by Marjory Foyle
In considering stressful features of missionary marriages, certain factors are important.
The overall quality of missionary marriages is impressive. Exceptions do occur, but generally speaking there is a high standard of caring and sharing.
Missionary marriages have to survive two major stress areas. One is the stress common to all marriages in the present social climate. The extent of such stress is revealed in the high divorce rate and rising incidence of battered families.
The other area is related to the Christian concept of marriage. God has chosen human relationships to describe some of the most profound spiritual truths. Widows and orphans, virgins, husbands and wives, parents, brothers and sisters are all repeated biblical themes. Many Christians feel that part of their ministry is to demonstrate the truth of what God has been teaching through their relationships.
Married missionaries, as well as single ones, regard this aspect of their calling as very important. They believe their marriage should show the people around them what God has been saying in the Scripture. Hence, any marital problem involves not only the difficulty itself but also guilt at the failure of Christian witness.
This witnessing aspect of missionary marriage can get out of proportion due to the "goldfish bowl" experience. Many couples are scrutinized constantly by loving but curious national neighbors. Everything they do is noted and discussed. The major source of information may be the cook, and he can misinterpret what is going on.
For example, husbands and wives have the right to an occasional bad mood. Indians, with their habitual courtesy, call this an "off mood," and handle it with tolerance. The cook, however, may misunderstand the "off mood." "He didn’t speak to her much this morning," he reports to the neighbors. "Perhaps he is tired of her and going to take a second wife." So the gossip goes around.
Missionary couples need to come to terms with this sort of thing. There is no point wallowing in guilt over a local misinterpretation of a trivial marital misunderstanding. In the end it is the daily quality of the marriage that counts, not the rumor-mongering bulletin from the cook!
CHANGED MARITAL EXPECTATIONS
In considering stressful features of missionary marriages, certain factors are important. The first is changed marital expectations. As Jack Dominian points out in his helpful book, Marital Breakdown, earlier expectations were of security through a hierarchy. The husband was at the top, usually with God over him. Then came the wife, children, and servants, in that order. Nowadays, however, the major expectation is the degree of personal fulfillment and growth experienced by both partners.
In common with many Christians, missionaries have an added expectation-spiritual enrichment through the marriage. Believing it to be a part of God’s will for them, they expect it to be a good experience. If the marriage does not work out, they become confused and feel they must somehow have messed up God’s plans for them. One missionary wife told me, "When we married we had high expectations of our future together. When the marriage began to go wrong I felt as if God had slapped me in the face."
If serious marital problems emerge, field leaders must take prompt action. Inaction can lead to disaster. Of course, it is much easier to handle such a delicate matter if there has been a regular pattern of pastoral interviews. Local counseling can be arranged, or, if necessary, repatriation for professional help.
GOD’S CALL TO THE COUPLE
The second potential stress point concerns God’s call to the couple. Both husband and wife should be called. Sometimes the husband may be pushed into missionary service because of his wife’s call, and vice-versa. Married couples are a unit, and although the timing may be different, if God calls the one he also calls the other. Some wives have told me that they had no sense of calling at all. They resented being taken along like a piece of baggage.
Husbands and wives should be interviewed separately as well as together. The importance of this came home to me a few years ago when I was seeing a couple with a view to missionary selection. Noting that the man did all the talking, I asked him to leave us. As soon as he had gone the wife began to talk, and it was like a dam bursting. No one had ever heard what she had to say, and there were important issues involved. This, and subsequent experience, taught me that couples are two people, as well as a family unit.
MARITAL AND WORKING ROLES
The third stress area is marital and working roles. Missionary appointments are usually made on the basis of the husband’s role, although I have known two couples where the reverse was true. In these two cases, the husbands accepted their position as a challenge, and found roles for themselves as soon as the conditions of the overseas location were assessed.
Usually, however, it is the husband’s role that is discussed, and wives begin to wonder what their role will be. This is not always taken up as a separate issue, and this leads to role-related stress. Certain locations are noted for their high stress levels, some creating more stress for women than men.
The best example is Islamic countries, where women’s position is a sensitive, tension-filled issue. Single women working in schools or hospitals are an anomaly in strictly Islamic countries, and their position is therefore easier. They remain social enigmas and simply get on with their work. Married women, however, are a part of the Islamic social structure, and herein lies the problem. They are expected to behave as Muslim wives, not coming out of the home to be seen in public, and restricting their social lives according to local views and customs.
THE PRELIMINARY "LOOK SEE"
Perhaps one of the things that helps couples most is a preliminary "look-see" visit to the proposed host country. At a recent conference in London on expatriate stress, the personnel director of a large company said this was their practice before any overseas assignment was made. They got tired of sending people to high stress areas without making sure they "had the necessary personal equipment to cope." They had not only lost money, they had also wasted people’s lives through an unwise overseas posting. Finally, the company arranged to send the couple for a look at the place, and if either of them felt that honestly they could not cope with it, they were not sent and they did not lose their promotion prospects.
Mission sending agencies may find it hard to implement this idea, first, because of the cost and second, because it may seem unspiritual. The financial need could be resolved by asking candidates to raise the funds. This makes application a serious affair, and heightens the sense of realism needed for coping strategies. The second objection is difficult, since we think missionaries ought to be able to handle anything through God’s power. It’s true that God does give us unusual power and strength, but in deploying missionaries to difficult places God also asks us to use common sense.
All of us are different, with different personalities and physiques. Generally, because of our different gifts, we can serve God in a wide variety of ways. God usually puts "square pegs in square holes." Sometimes square pegs have their corners rubbed off on the job, so they fit more comfortably, but this is not always God’s way. Therefore, an advance "look-see" visit to the field can be a distinct advantage.
The purpose is not so much to assess a couple’s ability to cope as it is to provide an overall impression of the work and personal suitability for it. Seeing the stress factors and the entire setup firsthand enables a couple to say yes or no to the potential assignment. Once they’ve made a commitment to it, this dedication to the task ahead will hold them firm when the going gets tough.
If such a plan is used, it’s important that the couple does not feel guilty for deciding against the location. They should understand that the aim is to find out just where God wants them to serve. In this process, a negative response after a "look-see" visit is just as important as a positive one. If such a "look-see" trip isn’t possible, couples should pray carefully about what they’re headed into and seek the best counsel they can from veteran missionaries and local believers.
THE FEAR OF MENTAL STAGNATION
During my recent travels throughout Asia I found that although missionary wives are finding their role satisfaction in being wives, mothers, and in some cases teachers of their children, some still worry about their personal gifts and abilities. They usually have good minds, and fear mental stagnation. "I sometimes think I will scream at having to talk on a four-year-old level all day. I never have the chance of stretching my brain," some of them tell me.
There are two ways to handle this. The first is to remember that God is a great economist who wastes nothing. If missionary wives are not using all of their gifts now, God keeps them safely in store. When he needs them they will be taken out in prime condition. The second way is to take steps to stimulate the mind. Some wives take credit-earning correspondence courses during field service. Others join local book clubs or community affairs organizations. One missionary I knew made a study of local history and became quite an authority on it. By training she was a scientist, but the local study helped her to retain her intellectual sharpness during the years she was at home with her children.
Another problem is the hazard of changing roles because of travel. In her husband’s absence the wife has to do everything. She is homemaker, home administrator, emergency plumber and electrician, and general mop-per-up of problems. When the husband comes home, there is an immediate role switch. Both revert to their usual roles, and problems can arise almost at once. "It’s marvelous when he comes home," said a wife, "but we begin to quarrel about where we put the toothpaste." Occasionally, the husband is too exhausted to want any role at all, and the wife resents having to go on as before.
Neither one gets the message the other is trying to communicate. The husband calls his wife demanding and she calls him uncooperative. Such situations can be resolved by patience, humor, and increasing mutual understanding. In such times the quality of previous husband-wife communication is revealed. If the quality was high, then good communication can be reestablished quickly after separation.
Both husbands and wives can experience role frustration, which in turn often arouses anger. They need to learn how to handle anger safely. One special way is relevant here. Suppose the husband has had a bad day. He’s fuming by the time he gets home and lashes out at his wife for nothing. She in turn may scold the children. This is called displacement, or letting off anger on a substitute rather than handling the real cause.
RELEASING ANGER SAFELY
Actually, it’s difficult to deal with the real cause while you are angry. The anger should first be safely released so that the basic problem can be carefully examined. There are healthy ways to do this, rather than using your spouse. In many Asian countries, for example, there are tea shops where people gather to drink tea, read the paper, and often argue politics. The angry husband should stop there, and whether or not he takes sugar, he should add a spoonful and stir it hard. The sugar raises his depleted blood sugar (in itself a good thing to do when you’re angry) and the act of stirring vigorously is a physical way to displace anger. Then he should read the paper and discuss the news with others, if suitable. By so doing he can displace his anger harmlessly and go home in a calmer frame of mind. He can greet his wife, not with anger, but with, "Darling, I’ve had an awful day and will be so glad to talk with you about it." The result: loving sympathy and a wide open hearing ear.
This is a little more difficult for wives who may not be free to go out to a tea shop. The solution for a friend of mine was to take a bath before her husband came home, scrubbing herself hard. This displaced the irritations of the day. Other women bake bread when annoyed, the physical activity of kneading it helping to remove anger. Whatever the pattern, a healthy way of displacing anger is essential for a good marriage. After getting rid of it, the problems behind it can be discussed more reasonably, and the facts and issues understood more clearly.
Sexual fulfillment is a major part of marital expectations. Missionaries may not understand the possible changes in sexual patterns during early adjustment to their host country. On arrival, there is a lot to do. A home has to be established, often under cramped conditions near language school. New colleagues have to be met, and work assignments discussed.
The end result may be a rather anxious husband, and an exhausted wife. He turns to sex relations as a means of handling his insecurities, whereas all she wants is a hug, a "Darling, I love you," and a long sleep. This difference in reaction may cause quarrels, one partner thinking "she doesn’t love me," and the other grumbling to herself that "he never thinks of my needs." Neither indicates the true state of the marriage; it is only a temporary condition caused by settling into a new country. Extra sensitivity to each other’s needs is the key to surmounting the problem.
Privacy is a rare commodity for all missionaries, and is of special importance in the sexual areas of the marital relationship. During language school the couple may only have one room which they share with the baby. This is destructive both to the language study and to sexual relationships.
When they reach their final location, it may be even worse. Walls are thin, neighbors are in and out of the house the whole time, and doors often do not lock. Neither partner can relax and enjoy intercourse.
Several things can help. Door locks can be purchased and used in a way that will not cause local offense. One couple told me that they lock their door on the outside once a week, coming into the house by the back door. In other words, they pretend they are out. They do not put the light on, but spend some hours together in privacy. Their marital relationship gained enormously.
Marital stress is also created by local rules. In some Asian countries, touching each other in public is taboo. Any display of affection, even at home if the servant is present, is considered socially unacceptable. Husband and wife may not be able to walk side by side, and to make it worse for the wife, the husband has to go first! Missionary couples may therefore feel deprived of the oil of daily affection. The demands on them for an unfamiliar pattern of restraint are enormously stressful.
Husbands and wives must find alternative ways of showing affection. Some of these may seem positively childish, but are nonetheless important. Some couples write notes to each other expressing affection and respect. Extra hugging and kissing in the few private areas of the home keep the fires of love burning. One husband I knew used to pick local flowers and stick a label on them, "Red roses for love." Wives can make similar gestures with a favorite cake.
STRESS IN SEPARATION
Sexual temptations should never be underestimated. Missionary husbands and wives may be separated for unusually long periods of time. They experience loneliness and sexual frustration, and in this situation become very vulnerable. Additional stress just at this time can lead to sexual infidelity if everything becomes overwhelming.
Couples need to be very wise during separation. Men who work with attractive girls should be careful not to invite them to the home when their wives are away. Even having other guests at the same time may not be enough to handle the attraction. Similarly, wives need to behave discreetly. They are lonely and under pressure, and local people can be very attractive sexually. The couple needs to be secure enough to discuss the problems they experience during separation. There are some cultures where chastity is not understood, and especially during periods of marital separation the husband is expected to have another woman. Should this arise, the husband needs to state his position clearly to those who want to find him a temporary woman. If the explanation is given in religious terms, it is usually accepted, although it may not be understood.
Relieving sexual pressures at these times is a difficult matter. It is this type of stress that often makes the power of God a more personal reality.
Certain personality characteristics are known to promote marital harmony, thus reducing stress. Reasonable emotional stability, consideration for others, ability to yield and make adult compromises, a certain degree of maturity and personal confidence, and mature patterns of dependency are important. Few of us have all of these to an adequate degree, but understanding them may help us to progress.
Stress can arise when personality needs create undue expectations of what marriage can achieve. If one of the partners had a deprived childhood, especially in affectional terms, the other partner is often expected to make this up. Add on the expectations of the person as spouse, and this all becomes too much.
Where personalities are so immature that over-dependency on parents has never been resolved, any additional stress can magnify the problem. The immature partner begins to behave as a child, constantly seeking reassurance from the other. Or else the extra reassurance needs are met by someone outside the marriage, creating an unhealthy situation. Single missionaries need to be aware of this, for they may become the third person in the triangle, from the best of motives.
Another aspect of such immaturity is an intolerance of disapproval. All mature marriages have a healthy disapproval content. Wives who do not like their husband’s sermons are free to say so in a well established marriage, and the husband can also express his disapproval of things as well. If the basic link is secure, loving, and mature, this is all a part of normal daily life. Where this is not so, constant care has to be exercised. One man told me, "I have to pussyfoot around her all the time in case I hurt her feelings. It is very wearing."
Handling personality immaturity has been discussed in previous articles in this series (see reprint list, p. 98). If this becomes a very severe problem, skilled help may be required. Severity can be judged roughly by the degree of disruption caused to personal and family life. The first step is recognition of the need to mature. There is no reason why this cannot be accomplished by your own determination, God’s help, professional help, and the support of your loving spouse. Knowledge that the marital partner is genuinely seeking to mature often makes the relationship richer as time goes on.
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