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

by | May 20, 2019 | The Agenda

‘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. 

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