If there is one place where your marriage will suffer, it’s probably on the mission field.
My husband and I waltzed into marriage crazy in love and stupidly naïve. After knowing each other only 4 months, we eloped on a white sand beach in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Then we spent the next five years running a ministry in a war zone in Uganda. Yeah, smart. We thought that love and sex would save us, and it worked for a while. But the reality is, while marriage is an intimate union of two souls growing together, it’s also hard work, and it leaves the soul rubbed raw.
When we left Uganda, I wasn’t quite sure if we should even stay together. It seemed like we’d done a lot of damage, and like a house on fire, we weren’t sure what charred remains to salvage. Like most things in our life, we had to learn it the hard way, but we’ve finally figured out some gems.
1. DEBUNK THE MYTH THAT YOU MARRIED THE WRONG PERSON
Ever since Prince Charming kissed Snow White, we’ve imagined there is only one perfect person in the world for us, and they will complete us. If they don’t, we assume it’s the other person’s fault. Unfortunately, the Christian world does nothing to mitigate this lie. We perpetuate it through Christian romance novels, erroneous prophecy, and the crazy idea that God forces us into things that will be “better for the Kingdom.”
While I do believe God brings people together, we all have a choice. Your person is right because you love them and chose them, and just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I had to get over this lie early on in my marriage when I thought that because my husband wasn’t this identical picture of the “perfect man” I had jotted down on my list after reading “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” he was somehow wrong for me. I’d made a mistake.
Sometimes God brings two very different people together because he knows you need each other and because you will actually be more amazing together than apart. Once I started accepting him for who he was and focusing on his strengths rather than his flaws, I began to see that while he wasn’t “perfect,” he was perfect for me. Part of loving well is this “iron sharpening iron” process we must surrender to.
2. LEARN TO LOVE YOURSELF AS GOD LOVES YOU
Unless you married a complete, narcissistic jerk, (not just your perception, in real life), most things that make us angry in our marriages are actually wounds that are triggered from our past. It’s basic psychology that we seek out what is familiar to us based on our family of origin, and we repeat patterns until we feel we’ve gained mastery.
Most of us don’t genuinely love ourselves, and it is this self-hatred that creates unhealthy cycles. We blame, because we are hesitant to admit fault lest our darker selves be revealed. Most of the things I blamed my husband for were actually areas I felt insecure or vulnerable, or was anticipating rejection.
I expected that marriage would make me happy; therefore it was his job to make me happy, and any “failure” was held over his head. I had to learn I was the only person responsible for my happiness. I can’t give my power away to others by expecting them to save me or do what I want, and then be disappointed when they can’t meet my expectations.
Love is a verb, and one that does not equate with control. Like Iggy Azalea raps, I started “work, work, work, work, working” on my stuff: I got a therapist I could trust to unload my history. Most of all, I learned to love myself as God loves me, and that is the greatest key to being able to receive love and give love away.
3. GROW TOGETHER, NOT APART
I believe one of the most crucial foundations for a healthy marriage is the capacity for self-awareness and growth. My husband may not write me poetry every day, but he is willing to explore the ways he reacts to situations and is open to change.
People who say, “This is just the way I am,” are doomed for failure. Denial is just another word for pride, and humility is the only way this marriage thing works.
Every moment we have a choice towards connection or disconnection. We can move closer or we can push farther away and try to punish by withholding our love. It’s amazing the relief that can come from the magic words, ”I’m sorry,” whether you are 100% wrong or only 5% wrong.
If your partner is interested in something, try to learn about it and join with them. My husband is really into zombie TV shows like The Walking Dead, and trail running. At first, I was nervous to really get into both because I was scared. It was outside my comfort zone. But I tried them because I wanted to be together with him doing the things he loves, and now those are some of our favorite moments we share. And he’s even joined me on a poetry reading or two.
4. PUT YOUR MARRIAGE BEFORE YOUR MINISTRY
This is probably one of the biggest mistakes I made the first two years of our marriage. I had my identity wrapped up in my dream and I thought it couldn’t be bad because I was working for God and performing good deeds. But the truth was my workaholism was attached to the belief that I only had value and significance if I had the world’s approval. I performed for the pat on the back that said I was worthy. Because I had to work so hard, I was constantly responding to late night phone calls and emergencies and I exhausted myself so I had only leftovers to give to my marriage.
I gained significance from being “needed.” It was easier to love people in my ministry because they loved me back and I didn’t have to go home with them. I could put on the role of the “perfect Sarita,” and they wouldn’t be disappointed in the “real me” like a husband could. They didn’t have to see my flaws, nor I theirs, and in this way I could hide from true intimacy.
At home I felt like a failure, but out there I was a “hero,” and that was a much easier hat to wear. I wanted to be a counselor, a dispenser of wisdom, but I didn’t want to look at myself because that meant having to face the me I didn’t like.
It took a lot of healing to realize I was already worthy. I had to learn to set boundaries with the ministry, to prioritize self care, date nights, and getaways, so I had something to give to my husband instead of expecting him to take care of me when I wasn’t doing a good job myself.
5. SAY WHAT YOU NEED
People are not mind readers (men, especially). Communication isn’t just about talking, it’s about being vulnerable enough to clearly acknowledge and articulate your feelings and needs.
Building a relationship and a community where you can practice this skill is incredibly important. Early on, I assumed because Tyson loved me, he would also know what I needed. If he didn’t somehow deduce that when I said, “I’m so exhausted, I don’t feel like cooking tonight,” that translated to, “You need to make a plan for dinner,” it meant he didn’t really love me. It sounds crazy, I know, but being a Type 2 on the Enneagram means I’m not good at asking for what I need because I’m always thinking about what other people need.
Saying I need help means admitting I can’t do it all, and that felt like weakness to me. It was also scary to admit to what I needed, because what if I didn’t get what I wanted? That would leave me exposed. Learning I needed to grow in honesty and authenticity (Brene Brown is a hero for me on this) was a pivotal turning point for our relationship. My husband was patient with my false starts and stutters.
6. TAKE TURNS CHASING YOUR DREAMS
All marriages will inevitably require some kind of compromise. We cannot coexist and both get what we want at the same time, all the time. My husband and I are both dreamers and we are both pioneers, which means neither of us are very good at backing down. In the end, we realized we could either resent each other for holding one another back, or take turns being each other’s biggest cheerleader.
Tyson moved to Africa because that’s where I was already building my ministry and accomplishing my dreams. He knew how important it was to me and was unwilling for me to give it up (I was too stubborn to anyway). He spent five years championing me and letting me run ahead while his dreams took a backseat. I didn’t ask him to this, but it was an organic outcome of where we were in life.
When we moved back to the United States, I was pretty close to burnout, in major transition, and needed to pull back. I made it a point to encourage him to pursue the development of the business that was on his heart while I took over the responsibilities of our home. It also made sense due to our financial needs coming off the field. These were conscious choices we both made as a team to pass the baton to each other, so the other could soar.
Especially when children are involved, it becomes even more difficult to negotiate who will take more responsibility for the home so the other can pour into work. It’s important to have deep conversations exploring the pros and cons of each choice and ultimately hear from God about whose turn it is to run. Wholehearted agreement on a plan is imperative to balancing power dynamics and promoting harmony in the relationship.
7. REMEMBER WHY YOU FELL IN LOVE
As you get deeper into your marriage, you might have to redefine the definition of romance. It might be less of the longingly staring into each other’s eyes on a beach, and more the way your husband washes the dishes. If we look hard enough, we can always see the good again in our partner, no matter how far we’ve gotten away from those initial reasons.
I started focusing on the things I loved about Tyson instead of his flaws. I loved his sense of humor and sense of adventure. I started laughing more at his jokes, and planning little trips to get out of the ordinary. I praised the way he worked so hard for our family and held back from criticizing him for things that bothered me. I planned dates if he forgot to plan them. I stopped always thinking the worst of him, and that he was deliberately trying to hurt me, and started giving him the benefit of the doubt. I started seeing the gold in him and calling it out.
And slowly, my heart began to change. I started to remember the reasons why I loved him and why he was good for me. And because he was less afraid to fail or disappoint me, he began doing many of the things I longed for in the first place.
8. FORGIVE FROM YOUR HEART
It is so easy to let resentment build up in our marriages, and like that greasy gunk on the inside of our oven, it gets harder and harder to wipe clean. So often we think we’ve forgiven, but they are just words. We will bring up an old wound, mistake, or fault at the first chance. We’ll say things like, “You always do ____” or “You never do ____.” What we’re really saying is, “I haven’t let that go.”
It takes a big person to be authentic, to tune into your inner truth and say, “I’m angry right now, but what that really means is, I’m scared.”
When we returned to California from Uganda we signed up for a Love After Marriage course at our church. And I truly believe it saved our marriage. While the whole thing is amazing, the part that impacted me most was when we had to write each other letters. The goal was to spend time asking God to reveal the areas where you’d been hurt by your partner then allow God to convict you for the ways you had been complicit in hurting your marriage. We then wrote each other letters and what poured out of me was so surprising. I saw the ways I had been selfish and demanding. I saw how I had been critical and set unrealistic expectations.
Then it was as though I could see Tyson’s heart and how much he truly longed to love me, but often didn’t know how. I had such compassion for him. We both apologized genuinely from our hearts for the individual ways we had harmed one another. Ways that had been long buried over, poisoning us in ways we hadn’t realized. For the first time, I felt like he really heard me, he could really see what I’d been saying and there was genuine acknowledgement and empathy for the areas he had failed me, and I him. When we read each other our letters, in between the flood of tears, there was breakthrough.
9. GET HELP
Being in missions or ministry means everyone is looking at you and you feel the need to project the idea that everything is fine. Because many people will judge you it’s hard to find safe places to process your true feelings and fears about your marriage. It’s also incredibly difficult because you are often isolated, without community, in remote regions, and that is why it’s so imperative you choose a person or a couple to mentor you and check in on you throughout your missions assignment.
I know some of you are facing some very real hurts in your marriage that you think you might not be able to overcome. And I’m not trying to trivialize those. Seek help through marriage counseling or Love After Marriage. It is so worth it, I promise. Pain has a way of carving out room for joy.
And if you think you are in a situation where you might be being abused either verbally or emotionally be willing to put yourself first and set boundaries with an unhealthy person. Read books like Keep your Love On, and pray about a possible time of separation. While I’m not a proponent of divorce, I recognize in some situations people’s choices make this fact inevitable. It’s not the end of the world and it’s not the unpardonable sin. God will still love you. But make sure you’ve done everything in your power to save your marriage before you think about throwing in the towel. You might be surprised by the redemption that could come out of it. I know I was.
Sarita Hartz is a writer, speaker, former missionary, and non-profit director, who tackles issues of missions, infertility, travel, and how to live wholehearted, in her blog Whole, found at www.saritahartz.com. She just finished her first book, Whole, and lives in California with her husband Tyson, and fur baby, Rosie. You can find her on Facebook as Sarita Hartz.