‘Perfect Partners’: The impact of military service on women and families

in Work and Families , Tagged military, ADF, Gender equality policies, Australian Defence Force, partners.
  • amy j

    Amy Johnson

    Dr Amy Johnson is a lecturer in Communications and Media at the University of Canberra. Amy was awarded a PhD from Central Queensland University for her research into social media and Australian Defence Force partners. Her research interests include the Australian Defence Force, military families, social media and community. @AmyJohnsonPhD


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Work and Families:

The Australian Defence Force has made significant progress in advancing gender equality, both in the workforce in general, as well as in combat operations. Indeed watch any ADF recruitment ads on TV and at times it looks as if those fast and fascinating career pathways are mostly populated by young women.


But the gender equity culture drive doesn't appear to match the somewhat out dated image and expectation of the ADF members' spouse support. The notion of a  'perfect partner' keeping the family fires burning on the home front not only still persists, but continues to place unreasonable demands on women. 

Today on BroadAgenda, Dr Amy Johnson explores the idea of the 'Perfect Partner' - who is predominantly female. Johnson argues that even though the partners of military members are also significantly impacted by the service, their roles aren't adequately recognised. 

‘To be honest, it just looks too glossy and too shiny and excited. It’s not something I can actually identify with, and it just looks too surreal to me. The reality is children distressed and crying with snotty noses because Daddy is going away, and fed up partners because they are suddenly having to take on twice as much responsibility’ (Female, 34, Navy partner; on how military partners are regarded)


In Australia, we don’t talk much about military partners. Their struggles and contributions are mostly invisible. When we do talk about them, it’s to praise their resilience and capability in providing care for the family left at home.

Yet, partners pay a significant cost for their military connection. It affects their physical, mental and social wellbeing. Some recorded symptoms are closely associated with elevated levels of stress and anxiety, including headaches, weight changes, sleep disturbances and changes to menstrual cycles. Partners have also been shown to have similar rates of mental health problems to soldiers.

Recent research on the Australian military community shows that the spouses build a profile of ‘The Perfect Partner’

The decision to seek care can be tricky as many believe they are relied on to show resilience.  Multiple overseas studies have reported that partners feel they are expected to hide negative emotions, dependence, vulnerability, fright and worry. My recent research on the Australian military community shows that the spouses build a profile of ‘The Perfect Partner’ - an identity they believe is reflected by people inside and outside of the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

The ‘Perfect Partner’, according to those I interviewed, is a civilian female who is the primary caregiver of infants or school-aged children. She is resilient and independent, a person who ‘gets on with the job’ while selflessly supporting others in the military community. The ‘Perfect Partner’ doesn’t just care for her own wellbeing but also facilitates the relationship between the member and the ADF by being encouraging and understanding of their ADF commitments––she does not protest the arrival of another long deployment or another interstate move. If the ‘Perfect Partner’ is employed, her job is flexible and does not cause interference with the members’ ADF commitments.

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Overall, the ADF has made remarkable progress in their efforts to become a more inclusive and gender-equal workplace, especially considering their male-dominated history. However, for an institution that is increasingly fighting to remain a top choice employer in a rapidly changing global environment, it continues to disregard the contribution of military families. 

Representatives of the ADF frequently acknowledge the supporting role played by partners and spouses of their members but this is mostly where it ends: there continues to be a lack of genuine support and engagement for partners. More concerning, partners continue to be perceived in line with traditional gender roles and expectations, as my recent research on ADF partners demonstrated.

As at June 2017, the ADF had 58,612 members, a number that is only set to increase in coming years. The majority of permanent members are male (81%) with a median age of 31 years and are most likely to be married. There has not yet been an ADF report which generated precise information about the number and demographic of families. 

The need to retain existing, fully-trained members makes the military increasingly dependent on support from families. We know that family satisfaction is a key factor in service retention however this is not the only capability families provide; partners influence mission readiness as well as the physical and mental well-being of the member. Members who are supported at home by resilient, supportive family members are more likely to be capable of deploying quickly as well as more likely to experience a smoother transition home after the deployment is finished. 

There is a lack of research or genuine integration of assistance for families, and Australia lags behind our UK and Canadian counterparts in this regard

There is a lack of research or genuine integration of assistance for families, and Australia lags behind our UK and Canadian counterparts in this regard. Often support for families is linked to support programs for veterans without efforts to genuinely consider the unique position and needs of current-serving families which are, of course, quite different from the needs of veterans and their loved ones. 

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Current efforts to change the perception of military partners, especially with regards to partner employment, should be expanded. As we increasingly seek to recognise the contributions of women in all types of work, the efforts of Australian military partners must not be excluded. 

Post your comment


  • Michelle 11/01/2020 11:34am (3 months ago)

    Your article raises some interesting issues. Yes, there's pressure to be a reliable, resilient partner but I also feel the internal pressure to have a balanced life, fulfilling career and also look after my health and fitness. The career part could be better supported by the ADF assisting more with transfer processes between the states. I missed 3 months of work in our new posting due to transfer issues. This is a significant financial and psychological hit for me.

  • Stacey 26/05/2019 6:46pm (10 months ago)

    I support the article, however still feel disappointed that we use the term "defence spouse/partner", yet not once have you acknowledge male partners. With the increase of serving females, you must not forget the men left to undertake the fulltime role of care of children and in most case juggle jobs, where in society the perception of a man having to be a fulltime carer is foreign.

    One of the things I continually see with all the defence wives/partners groups, is the lack of support to men who are in the same situation. In all fairness it shouldn't be about the woman's role in society and the home but both sexes and how to change societies perception of traditional roles and demonstrate that it is acceptable for both sexes to undertake different roles and it should be encouraged and the support should be there equally.

  • Dianne 26/05/2019 8:33am (10 months ago)

    I was an ADF spouse for over 20 years, encompassing the 80s and 90s. Being an ADF spouse at that time necessitated putting the ADF member first in many of the important aspects of married life. Advancement in my nursing career was impossible with multiple interstate moves, My children changed schools (interstate) every couple of years, which affected their education, as a family we had no input on where we lived, or when we moved. There was no family support when I had my son, and my husband left for a month long exercise when our son was 2 days old. When the family moved, it was the spouse who organised everything on the home front, and got everything settled in the new location. While the serving member went back to work, the spouse put the home in order, got the kids settled at school, found a new doctor and basically had dinner on the table every evening. All very 1950s. Defence initiated various levels of assistance such as an REDLO (education support officer), but the spouse was expected to get on with it and not complain. And that's what we did. The overwhelming feeling was that if the spouse caused waves, it would affect the serving member's career prospects. I believe spouses/partners in this century are standing up for themselves more as far as their career and education are concerned. Good on them!

  • Louise 25/05/2019 5:55pm (10 months ago)

    A very interesting read. Thank you for writing this article!
    As a now "ex" military wife, I couldn't agree more with almost everything written here. There are so many pressures to look and be strong and resilient all the time. Yet when we do ask for help it was almost always met negatively, or with pity.
    I am living a much more "normal" existence as a single Mum with much less stress (note: not stress free. Every day is a struggle).

  • Jacqui Adcock 25/05/2019 9:42am (10 months ago)

    Couldn't agree more with this research. No matter what support or services there are provided, no amount of money, time or resources will change this dynamic. It is what it is. As a spouse and an APS employee, who works for the ADF, I think there definitely needs to be more discussions, research and services provided. We are so much better off than where we were 10-15yrs ago, but we are no means near to where we should be.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Anonymous 25/05/2019 6:31am (10 months ago)

    Thank you for beginning the research on this. I think it has been overlooked for too long.

    As an army spouse and mother I have lived many years being moved and having to readapt to where we live. It can be stressful and time consuming just to resource what services we use from schools to vets to dentists to peads... then look for what work is available In the area that I can do.

    Furthermore, I’d love for research in this area to continue and not stop here. Children too are affected by their home environment, how their parents are coping, and then additionally deal with making their own new friends while facing anxieties of yet another new school. These life factors would influence their development, cooing mechanism, behaviours, and academic achievements.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not crying hard done by, and agree that sometimes a posting can bring adventure, fun and new beginnings. However, not always and not in everyone’s situations...

    This is Such a multilayered topic - thank you for giving it some light! I hope research in this area continues and the defence listen.

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