Resilient Relationships for Couples This Valentine’s Day

An interview with Dr. Jennifer Ripley on couple relationships and resilience.

Posted Feb 13, 2019

Often we think of resilience on an individual level, but what does resilience look like in our relationships? In keeping with the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I asked Dr. Jennifer Ripley, professor of psychology at Regent University where she also directs the Marriage Ministry Assessment Training and Empowerment (MMATE) Center, about relationships and resilience for this installment in a series of interviews with psychologists on how resilience—one of the major themes of my book, A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience—connects to their area of study.

Jennifer Ripley, used with permission
Source: Jennifer Ripley, used with permission

She shares about the good, the bad, and the messy of relationships and how couples can move together toward resilience.

JA: How do you personally define a resilient relationship?

JR: A resilient relationship is one that can "bounce back quickly."  Relationships that are healthy are like bodies that are healthy: when a virus attacks the body, the healthy person can recover fairly quickly and return to regular life again. A healthy, resilient relationship will have the disagreements, offenses, and differences of opinions that are inevitable in any intimate relationship. But resilient couples can have a disagreement and then return to enjoying each other fairly quickly. They can repair any damage the offense caused, resolve things that can be resolved, accept things that aren't changing, and enjoy the good things they have together.

JA: How did you first get interested in studying couples?

JR: I was a 20-something who had been married for just one year when I started my doctoral training and needed to decide what to focus on for my research. After only one year of marriage, I realized that intimate partnerships are complex, and difficult, and full of potential for happiness or distress. I thought to myself, "I could study this for a lifetime and never be bored." And I was right!

JA: How can couples cultivate resilient relationships?

JR: One important skill is to learn how to repair offenses in the relationship and return to enjoying each other. There will be intentional and unintentional offenses in any relationship. Couples do better when they accept that they are both human, care for each other even when their partner is being offensive, and have well-worn pathways to repair. Forgiveness is one important pathway to repair offense. Humor, humility, affection, sex, spending positive time together, and just "letting things go" are other ways to move forward after an offense.

JA: Any advice how we might support a couple having relationship problems?

JR: Modern life as a couple is full of problems, with so much stress and pressure and few supports for couples. It's important to give each other a lot of understanding. Once things start going negatively in a relationship, then both partners tend to become self-protective. So, if you find yourself focused on protecting yourself instead of enjoying your partner, then it might be time to try and cultivate some resiliency and repair the relationship. If our own attempts to improve things aren't effective, you try to talk together, and both are trying to improve things but still finding yourselves in a self-protective situation; that's a good time to seek some professional help from an experienced couples’ counselor.

JA: Can you share about what you’re working on these days related to couples?

JR: I'm part of a study looking at how couples, and their counselors, use spirituality to maintain and improve their relationship. We know from research that prayer can be an effective way for couples to grow closer—especially if prayers are blessings or confessions. Some recent research I conducted found that seeing forgiveness in a relationship as a sacred act, something one does with God's help and blessing, seems to help couples feel more positively about their relationship. So now I'm investigating what other spiritual practices might help couples.

JA: Anything else you care to share?

JR: It was 25 years ago now that I decided to study couple relationships for my career, and I have more questions now than I did then—but more answers, too. It is a true blessing that couples and counselors share their lives through this research, and in the couples counseling that I am privileged to provide.