A long road ahead? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

A long road ahead? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

We’ve blogged a number of times about the challenges of being a single mission worker, and we wouldn’t want to imply we don’t care about married mission workers, so it’s time to write something about marriage.  In fact we here at Syzygy meet more married mission workers facing significant challenges in their marriage than we do single mission workers struggling with singleness issues.

Cross-cultural mission can take a heavy toll on marriage through such issues as long and unpredictable hours of work, the stress of coping with living in a different culture, missing family in the sending country or children away at boarding school, spouses’ differing competence in learning a foreign language, disagreements over education and childcare, lengthy time apart, and the spiritual dynamic of being in mission.  Husband and wife will probably cope with all of these issues differently, which can lead to tension and resentment if one partner seems to be managing better, or one seems to the other not to be pulling their weight.

As if that were not enough, many mission workers marry cross-culturally, which means both partners bring into the marriage their own unexpressed (and possibly even unacknowledged) preconceptions about marriage and what it involves (see Janet Fraser-Smith writing in Single Mission by Hawker & Herbert).  Karen Carr’s research indicates that a healthy marriage can increase mission workers’ resilience and help them thrive in their vocations, while a demanding marriage reduces a mission worker’s ability to cope with stress and may aggravate burnout and even lead to attrition.

A healthy marriage needs work, and there’s no need to be embarrassed about wanting a better marriage.  Taking time out to work on marriage is important, and we recommend that couples get away together regularly with the express purpose of having plenty of time to communicate, get to know each other better, and intentionally discuss issues which cause tension in their relationship.

To make this even more intentional, they could buy a book to work through together, and we can heartily recommend:

In Love But Worlds Apart (Grete Schelling & Janet Fraser-Smith, AuthorHouse 2008)

Love Across Latitudes (Janet Fraser-Smith, AWM 1997)

The 5 Love Languages (Gary Chapman, Northfield 1992)

The Highway Code for Marriage (Michael & Hilary Perrott, CWR 2005)

The Marriage Book (Nicky & Sila Lee, Alpha 2000)

Other good ways of doing preventive maintenance on a marriage include:

  • Doing a Myers Briggs profile together. This may help couples understand why the two of them think or act differently, and why when they have different preferences, neither of them is wrong… just different!
  • Finding an older couple to spend time with, to pray together and discuss issues. Having people you can be honest with about the stresses in your relationship can bring perspective and support.
  • If time permits it, doing a marriage course together. There are several different models but we recommend the one which comes out of Relationship Central at Holy Trinity Brompton, which is called, unimaginatively, the Marriage Course.  It’s ideal for couples to do over 2-3 months on home assignment.

And finally, here are some handy day-to-day tips for continuing to work on a marriage while in mission:

  • A compliment is better than a complaint.
  • Make time to pray together each day, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
  • Have a regular date night to keep romance fresh and make time to talk about your relationship
  • Don’t compare your partner with an ex/ideal/colleague, either in your mind or out loud, and take steps to make sure your partner knows you’re not doing this.
  • Don’t use expressions like ‘you always…’ or ‘you never…’ which only polarise a disagreement.
  • When you apologise don’t make excuses – “I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t…” Just say sorry.
  • Talk your partner up, not down. You’re there to help them grow not to cut them off at the knees.
  • Say “I love you” at least once a day, and more often if you can – but mean it.
  • Remember that the only person you can change is yourself.
  • Marriage works better if you focus on your partner’s needs and your own shortcomings, rather than your partner’s shortcomings and your own needs.

And finally, don’t be ashamed to use the 12 words which can save a marriage:

I am sorry.  I was wrong.  I love you.  Please forgive me.