they hurt more than help.
Before we go on, a caveat: no one should tolerate abuse. If you are being hurt you should not be flexible about that. In this piece I’m addressing the compulsive folks who usually find it hard to be flexible, especially the leader/teacher type.
Letting Go: A Personal Example
When I was first training as a psychoanalyst my supervisor told me that I should never allow clients to reschedule sessions, and that they should always be billed for their regular session time, even if they didn’t attend. Even though it didn’t seem completely right to me, I wasn’t going to let my weakness get in the way of doing the “right” thing, or of being the most helpful analyst I could possibly be. Even if that meant being rigid.
There are good reasons to have a policy like the one my supervisor insisted on. But there are better reasons to be more accommodating at times.
Thankfully, my clients indirectly educated me and I developed a more reasonable, more flexible, policy that I felt addressed the concerns my supervisor held. But at first, taking a strong stand on it seemed like the “right” thing to do to help my clients. In the long run, I had to decide what was most important and most effective in helping them.
The Importance of Choosing What’s Most Important
This conflict between flexibility and doing the “right” thing is one reason that I often harp on the importance of being clear about what’s most important. In order to override the less healthy aspects of a compulsive personality, we need to recall what our values are.
For instance, telling a child that they should eat well, study hard and practice is important. But conveying that they are loved unconditionally is more important and will serve them well their entire lives. This doesn’t mean anything goes, but it does mean that while it might seem like being inflexible is the “right” thing to do for your child, other values may need to override the “right” thing.
Similarly, maintaining a good relationship with your partner requires more flexibility than it does standing up for what’s “right.” If they’re occasionally late for a date, is berating them for that more important than having a good time? Is making sure that your partner is impeccably dressed more important than them feeling relaxed and loved? Is maintaining a strict budget more important than having peace in your home?
Being Right About Being “Right”
Now that I’ve put “right” in quotation marks about ten times you’re probably either getting really annoyed or getting the point: “right” is a relative thing. The “right” thing becomes the wrong thing in different circumstances. To really be right you need to be flexible.
Even if you’re “right” in some objective way, it doesn’t mean you are right, because you’re going to ruin your relationship if you don’t loosen up. Another one of my supervisors, a much more flexible one, illustrated the dire results of a rigid approach: “The operation was a success, even though the patient died.” Doing the “right” thing in one circumstance can lead to disaster in another.
Ralph Spends the Family Fortune
Let’s imagine Ralph and Rolanda. Ralph knows for sure that Costco has the best prices on frozen lasagna. He and Rolanda are on a budget so of course it makes sense to him for her to make the trip to Costco to get the cheaper lasagna. Rolanda didn’t do that, though. She went to the closest grocery store and paid three dollars more so she’d have more time at home with the family. But she had already made four other even more expensive purchases this month. Ralph was “right:” she spent more money than she needed to.
But Ralph wasn’t being very flexible, and the emotional price the entire family paid when the screaming started was far greater than the total $92.37 he criticized her for.
“Still,” I hear the Ralphs of the world say, “What are we supposed to do, go into debt?”
Well, maybe, maybe not. There are worse things than debt. Like divorce, divorce attorneys, and divorce attorney bills. Not to mention medical problems such as Alzheimer’s made worse by stress.
Even if you do need to draw a financial line, your words, tone and attitude can convey the really important thing: you care about your future together. Too often compulsives fail to communicate the reasons behind their adamant stances. And too often when they do, it still has that “holier-than-thou” tone.
How to Be More Flexible in Your Relationship
We become rigid when we’re anxious and feel a need to control what happens. We like to think that it’s about principles, but it’s often an attempt to avoid anxiety. If you feel responsible for making sure that things don’t go wrong, it could make you anxious and therefore more inflexible. It’s best to face down the anxiety and admit that you can’t determine all outcomes, rather than try to avoid it with rigid control. That will get you more of what you want.
So here are some things to keep in mind if you want to be more flexible in your relationship, and if peace in your home is important to you:
- Remain curious about your partner’s experience and thoughts. Just pause. You don’t have to agree or disagree right away. Give yourself points every time you stop and listen to your partner’s point of view.
- Think outside of the box: things don’t have to be a certain way unless your anxiety forces you to believe your fears.
- Inflexibility is often the result of trying to prevent an unlikely future. When we believe that it’s imperative to prevent something from happening we become trapped in rigidity. It’s not worth the energy.
- Accept what’s out of your control. Perseverance is not always a virtue.
- Choose your battles: let them have what’s important to them at least half the time.
- Ask, what’s best in this circumstance?
- When you do need to stand up for something, communicate that it isn’t because you’re right, it’s because you care.
Being flexible is really the right thing to do. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you’re smart about how you care.
For more insights about struggles in relationships, read my series of posts about Rescuers, Victims & Persecutors in Relationships with Compulsives. For 19 suggestions about parenting click here.