Missionary Marriage Issues
Missionary Marriage Issues:
I’m Just a Trailing Spouse.
Dr. Ronald Koteskey
download this as a pdf
year did not turn out like Tom expected. He had thought that taking time off and
living in a developing country while his wife taught in an international school
would be a welcome relief from the stress of working as a senior pastor.
However, he soon got bored with mowing the school lawn, sweeping floors,
painting walls, doing laundry, and trying to find fresh meat at the market.
He felt little satisfaction with what he was doing after just a couple of
weeks and was looking forward to getting home and back to work using his
talents. However, Mary felt fulfilled and loved what she was doing, and now she
wanted to stay at least another year, maybe permanently.
At first these differences led to tension in their home, and they avoided
discussing them. However, as tension increased and they talked more about the
differences, their discussions began to become disagreements that were never
Tom was what many people call a “trailing spouse,” a husband or wife
following a marriage partner who takes a job in another place. Being a trailing
spouse may mean leaving behind a deeply satisfying place of work and service to
begin again, somewhere else in the world. The challenge of finding such a place
in foreign locations without support networks and knowledge of the local
situation may be difficult, frustrating, and time consuming. Consider how this
has happened in history, what makes it an issue, and what can be done about it.
Did this happen in Bible times?
This has happened since the Book of Genesis. God told Abram (later Abraham)
to leave his country and his extended family. If he did this, Abram’s
descendents would be a great nation. Abram took his wife Sarai (later Sarah) and
his nephew Lot and followed God’s direction to Canaan, to Egypt, and back to
Canaan (Genesis 12-13). The agreement was between God and Abram, and when it was
renewed, it was again between the two of them (Genesis 15). Both Abram and Sarai
came up with “schemes” for the other to do, schemes indicating that they did see
her as a part the agreement.
- Abram was afraid that the Egyptians would harm him, so he asked her to
tell them she was his sister rather than his wife. She did it, and Abram
raised no objection even when Pharaoh took Sarai to live in his palace
- Sarai apparently saw her role as a trailing spouse whose major part in
this was to bear Abraham’s child. Still without children a decade later
Sarai had reached the point where she did not even think she had to be the
one to bear the child—She offered Abram her Egyptian maid as the one to bear
the child (Genesis 16). After all, the agreement was with Abraham, not with
her; perhaps her part was to be rearing the child.
Finally, more than another decade later, when He again confirmed his
agreement with Abraham, God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah and included her in
the agreement, saying that “she will become the mother of nations; kings of
people will come from her” (Genesis 17:16).
This issue affected the marriage relationship even after God said Sarah had
an important role in his plan. Here is how it unfolded chronologically after God
made the agreement with Abram in Genesis 12.
- 10 years after the agreement: Sarai told Abram that it was his fault
that she was suffering (Genesis 16:5).
- 25 years after the agreement: Sarah told Abraham to get rid of the maid
when Ishmael teased Isaac (Genesis 21:9-10).
This issue was a quarter of a century old. Both times they tried to resolve
the issue by sending the maid out into the desert.
Has this happened in modern missions?
It has been a part of modern missions from the beginning. Dorothy Carey, wife
of the “father of modern missions,” was a trailing spouse. When she married
William, he was a young shoemaker who inherited the business a couple years
after their wedding. The two of them served Christ in their village, and William
even began preaching in local churches.
However, over the next decade William became increasingly concerned about the
lost in other cultures. He volunteered to go to India as a missionary, intending
to take Dorothy and their children. Though Dorothy did not want to go, under
great pressure she reluctantly agreed.
Dorothy never joined William in ministering to others. The first few years
she cared for their children, but within a couple of years she was totally
incapacitated by her mental illness and incapable of even caring for them.
In contrast, William’s second wife, Charlotte, was not a trailing spouse. She
had come to India on her own, learned Bengali so she could minister to
nationals, and joined William in ministry. Her particular interest was the
education of Hindu girls.
Of course, most trailing spouses do not become mentally ill, but many of them
are very unhappy and may become at least a contributing cause of the family
leaving the field.
What is the issue?
The basic problem is that, like Tom, spouses who have been involved in
fulfilling occupations of service to others suddenly find themselves doing
“trivial” tasks that anyone could do. Lack of meaningful work, culture shock,
and loneliness may leave the spouse miserable. Marital problems and even
premature departure may finally result.
Trailing spouses experience the following:
- Frustration & resentment
- Loss of identity & self-esteem
- Loss of self-confidence
- Feeling empty & lost
- Sleep problems & unhappiness
- Anxiety & Depression
- Physical illness
The list could go on and on, but with about 80% of the spouses having a
college degree and about 65% having left careers at home, it is not surprising
that about 40% of overseas assignments are cut short because of failure of
spousal or family adjustment. The overwhelming majority of the trailing spouses
are women, but men have the same symptoms, perhaps even more pronounced since
they so often find their identity in their work.
What can agencies do?
Agencies concerned about their personnel and the problem of attrition can
take some steps to help:
- Involve spouses in the selection process. Remember you are moving a
family, not just a person.
- Involve spouses in decisions about the move from the beginning. The more
they feel a part of the move, the less they feel like the are just
- Continue communication about the move with spouses throughout. Remember
that the spouse may be really the backbone of the moving process, and if
they do not receive the messages, they may get unhappy surprises.
- Send both husband and wife on a familiarization trip so that they can
make decisions together about housing, schools, and so forth.
- Allow for some flexibility in policies when something concerns the
spouse. The spouse’s attitude may be far more important than a policy.
- Ask spouses if there are things they would like, such as subscriptions
to magazines or DSL Internet access at home, and provide reasonable ones.
- If spouses are interested in either full- or part-time employment, find
a place in your agency if possible, or use resources there to help find work
- Do whatever you can to encourage spouses to take “ownership” of the move
What can trailing spouses do?
Here are things spouses can do:
- Realize that contentment is a choice, a choice they can make. If they
choose to be content, it will color their whole experience. Paul, an early
missionary, said that he had learned to be content in any and every
situation, whatever his circumstances (Philippians 4:11-13). Learn about
their new home through books, the Internet, or people who have lived there.
Of course, people who had a bad experience need to be taken with a grain of
salt because they may view things through rust colored glasses.
- Take this experience as an opportunity to evaluate themselves and their
lives. This may be the time to rethink and regroup.
- With email, skype, and the Internet they may be able to continue their
work in another country—or develop a new line of work that they can do back
“home” or anywhere else for that matter.
spouses need to talk with each other often and throughout their move and
settling time realizing that being expats means repeated compromise.
- Take this as a time to develop a new “hobby” that is both enjoyable and
- Continue their education in the context of a new culture to get a
- Find a new ministry with children in the neighborhood.
Finally, rather than remaining a trailing spouse, become a prevailing spouse.
Eleanor Roosevelt could have faded into the background as a trailing spouse, but
she chose to make an effective and satisfying life for herself. Even after the
death of her husband she continued to be an internationally prominent author,
speaker, politician, and activist. She is remembered today for what she did, not
just that she was a “first lady.”
Taking these steps may result in a trailing spouse becoming a prevailing
spouse, one that gets a whole new lease on life.