Ask a missionary couple if serving overseas has affected their marriage and you’ll probably hear an awkward laugh before hearing a long, heartfelt response. The question isn’t “if” but “how” serving overseas affects marriages.
As my husband and I raised our daughters on the mission field, I loved that they grew up being influenced by the some of the strongest marriages I have ever seen. On the mission field, you often see a different level of closeness. When a husband and wife sell all they have and move around the world, one constant in their lives is often their immediate family. Families and marriages can grow closer than they ever have been.
Yet, we have also served with dear couples who are no longer thriving on the mission field and some who are no longer even married. We have seen unfaithfulness in every form. We have seen anger grow into hate. And we have seen children left with a deep, lingering bitterness—not just for missions, but, by association, for God himself.
Anytime you put yourself in a position of greater stress and scrutiny, your marriage will be affected at least a little. So, couples have to enter into missions with eyes wide open and let God use their intentional steps of discipline and obedience to make something lasting and absolutely beautiful.
“Anytime you put yourself in a position of greater stress and scrutiny, your marriage will be affected at least a little. So, couples have to enter into missions with eyes wide open.”
I don’t write this as someone who has always gotten this right. But I’ve worked with missionaries long enough to have learned from wise, godly people that there are simple things you can do on the field to help ensure that your marriage is faithful, fruitful, and fun. Here are four of them.
1. Help your spouse walk with Jesus
I have known and observed hundreds of couples on the field. The happiest and healthiest are always, hands down, those who have deep, rich personal walks with God. When devotional times suffer, marriages suffer. Period. One of the first things that some of our IMB trainers tell dads before going to the field is that their top job priority is to help make sure their wife is able to spend unrushed time with God every day. It’s more important than language study, more important than church planting, more important than getting kids to national school. In order to move from surviving to actually thriving on the field, everyone in the family must be fed daily by God’s Word.
2. Hold each other accountable to find time for things that bring joy
The fun part of this is that it requires actually finding out what really brings us joy. Try a lot of different hobbies. Take personality tests. Discover whatever activities are truly energizing and fulfilling for each of you. Then, even if it takes some incredible resourcefulness, work to bring more of those things into your lives. If you don’t know what brings your spouse joy, consider it your job to research and investigate until you know.
Serving in Central Asia we lived in small apartments. Yet, you’d be amazed at how families, living in spaces much smaller than what they had been accustomed to, were finding ways to enjoy hobbies creatively. We have dear friends who actually added a pulley system to their apartment ceiling that would lower a platform down so the husband could continue his hobby of electric train building in this homemade workshop. We didn’t have anything quite this elaborate in our home, but my husband watched the kids for me so I could go on weekend trips with my girlfriends at least once a year. And I helped save money for a spear gun so my husband could take fishing trips with his friends. It was a nonnegotiable for us to see each other just have fun.
3. E-journal together
Living overseas often requires a good bit of travel and one spouse often needs to stay home with the kids. We have really enjoyed sharing electronic journals that we can both add to during days apart. We use Apple Notes, but any journaling app—even email—can work for this. My husband will share where he is and what he is working on. He always adds pictures—even if it’s just a photo of his hotel room or a plate of food.
In reply, I’ll add what I’ve been doing, ask questions, and add photos and comments. I know what he is learning, and I’m reminded that I’m a part of his ministry, even as he travels. Looking back on some of our e-journals, these have been one of the greatest gifts we have given each other while being apart.
4. Covenant to hold no secrets from each other
I’d like to say that pornography is not a problem on the mission field. I’d like to say that as you and your “beautiful feet” are sharing the gospel (Rom 10:15) there will be no temptations to flirt, lust, or have secrets. But many missionaries say that on the field they have faced the strongest temptations of their adult lives. Missionaries are intentionally sent to serve in places where the gospel is needed most, and these are often very dark places.
Before stepping foot off the airplane, covenant together to share all passwords. Covenant together to screen movies and TV (we use kids-in-mind.com). Covenant to not enter hard places, such as brothels, red-light districts, trafficking situations—even for ministry—without open discussion, full accountability, and wise counsel. Take accountability relationships seriously, and meet with accountability partners weekly with honest transparency.
Sadly, failed missionary marriages are sometimes a reality. Yet, strong thriving missionary marriages are very common and are literally flourishing all over the globe. These success stories are beautiful testimonies to a Savior who gave himself for his bride, the church.
When we work to pursue joy-filled and faithful marriages, the nations cannot help but notice the handiwork of God. Simply put, Jesus never forgets his spouse, and we shouldn’t either.
Cyndi Caruthers spent twelve years living in a predominantly Muslim nation where she raised two daughters, shared the gospel, discipled women, and drank lots and lots and lots of tea.