Bouncing Back

Relationships As the Core of Resilience

How well, and how quickly, we recover from life’s traumas is largely determined by the strength of our relationships.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, they say. It’s an idea that grew out of Friedrich Nietzsche’s belief that there are certain lucky people who, when life throws them lemons, instinctively make limoncello.

We call this ability resilience, and Nietzsche wasn’t far off the mark when he suggested that, in some ways, our base level of resilience is indeed a matter of luck. While many have taken his statement out of context to mean that adversity, by nature, is always strength-building, the truth is that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t, depending on the tools at our disposal. We each differ in what we can instinctively make of the lemons we’re thrown, and that depends far less on the vague quality known as “inner strength” than it does on the more important quality of “outer strength,” the supportive emotional bonds we have with other human beings.

In psychological terms, resilience has to do with how we bounce back from adversity. Resilience is not about the magnitude of our initial reaction to negative events; instead, it’s about how quickly we recover from them.

Neuroscientists who study emotion have identified specific brain mechanisms related to resilience, making it one of the six core dimensions that make up our emotional style. It’s perhaps a no-brainer that resilience is key to our overall mental, emotional and even physical health, which is why so many researchers, past and present, have been keen to discover where it comes from and to help people build more of it.

Building Resilient People

Like nearly everything else that makes us who we are, resilience appears to be a product of both nature and nurture. The genetics we inherit from those who came before us play a part, and like eye color, height, or the shape of our big toe, basic resilience measures can vary even among children in the same family. You might have inherited Aunt Teresa’s calm demeanor in the face of stress, for instance—making you more laid-back in response to your surroundings—while your sibling might take after Uncle Joe, who has always been more highly alert to potential danger.

Beyond the capacity we’re born with, resilience is shaped further by the quality of our life experiences. Did those experiences teach us a sense of mastery? That we had control over events and outcomes? Did we have positive feedback when we did something well? Or did we learn we had no control at all over our environment, or that nothing we did was good enough? Our outlook is heavily influenced by the quality of key relationships as we navigate those experiences.

Resilience is profoundly influenced by one of these key relationships in particular: parent-infant attachment. The bonds formed with our first human connections will affect our expectations in other attachment-related experiences throughout life. Responsive care, you might say, “programs” Baby’s brain, building the software for the resilience that will support the success of future relationships. This programming helps sow the confidence required to reach out to friends who will become the pillars of our support networks. It also sows the trust it takes to reach out to that network when we’re suffering—to express our emotions with vulnerability as we seek the support needed for us to grow through the experience. To the degree that we’re successful in securing that support, resilience gets a boost.

What we know about the relationship between caregiver and offspring is that attentiveness and care lead to the development of resilience.”

Daniel J. Siegel, The Mindful Brain

Having said this, there’s encouraging news for those who didn’t come away from childhood with this programming, those whose needs were often neglected, or who were regularly abused and mistreated. First is the fact that the human brain has amazing plasticity and can grow and change well into adulthood. We’re works in progress, growing, changing, overcoming.

All through our lives, the encouragement and support of others provides a scaffold for this change, giving us a sense of safety while we work to grow through what we go through. These others can be family, friends, therapists, communities or institutions; they can also be “transcendent” value systems, that connection to a sense of awe that can give us a larger view of our meaning and purpose.

While some may find it odd to think of our connection with awe as a relationship, the sense that we are invested in—that is, have a relationship with—something outside ourselves is what gives meaning to all our other relationships. And meaning, in turn, supports resilience.

We’re familiar with the forms this relationship takes in religious terms, and therapists will often ask clients how they can use their belief to support resilience. Within therapy or not, we can all use our relationship with awe to the same end. For instance, resilience researcher Froma Walsh has found that those who express personal faith in a loving, responsive God are better able to find hope and meaning in adversity than if they view negative events as punishment from a harsh and punitive God, ready to pounce on every infraction. In fact, seeing your God as a harsh taskmaster has the opposite effect on resilience.

In general, says Walsh, “faith, prayer, and meditation can actually promote health and healing, reducing stress by strengthening the immune and cardiovascular systems.” Nevertheless, she points out, all human beings can experience feelings of awe that are useful in building resilience. This is why we feel stress ebbing away when we enjoy a beautiful sunset or are soothed by waves crashing while we’re gazing at an expansive ocean view. If you’ve ever lain on your back under the stars in a place where there’s little or no ambient city light, you know what awe is.

Don’t underestimate the power of goosebumps—actively seek out the experiences that nurture your own hunger for awe, be it through appreciating the trees in your neighborhood, a complex piece of music, patterns of wind on water, the person who presses on against all odds, or the everyday nobility of others.”

Dacher Keltner, “Why Do We Feel Awe?”

The point is that if we’ve missed out on secure attachment in relationships with our first caregivers, hope of becoming resilient is far from lost. Adults form key attachment bonds just as children do. This is important, because it means we can help people with attachment difficulties change their outcomes by providing the missing link: stable, consistent, meaningful, compassionate relationships.

Pepperdine University psychologist Louis Cozolino offered Vision this example: “If someone with an insecure attachment manages somehow to marry someone with secure attachment, then after about five years or so, research shows that there’s a shift in their attachment pattern to a more secure profile.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy for shortchanged people to maintain the stable relationships they so desperately need, and this can compound their problem. “People with attachment difficulties can seem somewhat burdensome,” agrees Cozolino. “The problem becomes a kind of double victimization, because they never made the choice; they never voted to be dysregulated or problematic. It just kind of happened to them. So it really gets down to the issue of compassion. What do we believe our responsibilities are to each other, and how do we fulfill that role?”

Building Resilient Communities

Cozolino’s remarks underscore that responsive relationships are important throughout our lives, not just in childhood. And beyond the benefits to individual and family well-being, these relationships also provide the infrastructure for a healthy society. “When you talk to resilient adults who had a pretty lousy hand dealt to them as kids,” Cozolino says, “you always hear the same thing: there was someone—a friend, mentor or teacher—who took time, who paid attention to them, cared for them and didn’t treat them the way everyone else did. It took someone who thought they were worth something.” They didn’t do it completely on their own.

This is where extended family networks and supportive communities come in, and we begin to see that the Western ideal of the nuclear family is a tragically limiting construct. For each of us, maintaining resilience requires wider networks than isolated units of parents and children. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins; congregations, social connections of various kinds—these relationships give us many more opportunities for the kinds of attachments that foster resilience.

Resilience isn’t only about how we respond to past events, of course, but also how we respond to uncertainty about the future. In a 1991 essay, sociologist Peter Marris drew on attachment research to understand how resilient people handle uncertainty. Naturally, our life situations and environments present each of us with different levels of uncertainty about the future, and our past experiences of adversity color our expectations.

If we feel we have a certain level of control over the uncertainty in our lives, we cope better than we do if we feel we can’t affect what happens to us. We all have an innate drive to eliminate uncertainty, but we don’t all have equal resources to do it, and this leads to problems if we see society as simply a collection of individuals, each responsible for their own bootstraps. “The social control of uncertainty is competitive,” Marris pointed out, “often protecting the more powerful at the cost of greater uncertainties for the less powerful. People who have experienced, or fear they will experience, more unexpected and disruptive events will develop different coping strategies than the more fortunate.”

To Marris, it seemed obvious that human societies in general need an overhaul. Rather than competing over who gets better odds, the ideal would be to work at improving the odds for everyone: “A society that best protected its members from grief and depression would organize its relationships so that they were as stable, predictable, understandable, and careful of attachments as humanly possible,” Marris wrote. “And the qualities of behavior that would need to inform such relationships—sensitivity, responsiveness, mutual understanding, consistency, ability to negotiate—are very much the same as those which create secure attachment.”

Unfortunately, while flora, fauna and folk are equally desperate to see these qualities in the world around us, change remains elusive. As Marris observed, “we have powerful impulses pulling us in the opposite direction, towards an unequal, unsupportive distribution of uncertainty.”

People are less likely to be overwhelmed by disruptive events, and will recover from them more quickly, if they can be sustained by supportive relationships which continue.”

Peter Marris, “The Social Construction of Uncertainty”

It’s difficult to launch a convincing argument against that conclusion. In a world where a tiny percentage of the population theoretically has enough wealth to solve global homelessness or hunger without even missing it—but instead chooses to hoard that wealth (and/or race each other to be the first joyrider in space)—the impulses in opposition to stability seem powerful indeed.

Our natural inclination is to reduce as many risks to our personal survival as possible. We might even cut risk to ourselves though it means someone else takes on a bit more. If the consequences of shifting risk to others are far enough down the line—or we live far enough up in the economic stratosphere—we may not even realize that we’ve burdened someone else. Marris concluded that the quality of our attachments has an influence on whether we even care that there are consequences to passing on the burden of uncertainty to others.

It’s a vicious cycle. “We have to struggle constantly against the tendency of the powerful to subordinate and marginalize others in the interest of their own greater security,” Marris wrote. “The worse we fail, the more widespread insecurity becomes, and the greater the temptation to rescue our own command of circumstances at the expense of others.”

Building a Resilient Society

Today, 30 years after Marris recorded those words, we live in a world where we’ve failed so badly that our face-saving response is to wash our hands and pretend that a lack of resilience is the problem of the unresilient. But the problem belongs to all of us. The solution Marris argued for is still true and growing more urgent. We need to see our relationships with one another as the foundation of resilience. And because resilient people make for a happier, healthier community, we each need to see relationships as our responsibility to repair and support.

Reaching this point requires realizing that stumbling blocks to resilience don’t exist only within individuals and families but are compounded by the economic, social, cultural and racial climates each of us is embedded within. If we want societies made up of more resilient individuals, we need to curb the impulse to put our own interests ahead of the interests of others on a global scale. Yet even in our own private circles, as Marris pointed out, protecting our own interests is a powerful impulse—so powerful, in fact, that sometimes we do some impressive mental gymnastics to justify it.

Adversity isn’t going away anytime soon. The global issues we face (war, pandemics, fires, floods, natural disasters) reflect our personal struggles: aggression and competition, prejudice and inequity, personal losses, and health issues of all sorts.

We can certainly come through adversity stronger than when we went in. But it’s not the adversity itself that changes us. Rather, it’s the connection we have to those who stay beside us throughout. It’s supportive, consistent relationships that help us make the transformation, on both an individual and a community level.