Missionary Marriage: Ideas to Keep It Together

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missionary marriage

Years ago, my husband and I talked about how to help missionary friends on the field in struggles they were working through in a marriage. The couple was fairly new on the field.

It was tough, we acknowledged: A missionary marriage was like a pressure cooker, intensifying whatever flavors were first lobbed in the pot. If basil, you tasted its nuance in the entire dish. If a sweaty gym sock? Well.

Make no mistake: Your marital issues and strengths will arrive with you on the field with more certainty than your luggage. But it’s critical you don’t let living overseas just happen to your marriage.

Because the natural course of marriage isn’t toward being one flesh, toward unity. It’s toward isolation, disconnection. But “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

What relationships will you feed while overseas?

You may not mind giving from your marriage to outside ministry. It’s quite possible you’re eager to share! Yet that flexibility and generosity flow best when marriage and ministry work as allies—not  competitors.

For FamilyLife.com, I recently wrote the article, “Ministry Marriage: Perks to Love, Dangers to Fight.” That piece is far more comprehensive. But before I direct you there, let’s have some specific straight talk on your soon-to-be missionary marriage.

Actively stay alert for signs of isolation.

I currently live in Colorado, a state notorious for deal-breaking foundation cracks in a home–cracks costing thousands of dollars to fix while you move out. So I keep an eye on cracks in plaster, in drywall, that could indicate a bigger problem–which I’d rather solve as early as possible.

The priority of your missionary marriage remains critical overseas. It speaks the Gospel to your family, not just an unreached people group or the world “out there”. And experiencing God’s love regularly also means you regularly experience that you are loved; that you are more than what you do for God.

It’s the same strategy for your marriage. Keep an eye out for warning signs:

  • constant bickering
  • a feeling of resentment
  • temptation toward an emotional or physical affair
  • a loss of respect
  • porn use, or other addictions
  • apathy toward your spouse
  • inability to recover from trauma, issues with kids, or other obstacles
  • isolation; finding yourself “holding back” from your spouse
  • mental health issues, like depression or anxiety (common struggles overseas)
  • lack of regular, fulfilling sex

See more on these warning signs here. 

Your ministry marriage can flounder—or flourish, should you invest in displaying the gospel intently there.

Understand your tendencies in navigating stress and trauma.

When I was about to deliver my first child, the instructor asked us where in our bodies we carry our stress. (I carry mine in my jaw, my shoulders.) This is a similar exercise as you prepare for stress. Are you prone toward depression? Workaholism? People-pleasing? Being gruff with your spouse?

Living cross-culturally, you’re more often in the stressed version of yourself (see this post for more ideas of what the stressed version of yourself might look like, including these on the stressed version of your marriage and the stressed version of your parenting).

Can you already anticipate the stressed version of your missionary marriage, and be ready with healthy coping mechanisms, truths to tell yourself, and ways to bridge the gap?

Many sending agencies now require mental health evaluations before you head overseas for these very reasons, and several more.

For those of you going to developed countries, the closer you are to the poor, the more you experience their hardship and heartache. Your probability of trauma skyrockets.

Make no mistake: God will triumph through your darkest days overseas. But starting from a place of health, with a number of robust coping mechanisms in place, means you stay longer and stronger overseas, without the wave of trauma capitulating you as easily.

Don’t hesitate to get counseling before you go, even JUST for evaluative reasons.

Family friends headed overseas racked up well over twenty medical appointments before they left: immunizations. Examinations. Checking out weird little problems they didn’t want to rear their ugly heads in a nation with less developed medical care.

We need the same mindset with our hearts, minds, and marital relationships before heading into the pressure cooker of a missionary marriage.

What could use a tune-up? And if you don’t know…will you make the effort to find out?

Many counselors can continue long-distance video counseling, and many sending organizations are happy to provide the counseling you need overseas.

Make sure you talk about the mutuality of your “call”.

Don’t miss our post, “Help! I Don’t Feel as ‘Called’ as My Spouse.” 

All right, I’m ready now–if you’ve managed to hang in there all this time, jump on over to Ministry Marriage: Perks to Love, Dangers to Fight.”

 

Sure, your marriage reciprocates in every area of service you put your hands to. But even if you were only experiencing Jesus more in your own marriage? That alone honors and delights Him.

Do the hard work to deeply nourish the relationships that matter most–and not just “out there”.

 

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and senior editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International.

Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) releases October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit. 

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