In this Peter’s Wife, I want to introduce you to an excellent resource. I have been reading Married in Mission by Alexis C. Kenny. It is a comprehensive, practical, and useful resource for everyone, especially married people, serving outside their home culture.
Alexis has divided her book according to the periods of time, or stages, involved in serving cross-culturally. She takes the reader through the various stages of our calling: discerning our calling, preparation, life abroad, and finally re-entry and integration back to the home culture. In all of the stages, her focus is how cross-cultural experience affects the marriage.
There is no way I can summarize this excellent book. But for this month, I will focus on some of the stresses of beginning cross-cultural life and suggestions on ways to deal with these. Although some of my readers are veterans, perhaps Alexis’ book will provide some help for those you are mentoring.
When we first arrive in a new culture, we don’t know how the locals act and what their behavior means and what is expected of us in return. There is real stress as we observe, come to understand, and accept our new social cues. The key here is openness, not isolation. When we share what we’ve learned with our family, and even share our personal struggles it can help everyone feel more comfortable in the new culture. My husband and I wish that we had done that more with our own sons. Looking back, we sometimes wonder how they actually experienced Africa and Malaysia.
Grief and Loss
No, we are not talking about a death in the family. But as all of us know, we do feel grief and loss when we leave our comfortable world of meaningful relationships and established roles. Each member of the family handles their grief differently using various types of coping mechanisms. So we need sensitivity to our spouse’s grief over the losses they are experiencing. That helps them, and us, to move on in a healthy manner.
So you think you know who you are as a man or woman? Cross-cultural experience can challenge that security. Gender roles may necessarily change in your new culture.
Sometimes, depending on the new situation, roles must be reversed either temporarily or throughout that assignment. Both must make adjustments. Being empathetic and flexible will minimize the stress of these changes.
The new situation usually turns the dynamics of your relationships upside down. Adding to this tension is the speed at which each one adjusts to new responsibilities and methods. Perhaps the most verbal one learns the language slower, or the one who always did the shopping cannot do it in the new culture.
Maybe the one whose primary role was childcare now has to swap roles with the one who mostly worked outside. It is important that each one is patient with the other’s style and speed of adaptation. Doing that creates confidence that in a few months each one will have found their niche within the new community.
Do you remember the toll your new climate took on you before you adjusted to it? Even after years it can still be hard on us. Adjusting to a new climate can take a significant toll on your strength and health. Weather is an uncontrollable variable in relocation. It helps to give yourselves plenty of time to acclimate and be open to new and creative ways of doing things. Learn from those who have always lived there, but also from those who have had to make the same adjustments you are making.
In addition, change in sleeping patterns, diet, and exposure to new bacteria will affect your immune system. Do all you can to care for your overall health.
Eventually, the physical realities of your new location become part of the texture of your life. Coping with them will not always take so much effort. My husband and I live in a country that one sending agency calls, “a soft landing.” But we constantly marvel at the grace God gives to our friends who live and work in places where pollution blots out the sun, the streets can flood with sewage, and the air never loses its stench. Yet God gives them the grace to adjust.
International service can be described as “always doing, never done.” Alexis points out that there are a number of factors that can become stressors if not properly managed. And, they can negatively affect your marital relationship.
- Living on or near the work site makes establishing clear boundaries between work and home life difficult. Living some distance from the work means longer commutes and less time for family life.
- If you can, take these factors into consideration when choosing your new home. Then help each other remember why this is your home. Help each other cope with the difficulties encountered.
- Nature of the work
- People oriented or task oriented? Simple or complex? One, or many assignments?
- Reduce avoidable pressures: Cut back hours, ask for more help, simplify responsibilities, delegate tasks, manage time better, or learn to say no to unreasonable requests.
- Learning the local language is a huge stress. Varying levels of language proficiency between spouses is frequently a source of tension. So discuss possible coping strategies together.
- Take the necessary breaks from your commitments so that you avoid burnout and can properly care for yourself and your marriage.
If you and your husband neglect the health of your marriage, this creates a stressful family environment. The best thing you can do for your child is to take good care of your marriage.
Your children will be experiencing many of the same stressors as you. They may deal with them better than you do or really need your help to adjust. Talk to your kids about their own experiences of moving to the new culture and how they are feeling. Give your children some autonomy in their adjustment. You may let them decorate their room, honor reasonable requests to visit new friends, or together re-create a routine your family had in your home country. Life will not be the same, but it can be a new kind of wonderful.
I know. It seems like a cliché, as well as an impossible dream. But it really is important. Ensuring that you and your spouse are spending enough quality time together is tough. And yet, making a space in your schedules for time shared is critical in maintaining a healthy marriage. Developing a sense of companionship is what will allow you to get through future crises with greater ease.
And be sure you don’t neglect love-making, though even that can be a challenge. We know a couple who lived in a hut in a remote village. When they turned out the lamps they could see eyes looking at them through the cracks in the wallboards!
It helps if you find ways to talk about how your new living situation impacts your intimacy. Talk in ways that let you both feel safe.
To sum up, here are some keys I saw emphasized in Alexis’ chapter about initial adjustments:
- Pay attention to each other and how you are coping in your new situation. Be empathetic when you each are struggling.
- Take time to talk about what you are learning and help each other gain perspective on what’s new.
- Stay flexible. Be willing to learn new ways of doing everyday tasks. Let others do things you had always done before.
- Give each other time and space to adjust to all the changes.
- Make time to build your friendship with your spouse. Your common ground is what will give you greater stability in times of crisis.
- For the welfare of your family, be willing to make adjustments in schedules, tasks, and expectations.
- Keep your sense of humor. A hearty laugh can help smooth adjustment friction.
Remember: you are in this together. Mission will challenge your marriage in ways nothing else can, but we realty can become stronger, together.
Married in Mission
Alexis Kenny’s book can be used by a couple, for mentoring, or in member care. Each chapter deals with a different stage of international service. Chapters 1 and 2- before departure, chapter 3- Honeymoon and culture shock, chapter 4-settling into the routine, chapter 5-preparing for departure, chapter 6- re-entry, and chapter 7- integration to home culture. Each chapter has exercises that are interactive and practical.
If you have questions or comments for Alexis, you may use her Contact form