[This article is also available on the Pondering Purple podcast. Simply search for it by name on your preferred podcast platform or listen online HERE.]
As I’ve lead sessions with MKs and mission groups around the globe, I’ve seen an increase in questions regarding MKs and marriage. Why is it that some of us struggle in this area? Why can we sometimes hesitate to commit?
What all the questions point to is this:
Are MKs at a disadvantage for long-term relationships?
My short answer: no. We aren’t.
We live in a world where any marriage, regardless of spousal backgrounds, stands a disheartening chance of ending in divorce. I’ve seen MK marriages succeed beautifully and a few of them end miserably. But anecdotally speaking, I’d say that our marriages tend to end less frequently in breakups.
But there are a few factors specific to MKs that might play into our marriage difficulties when they arise, factors people who aren’t “one of us” might not be aware of. I thought it might be helpful, in an effort to promote a deeper understating and manage these MK symptoms, to mention five of them here…just in case one or more of these might lurking in your subconscious.
I. Longing to fill the void
One of the most challenging aspects of the missionary lifestyle is a scarcity of consistent relationships. The high mobility of families on the mission field has several causes—job changes, political unrest, a nomadic lifestyle, fundraising failures and short-term commitments. Consequently, the number of goodbyes MKs say by the time they’re 18 can leave 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 affective stability that makes marriage so appealing to so many of them.
And it’s what prompts some MKs to marry 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 inescapable goodbyes of the missionary life—at least with this one person. He or she can’t be taken from them for the usual ministry reasons, and there is blissful comfort in that safety.
The danger is in jumping into an “I do” relationship too fast—out of desperation for lifelong connection or a need for solace—when neither party is really ready for a lifelong commitment.
II. Lack of practice
This relates back to the previous point. Most MK friendships end within a couple of years, so once the excitement of meeting, loving and wedding is over, the concept of “forever” can become a challenging thing.
We’re good at the first weeks and months of relationship. 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 afforded us.
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, fast-tracked 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 wanting to leave 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 a 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, obligations or marriage.
This fear of getting stuck can actually be a powerful deterrent for some MKs to enter into marriage in the first place.
Those who do marry tend to fall into two categories: those who do well with putting down roots and settling into a predictable life and those end up resenting being forced into endless immobility. Marriage after a while can feel like too much permanence. Life without the option fast-paced, radical change can feel stifling. Crippling.
That loss of independence and mobility can be a potent disincentive to sticking with something as “stable” as marriage.
IV. Multi vs. mono tension
This point is specific to MKs who marry mono-cultural spouses: people who have experienced just one culture all their lives. When I speak with MKs, I encourage them not to consider mono-cultural love interests as inferior or boring. We have so much to learn from each other: mono-culturals from us quirky global nomads and MKs from those who have spent their lifetimes 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 and it’s beautiful when it does!
For some MKs, though, it’s a real struggle, perhaps because they haven’t done the work to understand themselves or the needs and presuppositions they carry into relationships. For them, the initial years of marriage can be good—whatever differences or frustrations they experience easily quelled by new love and all those firsts—the starter home, the budding career, the children. It all makes 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 yearning to expand the borders of their settled lives, because they think they can’t be fully third-cultured if they’re trapped in a single-culture existence.
Granted, there’s little one can do to infuse cultural complexity into someone who hasn’t experienced it firsthand. But that doesn’t mean a monocultural spouse can’t have a healthy curiosity about the broader world. Cross-cultural openness can go a long way toward bridging the multi-mono gap. Sadly, when that isn’t there, it’s possible for MKs to begin seeing their spouse as a symbol of the small-world mentality they reject and, oftentimes, resent.
Those MKs might break up or divorce in the hope of returning to a life in which they’re able to exist between worlds again. I’ve known a few who have succeeded, but those who haven’t were left with an exacerbated feeling of dissatisfaction and guilt—deep regret for the pain they caused in an attempt to reclaim a multi-faceted wholeness they haven’t been able to achieve.
V. Permission to have sex
Yes. I said the S-word. Some MKs struggle with marriage because they entered into it for the most basic of reasons. So they could have sex.
It’s as simple as that. They grow up being told to stuff down their hormones and be ashamed of their impulses. And some will marry spontaneously and far too young because they do want to reserve sex for marriage and—honestly—it feels easier to walk down that aisle rather than try to “be good” for too long.
Abstinence is a noble and biblical approach—but it’s often mispreached, misapplied and misexecuted…particularly in the traditionally conservative world of ministry!
Unfortunately, if permission to have sex is the primary incentive pushing young people to get married, there may not be a whole lot of relational depth to draw from when the inevitable challenges of marriage crop up. The relief of being able to finally engage in sex is a meager trade-off when a commitment made in haste leads to broken vows, disillusion and a damaging sense of failure.
Those are five of the most common reasons I’ve found for the challenges some MKs have with matrimony. It’s such a complex topic, and I’ve only touched briefly, here, on some pretty complicated points. My hope is that this article will an invitation to further conversation and exploration. And maybe a starting point.
I want to repeat this:
I’ve known and observed so many marriages in which MKs have found true, long-term unity, joy and fulfillment.
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 covered with international stickers, lovingly placed there over the transitions of our lives.
Our bags aren’t heavier—they’re different—they’re multi-cultural. And if we can open and unpack them, explore and understand them, their potential to hinder can be defused and their capacity to enhance can be released. What an asset our MK baggage can be!
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