Survival skills for couples on the field

by Nancy Baggé with Tumaini Counselling Center staff

Brian and Carol sat in silence, too exhausted to talk. Brian escaped to the computer, hoping for diversion from another bad day. For a while he forgot the sharp words he’d given an African colleague who had asked him for another loan. Brian was ashamed of his response but angry that others saw him as a moneyman for whatever crisis came along. If he could just do his own work, things would be so much better.

Meanwhile, Carol thought about her Bible study group in the slums, which was thriving. She was bursting with ideas of how she might help the women begin income-generating projects. But it was hard to talk about these things with Brian. Her enthusiasm only increased his frustration.

Carol and Brian did share concern for their daughter Janelle. Initially Janelle had done well at the small missionary school outside the city. But lately her moodiness and occasional flashes of rage left her parents reeling. Was this just adolescent behavior or something more ominous?

Neither Brian nor Carol had imagined life would turn out like this. Their call to missions seemed clear. They had survived support-raising, lots of good-byes, language study, getting oriented to a new culture, and settling their children in school. But now Janelle’s troubling behavior and Brian’s struggles at work added new stress. Their relationship, once supportive and satisfying, was straining at the seams.

Where had they gone wrong? Had they confused their own do-good dreams with the call to serve God in missions? Why was ministry so stressful? What if Janelle’s problems got worse? They had invested so much to get here. Should they now think about leaving?

Any missionary who is honest will admit that missionary life, for all its rewards, has its share of hard things. And those sore spots affect marriage. Coming to terms with some of the myths many of us have about missions and marriage can enhance the process of healing and strengthen those who serve God in foreign lands.

Myth 1: If I’m thriving as a missionary, my spouse should be too

It’s not unusual to find one spouse more enthusiastic than the other about missionary life. The appeal of cross-cultural ministry may be irresistible for one, while the other finds missionary life burdensome. While one spouse thrives, the struggling spouse is left with a mounting burden of discontent, resentment, and guilt.

What you can do: Acknowledge where each of you are. Listen to your spouse without trying to talk him or her out of negative feelings. Try to put yourself in your spouse’s position. What does it feel like to be in those shoes? Only after we hear the other person well can we begin to address the truth about each other’s experience.

Give your spouse permission to adapt at a different pace than you do. Demanding change and blaming accentuates (or heightens) the isolation and hopelessness your spouse feels. Using theological statements, such as “If God’s called one of us here, he’s called both of us here,” shuts down dialogue and understanding. A professional counselor can help you learn to communicate better so that you can support one another in different stages of your adjustment to missionary life.

Myth 2: The sacrifices of missionary life shouldn’t get me down

Mental health professionals who deal with missionaries find that their depression is sometimes related to cumulative losses that have not been addressed. The losses may begin early with leaving a job that provides meaning, professional status, and financial security. Next, the comfort of close relationships and the familiar routines of life in a home country are exchanged for new and confusing patterns of behavior and relationships. Building friendships with nationals or with missionaries can be a long process. And you don’t need to be on the field long before you begin saying good-byes, especially to missionary colleagues. Your children also face losses as they leave relatives in the home country, give up pets, and say good-bye to their friends on the field whose parents take an assignment in another place.

What you can do: Draw a timeline of your missionary career, noting significant events and people, both positive and negative. Consider what losses you haven’t acknowledged or grieved. Share them with your spouse or a trusted friend or counselor. Don’t minimize the importance of seemingly trivial losses. One missionary, after an emergency evacuation due to civil unrest, admitted that she cried over leaving behind an almost-completed quilt made with fabric from shirts, dresses, and quilts from her friends and family. In the missionary world of frequent transitions, material objects can become powerful symbols.

Missionary parents who send their children to boarding schools or universities often experience immense loss. While your responses may differ, each spouse needs a safe place to grieve the separation. Sharing that loss with a couple who has gone through a similar experience can ease the sense of isolation you feel.

Recognize that grief is a process, not an event. It takes time to heal. Giving yourselves the time and space to grieve will enlarge your capacity to minister to others.

Myth 3: Missionary marriages shouldn’t have problems

You’ve been screened and approved by a mission board. But becoming a missionary doesn’t offer immunity from marital stress. Rather, the additional challenges of missionary life often force unresolved problems to the surface. Financial pressures, the need for results in work, isolation, loneliness, children’s needs, frequent moves, and the challenges of mastering a new language and culture exact a toll on marriage. In addition, a neighbor may also be a missionary’s work supervisor. A boss may be one’s friend—or even spouse! These dual relationships can be constraining for married couples who work together. When there’s conflict, to whom can we go for help? Without the familiar support systems in one’s home country, coping with life can become more difficult than anticipated.

Acknowledging that a couple needs help with their marriage is threatening. If supporting churches knew how a missionary couple was struggling, would they cut back on funding?

What you can do: Here are some questions to consider with your spouse:

  • How is your marriage affected by the family in which you were raised?
  • What issues generate the most conflict with each other—money, roles, sex, parenting?
  • What has surprised you about missionary life?
  • How emotionally vulnerable are you with each other? Can you talk about the hard things? What hinders honest communication?

Be proactive in strengthening your marriage. Find resources such as books or video series on marriage or communication. Participate in a marriage retreat during your home assignment. Find out what rejuvenates both of you and give it priority in your schedule and your finances.

Look for opportunities to learn how to improve your relationship skills. International Training Partners offers a one-week workshop, “Sharpening Your Interpersonal Skills,” in locations around the world ( Participants who attend this workshop with their spouses find it particularly helpful in building their marriage.

If you get stuck and are unable to resolve issues, seek professional help. A counselor, especially one who has lived cross-culturally, can help you work through the conflicts and learn how to communicate and support each other. Intensive marital therapy for missionaries is offered by a number of missionary-care organizations.

Myth 4: Sexual immorality? It can’t happen to me

As popular culture becomes more sexualized, our vulnerability to sexual temptation increases. Thinking that our missionary status somehow protects us from immorality is a dangerous assumption. The availability of Internet pornography, even in remote settings, has given missionaries access to sexual gratification that is anonymous and private.

What you can do: Recognize that you are vulnerable to sexual temptation. Know your weak areas, such as unfulfilled needs for attention, admiration, and intimacy, and a travel schedule that keeps you away from your spouse. Develop a strategy to deal with sexual temptation. Be honest with your spouse about areas of sexual temptation. And be accountable to someone. One group of missionary men prays specifically for each other when they travel; the traveler then gives a report upon return.

If you are struggling with Internet pornography, get professional help. The problem rarely goes away through sheer determination. In a confidential setting a counselor can help you look at what contributed to the behavior and help you develop new ways of coping. Your spouse will also need help in dealing with feelings of betrayal and grief.

Myth 5: If being missionaries doesn’t work out, we’re failures

Leaving mission work earlier than anticipated can be incredibly difficult. But when the cost of staying is higher than the cost of leaving, we may need to consider a change. Still, most of us will need the wisdom and support of friends or colleagues to reach that conclusion. And dealing with our sense of failure may be the toughest challenge of all.

What you can do: A missionary’s life is public, so a premature return home begs explanation. The more honest we’ve been in our relationships with supporting churches and friends, the easier it will be to work through the decision to leave mission work. Find a group of people in your home country and on the field who are trustworthy and wise. Share your concerns with them about leaving missions. Have them pray with you and offer counsel.

Being honest about why we’re leaving missions while guarding the privacy of hurting family members can put us in an awkward position. Enlisting the help of a counselor to do that may be necessary.

Finally, recognize that being a missionary does not gain God’s favor. What pleases him is pretty simple: loving him and loving others. Whether we do that in a cross-cultural setting or in our own culture is of secondary importance.

A marriage marked by truthfulness, compassion, and grace can help us weather the storms that missionary life brings. And that kind of loving relationship may be the most convincing expression of Christ’s love that we bring to those among whom we live and serve.


Note: The couple cited in the article is a composite of missionary couples that have struggled with various problems in the field.

Nancy Baggé is a LPC at Tumaini Counselling Center in Nairobi, Kenya, a cooperative ministry of Africa Inland Mission and Wycliffe Bible Translators, serving missionaries throughout Africa. Other staffers who contributed to this article include Richard Baggé, Roger Brown, Nancy Crawford, Doug Ghrist, and Patrice Penney.

From © 2005 Christianity Today Intl (used with permission)