As I’ve lead sessions on relationships (see here and here for more) with MKs and missions around the globe, I’ve seen an increase in questions regarding MKs and marriage. Why is it that so many of us struggle in this area? Why do we seem saddled with a reticence to commit?

Are MKs at a disadvantage for long-term commitment?

We live in a world where any marriage, regardless of background, stands a disheartening chance of ending in divorce. So in no way am I implying that being an MK puts a person at a greater disadvantage with regard to long-term relationships. What I will try to address, however, are a few of the factors specific to MKs that might make marriage a more difficult proposition for some of us.
I. Longing to fill the void
One of the most harmful aspects of the missionary lifestyle is the scarcity 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.

Lost relationships are the virtual luggage we take with us, for better or for worse, across the borders of age, time and distance.

It’s that yearning for affective stability that makes marriage so appealing to many MKs.
I’ve known quite a few of them who have cleaved prematurely, before they were “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 safety.
Building a wall from blocks
II. Lack of practice

Most of our friendships end within a couple of years, so once the exhilaration of first-love and wedding are over, the concept of “forever” becomes a challenging concept. We just haven’t developed the skills to manage “long term” relationships!
We’re good at the first weeks and months of friendship. We find their roller-coaster exhilarating—a familiar swirl of discovery, self-revelation and bonding. But when the “ride” slows down, when the adrenaline rush settles into a more mundane reality, we’re left with a relationship that doesn’t feed us the way it once did. Gone is the manic need to cram as much togetherness as possible into the limited hours and days ahead.

Our relationship begins to feel flat and dull, because it no longer possesses that urgency of “You’ll likely be gone soon.”

Because the “intense relationship” model gets hardwired into MKs at a young age, we may become more easily dissatisfied with Happily (boringly?) Ever After. This can put us at risk of leaving a static, long-term commitment in order to feel the familiar thrill of time-restricted relationship again, something more galvanizing than the ordinary everydayness of for-life marriage.
III. Over-developed wings

There’s a saying in the MK world that we either have over-developed roots or over-developed wings: our response to high mobility is either to anchor deep and permanently or to maintain a hummingbird lifestyle of freedom and motion. For some MKs, the greatest torture they can imagine is being “tied down,” whether it be by a career, lack of funds or marriage.
(Note: this is also a powerful deterrent for some MKs to enter into marriage in the first place.)
Though some MKs do well with putting down roots and settling into a predictable life, many of them refuse to do so. For those with wings-on-steroids, marriage feels like too much permanence. Life without the option of an immediate and radical change feels stifling.
The loss of independence and mobility is a potent disincentive to something as traditionally “stable” (that S-word) as marriage.
IV. Multi- vs. Mono-

And then there are the MKs who marry mono-culturals: spouses who have experienced just one culture. In my sessions on relationship, I encourage MKs not to consider mono-cultural love interests as inferior or boring. We have so much to learn from those who have spent their lifetime in one place—connected to culture and family in a way we can barely imagine.
It is possible for multi-culturals to have healthy, joyful, complementary marriages with mono-culturals. I’ve seen it happen.

For some MKs, though, it’s a real struggle. Perhaps they don’t understand themselves enough to measure their global mindset’s power to derail crucial relationships. For them, the initial years of marriage are often good—whatever differences or frustrations they experience easily quelled by new love and all those firsts (home, career, children) that make life exciting. 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 a number of these MKs, there comes a time when something connects them back to the person they used to be, to the broad, exotic world in which they used to thrive.

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 a single-cultured suburbia.

There’s little one can do to infuse cultural complexity into someone who hasn’t experienced it firsthand. But he/she can develop a curiosity about the broader world and bring that to a “mixed” marriage. Sadly, some MKs will overlook that potential, seeing the mono-cultural spouse as a symbol of the small-world mentality they reject, easily indicted and dismissed.
Those MKs will break up or divorce to resume a life in which they’re able to exist between worlds again. A few may succeed, but those who don’t are left with an exacerbated feeling of dissatisfaction and guilt, fueled by regret for the pain they’ve caused to reclaim a wholeness they can’t achieve.
V. Modeled hypocrisy
In the missionary world, “putting one’s best foot forward” can lead to outright hypocrisy. There are a host of reasons why we engage is the deception, some of them discussed HERE.
The bottom line for some MKs is that we have grown up watching the marriages of “above-reproach” couples privately crumbling or already dead, hidden under the flimsy mask of ministry image.
We come to distrust the appearance of marital health, and in our rejection of hypocrisy, might bail out of a fractured relationship rather than repeat in our own lives the lies we’ve witnessed in others.
VI. Permission to have sex

It’s as simple as that, for some MKs. Just as in the broader evangelical world, many (not all of them) marry young and immature because they want to reserve sex for marriage and it’s easier to get that license fast than to “be good” for too long.

Abstinence is a noble and biblical approach—though often mispreached, misapplied and misexecuted!
(THIS article offers a different perspective.)

Unfortunately, if saving sex for marriage is the primary incentive pushing young people to wed, there will be little true relational fortitude to draw from when the challenges of marriage occur. The relief of being able to explore their sexuality young is a meager trade-off when a commitment made in haste leads to broken vows, disillusion and a damaging sense of failure.
A complex topic

Again—I have known and observed marriages in which MKs have found true, long-term unity and contentment.
Being an MK does NOT put us at a greater disadvantage 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 lovingly placed there over the course of our childhoods.
Our bags aren’t heavier—they’re different—they’re multi-cultural. If we can open and unpack them, explore and understand them, their potential to harm can be defused and their capacity to enhance can be released. What an asset our MK baggage can be!

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  1. you touch on some key points to which I can relate. It is so hard to articulate at times. One of those “I cant really put my finger on it” things.

  2. Love these! I am curious whether the issues of attachment especially for those who attended boarding school at a young age or those who attended many years of boarding school also affect a marriage relationship…

  3. Yep. Even for those of us happily committed to the “forever” of our marriages, the quote you mentioned above is a constant challenge – trying to be “fully third-cultured” in a “single-cultured” reality. Thanks for giving it a name!

  4. This is true! I can relate! It’s good to know we are not alone. smile emoticon EGA…..yes they do affect some marriage relationships. I also like the comment from Abbie. I do plan to stay in it for the long haul and continue to learn more about contentment.

  5. Interesting…and I fear very true! It would be great for the future “spouse” to know and understand this about the MK they are about to marry. Both partners have a lot to offer the relationship and both will need some major understanding of and counseling for these struggles, in order to grow & keep a healthy successful marriage.

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