A few years ago, I began to write an ironic column for Black Forest Academy’s newspaper under the pseudonym of Genevieve.  A box at the library’s check-out desk allowed staff and students to suggest topics for my column, the majority of which I ignored in favor of the more titillating ones emanating from the suggestion box in my own skull.  Oh, the delightful decadence of rewriting history, inventing a personal biography and poking fun at community quirks under the veil of anonymity!

In my current MK-related activities, I find myself being a somewhat more serious Dear Genevieve, answering the questions of perfect strangers who share my passion for the children of missionaries.  They come in emails, blog comments and hand-written cards from families “on the field” and those who love them back home, and I find my own thinking stimulated by the topics and questions they raise.

I recently received an email from someone in Europe who inquired about MKs and marriage.  Why is it, she asked, that so many of their marriages seem to end in divorce?  Is there something about the MK experience that makes marriage unpalatable in the long term?

I must preface my response with a disclaimer: we live in a world where any marriage, regardless of background, stands a roughly 50/50 chance of ending in divorce.  To my knowledge, there hasn’t been any research done on the viability of MK marriages specifically, but from my own observations, I’d venture to say that they seem to have a slightly superior success rate than the norm.  So in no way am I implying that being an MK puts a person at a disadvantage with regard to long-term relationships.  What I will try to address, however, are some of the factors specific to MKs that might make marriage a more difficult proposition for some of them.  Many MK marriages are vibrant and last a lifetime.  Please understand that the following paragraphs are generalizations that do not apply to all of us!

1.  It’s a well-documented fact that one of the most harmful aspects of the missionary lifestyle is the lack of consistent relationships.  The dizzying mobility of families on the mission field (motivated by job changes, political unrest, a nomadic lifestyle, fundraising failures and short-term commitments) leaves young people feeling relationally bereft and craving the luxury of loving and being loved for more than a year or two at a time.  It’s that yearning for emotional/affective stability that makes marriage so appealing to many MKs, and I know that quite a few of them cleave prematurely, before they’re “fully baked,” out of an intense need to FINALLY be promised a lifetime with someone they love.  The marriage contract voids the vagaries of the missionary life.  This person can’t be taken from them for the usual ministry reasons, and there is blissful comfort in that notion.

2.  MKs often don’t know how to manage long-term relationships.  Most friendships on the mission field end within one or two years, so once the exhilaration of first-love and the milestones of engagement and marriage are over, the concept of something that is “forever” becomes a challenging concept for some MKs.  They’re used to living relationships briefly and intensely because there’s always an end in sight, but that intensity can’t be maintained over years.  When it fades, they’re left with a relationship they don’t recognize.  Gone is the borderline manic need to cram as much togetherness as possible into the limited hours and days ahead.  The relationship begins to feel flat and dull, because it no longer has that urgency of “You’re going to be gone in a few months.”  Over time, MKs might begin to long for the old endings-fueled fervor that seemed so much more real and galvanizing than the mundane everydayness of marriage.  That intense-relationship model gets hardwired into MKs at a young age, which I think makes them somewhat more prone to leaving a static long-term alliance in order to feel the familiar intensity of time-restricted relationship again.

3. The third prevailing reason for some MKs’ difficulties with marriage, I think, is a rebellion against being “tied down.”  Many MKs do well with putting down roots and settling into a predictable life, but a LOT of them refuse to do so.  This is also the reason many of them don’t marry until later in life.  They look down on people who settle into a community and a lifestyle.  There’s a saying that MKs either have over-developed roots or over-developed wings—their response to high mobility is either to anchor deep and permanently or to maintain a hummingbird lifestyle of freedom and motion.  Marriage feels like too much permanence to those MKs who sport wings-on-steroids!  Life without the option of an immediate and radical change feels like incarceration for some of them.  The loss of independence and mobility is a potent deterrent to something traditionally “stable” (the S-word) like marriage.

4.  And then there are the MKs who marry mono-culturals (spouses whose world-view is limited to one culture).  The initial years are often good—with whatever differences or frustrations they experience easily quelled by new love and all those firsts (home, career, children) that make life exciting.  I’ve seen MKs marry mono-culturals right out of college and do well for a while.  Their love for their partner is real and profound, and they’re happy to settle into a “small world” life…at least initially.  But for some of these MKs, there comes a time when something connects them back to the person they used to be, in the broad, exotic world where they used to live.  And they find themselves trying to expand the borders of their new lives, because they realize they can’t be fully third-cultured if they’re trapped in one-culture suburbia.

In the saddest cases, the mono-cultural spouse becomes the symbol of that small world mentality and the jailer who imposed it on them.  There’s little one can do to infuse cultural multiplicity into someone who hasn’t experienced it firsthand.  So some MKs get a divorce and try to invent a life in which they’re able to exist between worlds again.  A few succeed, but those who don’t are left with a feeling of dissatisfaction exacerbated by regret for the pain they’ve cost for a future they didn’t achieve.

I must end by referring again to the MK marriages I’ve known and observed in which true unity and contentment were reached and maintained.  Being an MK does NOT put us at a greater disadvantage for marriage than anyone else.  There isn’t a person on earth who doesn’t bring a trunkful of baggage into long-term relationships.  The only difference is that our suitcases are collaged with international stickers left there at frequent intervals over the course of our childhoods.  Our bags aren’t heavier—they’re different—they’re multi-cultural.  And if they can be opened and unpacked, explored and understood, their contents’ potential to harm can be defused and their potential to enhance can be released.  What an asset our MK baggage can be!

Is this an exhaustive overview of MKs and marriage?  Certainly not!  There are so many more factors that influence their ability to sustain and/or enjoy long-term relationships, many of which have more to do with the human condition than with international living.  But I hope it starts the conversation.  Would you continue it in the comments box below?  What are your thoughts and conclusions?  What have you experienced personally to be true?  What lessons would you like to pass on?  Please also share this article if you’d like to get your friends involved (see links below).  And don’t forget to click the “Like” button too!



    • MN

    • 12 years ago

    How I wish I had a manual for this one. All I can say for me is it can’t come anywhere from myself, that’s it. God only.

  1. Good know about, but how to navigate it? How to fight for marriage when long-term relationships are so daunting??

  2. Liz, that’s where we need the input of people who have done it! Do you have MK friends who have succeeded in marriage? Have them write their thoughts in the comments at the bottom of the post..

  3. Michele, good perspective. I think you’re right on and that it’s probably an amalgamation of all those things. As an MK who is divorced twice over I found my self saying yes alot. Then you throw in the other pressures of life such as finances, work, etc… that everyone faces it can be overwhelming. I dont know that I could add to what you wrote.

  4. Thanks for the interesting article. One influence in the pro-marriage column that you did not mention is the divorce rate (or lack thereof) among missionary couples who have served together in the field. In 10 minutes of trying, I can’t think of any who have divorced. What an amazing example for MKs to follow.

  5. Thanks, Stefan. Unfortunately, I think that’s been changing in recent years. A quick inventory brings to mind about a dozen missionary couples I know (or whose children I taught) who got divorced. And others who lived in hypocrisy for decades for the sake of saving face. BUT there are so many who do succeed at marriage despite the great stresses of ministry, and those need to be recognized and celebrated!

    • origamicookies

    • 12 years ago

    S. B.–My parents are an example. Married 33 years and divorced 2 years after returning to the US. (I can think of 4 others off hand too…)
    This post is stirring up many, many emotions. One thing I feel was left out is that some MKs have trust issues. We aren’t used to having people around for long, so there is rarely the need to develop deep trust, or we ignore the warning signs of someone being untrustworthy. My case was the latter, I completely ignored the warning signs and I ultimately divorced.
    I’m not completely sure I understand, but the gist of this seems to be that MKs initiate the divorce and leave. I’d be interested to see if MKs are more likely to leave or be left. Either way, thank you for giving me (and my almost-fiance) something to chew on and discuss this weekend.

    • isaacjamesbaker

    • 12 years ago

    Michele, what a great post! A lot of insightful stuff in here, and I think you hit a lot of nails on a lot of heads here. In addition to your points in this post, I wonder if there should be another point that addresses the shame, guilt and stigma in the evangelical missionary community toward sexual relationships. It seems to drive people toward marriage even if they’re not ready. Cheers!

    • Colonel Link

    • 12 years ago

    Interesting article. I’m not going to try and contribute much as I don’t have all that much to say at this point. But I would like to point out that the commonly quotes “50% Divorce Rate” is a flat out fabrication that is (falsely) discouraging. The actual divorce rate in the United States is closer to 30% and is getting lower every year.

  6. Well here is the insight from my married life. My husband and I’s marriage was quickly falling to pieces after 2 easy years and 2 very very hard years of being together. Problem # 1. Sean’s view of how the world worked was very different from mine. Problem # 2. I was getting antsy every 1 year and 2 months to move and change something in our lives. Problem # 3. I couldn’t understand the world he had grown up in and he couldn’t understand mine. (Huge problem when trying to parent together.) But there is one very evident thing in our marriage and the MK marriages I have witnessed…we have the [courage] to hang on for dear life. It’s been 3 months since our trial separation. We got together for Christmas and both had taken grand steps to pulling this back together and have set new goals for the next 3 months in our faith, family, and lives with the final goal of reconciliation and a long healthy marriage by June (ish). I have seen few other labored marriages try so hard to hang on and get help as MK’s

    • kathryn

    • 12 years ago

    Evvy963 I am so proud of you and Sean! Going through those rough waters feels like death, but if you’ll trust God and hang on to His principles and each other, the other side is a deep quiet river that is so much better than anything you’ve experienced until now! Every marriage has rough waters from time to time. It’s learning to navigate them together with God’s help that brings depth and satisfaction to a marriage. Blessings on you both!

    • Neil Gilliland

    • 12 years ago

    In 2000, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on a similar topic. I did an Exploratory Study of the Impact of the Missionary Kid Experience on Marital Satisfaction. My results suggested that the same things that impact marital satisfaction with non-MKs are the same as for MKs. To be very transparent, I didn’t like the way I had to do the study and am not very happy with it. I simply would have liked to have done the research differently but it would have taken a long time. Very interesting topic and I agree with your observations.

  7. Wow, yes… as an MK who married a mono-cultured Iowa farm boy I can identify with what Michele Phoenix described as feeling like they are at times your jailer in a prison cell of mundane… How do we make it work? Lots of communication. He has made an effort to understand how my identity sometimes is wrapped in my ‘wings,’ my love/need for Europe, travel, change etc. He jokes about it a lot, but even then I take it as him recognizing something that is part of who I am. Also, shared experiences abroad does help, and our international adoption somehow helped as well…. I guess communication is key. As hard as he works to understand me, I have to put forth the effort to understand and validate where he’s coming from as well!

    • pmk

    • 12 years ago

    I read this post last night and have been musing on it since, as most of the factors you’ve listed, Michelle, weren’t a major factors for me — an MK whose marriage failed after 20 years. In coming to terms with that loss, I’ve struggled to work out how much being an MK was a factor and how much other factors played a part.
    I did certainly jump into the relationship very quickly and deeply, but that was mutual — he moved more quickly than I did. (We were already both in the same mission, so that cleared a lot of obstacles up front.) And I didn’t sense any major red flags that made me doubt the wisdom of marrying this person — or maybe (TBH) I wasn’t looking too closely, since marriage was seen as the ‘be all and end all’; staying single was definitely seen as second class in my upbringing. (This, despite having some wonderful role models amongst the single missionaries I knew.)
    One factor was certainly that I failed to learn conflict resolution skills in childhood (as my parents insisted on instant obedience, no questions allowed, nor did they ever disagree majorly in front of us), but that was compounded by being married to a conflict avoider, a factor I only realised fairly late in the game.
    How much did perfectionism play a part (which made me vulnerable to any criticism) and taking too much responsibility for the relationship (a good deal of co-dependency going on), how much was it his refusal to seek help once the cracks became apparent? I did seek help on my own, and learned much that was valuable, but wasn’t a magic fix to the marriage. Ultimately he wanted out, and I realised that the most loving thing I could do was to let him go if he wished.
    In our case, I was the one needing roots, he was the one wanting ‘freedom’. We had been in ministry together for 12 years (most of that time in South Asia) before settling in England (his home country) so I could be stable at long last.
    Since my separation 4 years ago, two of my siblings have also had major marriage issues, and what it seems we share in common is that we each (inadvertently) married emotionally disconnected spouses. How much was that influenced by our upbringing,as our parents were not emotionally engaged with us and honest expression of feelings was suppressed behind a facade of spirituality. (Certainly we were never allowed to express anger, even when punished.) How much was it ‘luck of the draw’ as even disconnected people can come across as warm and loving in courtship. I can’t speak for my siblings, but I myself have spent most of my adult years learning to engage with my own emotions in a more honest way, and to find more healthy ways of relating to others. Unfortunately I did still make some major mistakes that contributed to the demise of our marriage, but I do think it is fair to say that of the two of us, I was (overall) more engaged emotionally than he was.
    As it became clear our marriage would not survive, I was devastated, but one thing I have done ‘right’ is to engage with my grief and loss. I have, by God’s grace, come through to a place of stability and some measure of healing. This is in complete contrast to my childhood where I never mourned the loss of any friendship — so perhaps in mourning the loss of my marriage, I have also mourned some of the other losses along the way?
    Thanks for raising the issue, Michelle. It’s been helpful for me to do some more reflecting.
    Blessings, and keep up the good work.

    • Heidi

    • 12 years ago

    I am new to the game (only 3 1/2 years married), but I am very thankful/lucky that my husband is very sensitive to what is important to me in terms of travel and “freedom.” If I tell him something is important to me, he takes it seriously and I have never felt “tied down” in that sense. Even though we are not “rich” I have been able to go to my sister’s BFA graduation, fly around the US to visit friends, and take frequent (ie yearly) trips back home to Eastern Europe. In addition, my husband has been to Kandern, and fully engages with my childhood culture when he comes to visit. He knows the places I am talking about, is willing to visit and understand, and is understanding of that MK part of me. In terms of having trouble with long term relationships, I feel more at “home” with him than in any geographic location, so I don’t really resonate with the idea if seeking out short term emotional relationship highs… but I can see how some people might.

    • tcox

    • 12 years ago

    I would like to share a positive side to some of the research. I have been married to a wonderful man for 20 years. He grew up on a farm in Iowa and I grew up living on three continents and meeting many different people and making many wonderful friends for life. Our marriage is strong not because we lived a specific life but because we are both committed to focusing of Jesus Christ and not our needs. My husband will never meet all my needs and I will never meet all his needs. The only one who can do that is Jesus Christ. It doesn’t mean we haven’t had the normal challenges:) Within our first 2 years of marriage we visited Kandern and had Christmas with my parents. It helped him understand where I had been. It goes both ways, I had to learn what it was like to have family close by and go to big family reunions. We feel that each of us have a unique up bringing that makes our family stronger.
    Here is an observation I have made now that I am older and have met younger MKs coming to college. I taught a class at a christian college for 5 years. MKs who learn how to blend with their American peers as opposed to being the focus of attention and continually talk about being on the mission field seem to adjust well and make great friends their first year of college. The MKs who take time to learn about America instead of putting it down appear to do better. It takes work but through prayer and other MKs who laugh with you about mistakes and chuckle with you about those jokes that only MKs get can be a big help. Now, after being in the States for 24 years, I am still an MK in my heart as well as being an everyday person who loves where God has put our family. We have a passion for missions and pass that on to our children and have gotten involved in our church so our kids meet many missionaries.
    Marriage is work. If we focused on where we grew up or how we grew up then there are many other “groups” that could claim the same struggles. We need to get the focus back on God and off ourselves.

  8. Thanks, Tcox. I agree wholeheartedly that an MKs attitude toward this culture is critical to any sort of adaptation to it, whether it be in marriage other ways. Anti-American sentiment is getting more common among those I’ve worked with, and those of us who care for them need to find a way of instilling in them for this country the same understanding and tolerance they show for every other place they’ve known. If they marry an American, is it any wonder that their underlying disdain will eventually surface? Here’s an article precisely on that topic: https://michelephoenix.com/2011/01/the-lies-mks-believe-america-the-stupid/

    • vtcyclist

    • 12 years ago

    @ Michelle. Excellent piece. At an age I that I “should” have many of life’s questions answered, I find I am still learning every day. And your blog just contributed some very nice insight. Thanks.
    While your post is directed towards MKs (I had to look up the meaning), there is another large population of adults in the exact same boat that you describe. That is those that grew up as dependents of military personnel, of which I am one.
    Thanks for your post.

  9. For me the hardest thing was learning to truly trust my husband. I was so used to me leaving, or the other person leaving. I was pretty convinced that I am not going to leave him, but it has probably taken me 10+ years to truly believe that he won’t leave me. I now realize that I had been guarding myself carefully for a long time convinced that he would leave (not because of anything he did, it was just what I was used to). I think I got over it during our 11th year together and I am now experiencing a closeness to him I never thought was possible . I’m just glad he didn’t get too frustrated with me. Every time he was more than half an hour late I would be convinced that he had left me for another woman, or another life, and by the time he would get home I would be quite a wreck!!

  10. Another factor, as someone commented, is lack of conflict resolution skills. You don’t have to resolve conflict when everyone leaves in 2 years. Also, many missionary parents don’t allow their kids to ever express their preferences, opinions, or anger about the life they’re having to live. Lots of great parts to the life, but lots of hard too.

    • K-eM

    • 12 years ago

    I’m an MK and I’ve been married for 21 years. In 2008 my marriage very nearly came to an end. My mono-cultural husband didn’t understand my needs for change and mobility and opted to default to his deep seated for security. That’s when I started feeling trapped, angry, betrayed…I couldn’t trust him anymore. But divorce meant I would have to stop loving him and I wasn’t willing to go there.
    As I hung on, talking myself out of divorce every day, I began to realize (like pmk above) that I sucked at conflict resolution and rather than acknowledging the warning signs I had been given, I avoided them and hoped he’d love me enough to understand.
    I also realized that I coped with all the change and mobility in my childhood by being very compliant. While that served me well then, now it was damaging my marriage.
    This was quite a revelation since in other areas of my life, including work, I’m regarded as quite a rebel and can be pushy and intolerant of people not thinking about the consequences of their actions. So I realized that I needed to become more that way (in an appropriate and healthy way) in my marriage.
    I’m still married because I somehow recognized that some of what I learned to do as an MK to survive that life was damaging to my marriage, a long term, stable, and permanent relationship. I also realized that my need for cross-cultural experiences, travel, etc might need to be dealt with on my own in a way that allows my husband his security while I feed my need for adventure.
    My marriage is still a work in progress and always will be. But I feel like I have a better understanding of what it takes to keep it together. My husband does too and understands that in critical areas we are drastically different and that’s okay.
    One thing from my MK childhood has actually helped my marriage. Where we lived there were polygamos marriages everywhere. Men with many wives. When I was first married my husband was told a story about that and the phrase “wife number one and wife only one” came from it. Ever since I have used it to reassure myself and my husband on multiple occasions throughout our marriage as the marriages of family and friends have fallen apart. It’s a promise…and in a way, a vow.

  11. In response to Michelle’s article on MKs and marriage, I would like to offer some words of encouragement for those that are and have gone through the death of their marriage. There is hope.
    I have been married to a wonderful man for over 13 years. We have two beautiful children. However, this is not my first marriage.
    I was married to a man who was very mono-cultural. As an MK, this was a hard thing to adjust to. Inwardly, I felt superior but on the outside I became a “yes” person. This was my feeble attempt at trying to fit in. Ironically, instead of fitting in, I lost my whole sense of self. I no longer knew who I was and where I was going. I worked tirelessly to try and work out our differences, but he gave up and walked out. It was a dark day, but as the tears flowed, I felt God’s peace wash over me. I have never felt His presence so close.
    Now, I am married to a fabulous man. He is Sycilian, but was born and raised in Venezuela till the age of twelve. We have a very multicultural marriage! There are four fluent languages between the two of us! Even though we have a European connection, there have been cultural issues that we have had to work through. The key is communication and the willingness to work through those differences. There is always a give and take. My life has become richer because of it and I truly believe that my husband feels the same way.
    There is hope and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

    • SamsLizzie

    • 12 years ago

    Thank you, TCox (whoever you are)!! I helped with MK reentry at my Bible College and one of the things we urged MKs to do was INTEGRATE. After all, no matter where you grew up, you have a US passport. You won’t make any friends by slamming the only home your classmates and (potential) friends have ever known.
    I have seen MKs destroy themselves and everyone in a relationship with them by using their MK-ness as a crutch. “Oh, you would never understand me… I grew up in MALI.”
    “Americans are such shallow people… people in PERU care about others.”
    “American football is a stupid game… “real” football is soccer – and it’s only good if it’s from GERMANY”
    Honestly, when I hear people like that I want to distance myself from them forever. Why would anyone want to be friends with them? And if by some chance they fall for a non-MK and mask their feelings, those feelings are sure to pop up as soon as hard times come. And in marriage, hard times come. No matter how wonderful your Mr. Right and Mrs. Perfect is…! When you are having a disagreement, the thing guaranteed to undermine your relationship is yelling at your spouse, “You’ll never understand me because I grew up in PAPUA!!!”
    Being an MK is no excuse for leaving. Issues for marriages to fall apart are the same for MKs and non-MKs: lack of loving others (=your spouse) more than yourself and God above all.
    I’m an MK. I lived in 2 locations in Germany in 13 years. I moved 8 times in as many years AFTER moving to the US. My parents were ridiculously happily married for 21 years before my dad died. They taught us love, commitment, a love and dedication to the Lord, and how to see the good and bad in any culture.
    I’m married to a non-MK. We’ve been married for 8 years, love each other deeply, and communicate a lot. We have survived 3 lay-offs, ordination, 2 mission agency evaluations and acceptances, 3 field visits, 2 field assignments, support raising, financial set-backs, 3 daughters, one daughter lost to leukemia, and most recently, a move to Germany for missionary service.
    Our marriage is strong not because of my MK status or his lack thereof. My being an MK is just one part of who I am. It is a part of who I am, but it is not all of it. After all, I was an MK for only 13 years… I’ve lived in America for 18 years since then. I’ve had a whole life outside of being an MK.
    I still get sick to my stomach every time the German national soccer team hits the grass. I scream and cheer for them (even against the US). I watch US college football (Carolina Gamecocks) and cry every time I hear the fight song…
    I’m a wife. I’m an MK. I’m a woman. I’m a child of God. I’m a mother. I’m the person God is making into the person He wants me to be.
    Be an MK be proud of it. Or be a non-MK and be proud of it. But don’t use being or not being an MK to get out of a tough situation. You’ve committed. Stick with it.

  12. “Lizzie,” anything less than a passionate response would have surprised me from you! 😉 What you say is absolutely true. Though MK-ness might contribute in a variety of ways to struggles in a marriage, it cannot be the excuse used to break one’s vows! The goal is to understand how our multi-cultural upbringing shapes us (for good and bad) in order to defuse potential harm and enhance potential benefits. Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

    • shary

    • 11 years ago

    Michele good article and very practical. I do believe you have missed one point and that is sexual abuse. Many MKs have been sexually abused by missionaries and nationals. Abuse in childhood for anyone makes marriage security much more difficult. In working with abused MKs with MK Safety Net there are many who are divorced. Many have had multiple marriages. The effects of abuse on marriage is often a trust issue. Those abused have a hard time trusting others. Since they don’t trust anyone they do not have the ability to judge who someone really is before marriage. Very often they marry abusers. When you add abuse to all the reasons above it is not surprising that marriages do not last. But I do know of some who have married spouses who have been a big help and their marriages are good.
    I went to Mamou where all suffered from emotional, physical and spiritual abuse, and may suffered sexual abuse from dorm parents and teachers. Very many have suffered broken marriages. To see the effect of our abuse at Mamou watch the film “All God’s Children” at https://www.allgodschildrenthefilm.com/

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