Individual resilience in relationships

Relationships can be fulfilling, amazing, and energising; but sometimes they can be heartbreaking, full of sorrow, and draining. It is important to remember that relationships will go through cycles of ups and downs, and expecting them to always be effortless is unrealistic. Good relationships need attention and nurturing, but not at the expense of either individual in the relationship.

Resilience at an individual level is important, as it is through being the best version of yourself that allows you to bring that best version into your relationship. Resilience, at its core, is about dealing with adversity and positive adaptation: that is, it’s required to respond to different adversities, ranging from daily annoyances through to life-changing traumas. Resilience, with regard to relationships, can then be explained as the attitudes and behaviours that promote coping strategies and protect individuals and their intimate relationships from the potential negative effects of whatever is going on. That might be deployment, posting, long separations due to courses, or mental or physical ill health.

While coping strategies are integral to resilience, coping is not the same as resilience. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they in fact refer to quite separate concepts. Resilience influences how an event is appraised, whereas coping refers to the strategies employed following the appraisal as a stressful encounter.

Many people enter intimate relationships with the hope of finding a safe place, a shelter from the storm of external stress, a haven to plan for the future and gain emotional equilibrium. Although the negative effects of military life on relationships are well documented, it has also been shown that overall, military couples are remarkably resilient. Furthermore, military life, with its frequent physical separation, can provide a space for individual growth and constructive changes in intimate relationships.

There are a number of services available and places of support where current and ex-serving Australian Defence Force personnel and their loved ones can seek support for their relationships. However, it’s not always easy to find them, and many people in need of counselling and other such services only do so when their problems have reached a critical stage, which can often be too late for positive resolution.

DVA provides support to veterans, while Open Arms — Veterans & Families Counselling offers counselling to both veterans and their families.

Other organisations, such as Soldier On, Mates4Mates and Relationships Australia might also be able to assist you.

Here are a few starting points for individuals to reflect on when thinking of their personal levels of resilience as part of a couple:

  • How to recognise and draw on social supports
  • How to regulate emotions and mood in times of stress
  • Distress tolerance
  • Communication styles, and potentially how best to alter these so couples can feel better understood by each other.

Relationship maintenance and growth is an ongoing process that lasts the duration of the intimate relationship. Think of it as preventative maintenance: you wouldn’t wait until your car runs out of fuel to look at fixing that problem. Focusing on your individual resilience is not selfish or egocentric; it is for the betterment of yourself and therefore your relationship.

By Dr Kerri-Ann Woodbury

Dr Kerri-Ann Woodbury holds a PhD, which investigated the effects of deployment with the Australian Army on intimate relationships. She is a veteran who served as a Nursing Officer in the Australian Army. She currently works in the health sector of tertiary education, and continues her collaboration and involvement with the Defence and veteran communities.

We welcome articles written by members of the veteran community. Please email vetaffairs [at] dva.gov.au if you have a story in mind. Please note that responsibility for the accuracy of such articles rests with the author.