When Your Marriage is Wounded (and you’re far away from help)

by Marilyn on July 16, 2014

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Yesterday was my 30th wedding anniversary.

My husband and I met back to back at an Indian restaurant on Devon Street in Chicago. He was a cute grad student at the University of Illinois. I was a cute nurse newly deported from Pakistan. A week later I said to someone “I think I’m going to marry this guy!”

And I did.

We have what we affectionately term a “brave marriage.” By God’s grace it has weathered crises that most marriages never dream they will have to withstand. And some of those crises occurred in our life overseas.  Because of this our anniversary is the more precious.  Today I take you into one of those crises – and I ask for grace as you read it.

As I reflect back it feels like a lifetime ago – and in some ways, it was. 

I sat outside in the Marriott courtyard, sipping a hot coffee. It was a warm winter day in Cairo, and the strong desert sun cast light and shadows across abundant plants. This was one of my favorite spots to sit, read, and reflect in a city of 18 million people and limited green space, but my mind was far from enjoying this time. Despite the warmth I was shaking with cold.

In this city of millions there seemed nowhere to turn. No place to go. No one to talk to.

My husband was director for a demanding study abroad program. 24 students were in our care and we had to answer for all of them academically, physically, and emotionally. Their home colleges and their parents had entrusted them to us for this semester in Cairo, an arguably safe city in the Middle East at the time. But with the media holding an upper hand on disseminating information about the Middle East in the United States, it was still considered a risk.

Along with the work responsibilities, we had four children aged three to ten and we were raising them in a context completely different from those of our peers in the United States. Daily they took a taxi across the busy city to a small school located in an apartment off a side street in Cairo. They studied and played with a handful of other kids. We lived in a neighborhood with no other expatriates. Cairo was their home and had been for the past six years.

But I sat there that day thinking about none of this. I was in a sea of pain, our marriage had been wounded and we were desperately in need of life support. And I didn’t know how to get it.

Living overseas brings tremendous joys and adventure; it also brings some extraordinarily difficult times and crises. And sometimes the extraordinary difficulty has to do with our marriages.

So what do you do when your marriage is wounded and you are far from professional counseling? What do you do when you need an intensive care unit and all that is available is a small clinic with unskilled staff?

You cast yourself on the author of marriage and pray for mercy.

And mercy came but with it tremendous loss. Because over the next few months, we realized we could not stay in Cairo. We realized that we would have to leave. We contacted trusted people in the United States and they were unanimous – leave, get help, don’t cling to a life overseas when there is no help available.

And during that time we were like burn victims, if anyone tried to get close we screamed in pain and pushed them away.

And my heart knew a depth of pain I’d not experienced before. Not in boarding school at 6 years old, not in college when home was eight thousand miles away; not at family funerals. It was the pain of a wounded marriage coupled with the realization I had to leave. How could I leave? How could I leave this place I loved with every fiber of my being? How could we give up this successful study abroad program that had been my husband’s baby – transformed from 7 pages of paper into a functioning, thriving 3 year old program?  How could I, a third culture kid who had an angsty relationship with her passport country, go back to that country?

“Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.”* The words from Jonah could not have been clearer – I was trying to cling to an idol – the idol of ministry overseas. I was willing to forfeit the grace that our marriage so desperately needed for a life overseas. How was it that I had placed living overseas in a higher position than marriage? Marriage – God’s design to show his Glory; marriage – God’s design to somehow in a mysterious way reflect God’s love and desire for his church; marriage – that hardest, bravest relationship we ever embark on.


Our crisis feels like a lifetime ago – and in some ways it was. As much as it hurt to leave Cairo, we would never have received the help we needed had we stayed. And the fall out would have affected everyone in our path, wounding in a way we could not imagine.

At the end of April we had the opportunity, through the Orthodox church, to receive a marriage blessing. At the time I wrote this on my personal blog and I close with it today: “….above all in this journey of marriage we have experienced the deepest mercy possible to humans. We have experienced the mercy of God that we can still stand, heads held high, certain of nothing but his love and grace to us. We have experienced the mercy of each other, so clear are we in knowing how much we have erred, how often we have sinned against each other. We have experienced the mercy of our children, gracious in their love and forgiveness of us. We have experienced the mercy of our families, standing by our sides through the awful and the wonderful. We have experienced the mercy of our friends who have walked this road with us. We are twice blessed.”

What about you? How do you respond to the words “the idol of ministry overseas?” Have you been through a crisis, whether marital or otherwise, where your desire to stay where you are has affected your willingness to get help? 

*Jonah 3:8

Between Worlds on AmazonAnnouncement: I have a book! The name of it is Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and in it I explore the themes of home, place, belonging, and grief and loss. My prayer is that this can be a real resource for TCKs and their parents! It is available at Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. B&N has quicker delivery but is slightly higher cost. There is an accompanying discussion guide that I would love to send you if you purchase the book. Contact me through the comments below and we will go from there.

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
  • HisFireFly

    perfect timing – as only God can!
    just this morning, no more than 30 minutes ago, as I was waking, I was trying to imagine what it might be like to have issues flare in our marriage while we are away in Africa —
    and here, grace

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Your comment came first – when I most needed it, right when I thought I had made a huge mistake by posting. So just thanks.

      • HisFireFly

        so God touched us both
        right here
        in His timing
        perfect always

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Tears are falling, Marilyn. I am so incredibly proud of you for being brave and writing this. Love you!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thank you more than you know.

  • kaybruner.com

    My husband was addicted to pornography for a significant portion of our life overseas, and I’ve written about it on my blog. I’m just putting that out here because when we were going through it, I couldn’t find anybody who had been through it and was okay afterward. I thought it was a death sentence at the time. Today, we are more than okay–we are better than we were before, and grateful for every single step on the path Home. God redeems.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Kay – these words are proclaimed so powerfully – thank you. I’ve been quietly helped by your blog and others need to be as well so thank you. It does feel like a death sentence doesn’t it? But I can stand with you and say “We are more than okay” God – the author of marriage, the redeemer of the married.

      • Kay Bruner

        This verse keeps coming to my mind: “They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” Revelation 12:11 Every story matters, every voice counts. Thanks for sharing your story!

        • Marilyn Gardner

          I quite literally felt shivers when I read this. These words are so powerful and I’ve never connected them to our story before.

    • Taken By Grace

      Thank you for being so open about this addiction! We too are dealing with the fall out. It is so hard to be in the midst of this terrible ordeal. His addiction is coming to a head before we leave. I am grateful that it has come out and we are dealing with the aftermath. It is hard. I felt alone in the states. Angry. Abandonned. But truth God redeems…I don’t feel so alone..

      • Kay Bruner

        Virtual hugs, sister. This is such a common issue, and yet we are still so isolated in it. When we were going through it, I couldn’t find anybody who’d walked through that fire and survived it–even though I know those people exist. It’s just so hard to talk about! And in missions–eeek. Even worse! So that’s why we just started telling our story, wherever we could. Andy’s really been the impetus behind the openness, even though I’m the one who ends up doing all the talking 🙂 Anybody who wants to is welcome to contact me privately. http://kaybruner.com/engage/ Also, if you’re needing resources, I recommend Covenant Eyes. They have a ton of good, free books to download, plus their monitoring software is such a help. I like the resources at Pure Desire, too. And I’m just finishing up a memoir called As Soon As I Fell, which I plan to have up at Amazon in the fall. Because, you’re not alone. And I hate it that you feel that way. More hugs, love, and prayers.

  • Pingback: A Life Overseas – When Your Marriage is Wounded | Communicating.Across.Boundaries()

  • Herewe Goagain

    Thanks for sharing, but I didn’t see any reason given for why your marriage was in crises.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      The reason isn’t important. The outcome is.

      • Herewe Goagain

        Didn’t mean to sound snarkey about it, I was just trying to relate to the story, and couldn’t.

        • Marilyn Gardner

          No – not at all snarkey! I think we realized a long time ago that sharing the specifics would make people focus on the specifics – and those aren’t pretty and there is little redemptive about them. The reality is – I’m so glad you can’t relate. Because it means your marriage is intact and healthy, despite what I’m sure are ups and downs. There are others who, like us, are overseas and they aren’t healthy. And this is for them – to give hope. Thanks so much for interacting and asking for clarification.

  • Thank you for the delicate way you shared this struggle, Marilyn, without blaming and shaming. It’s so hard to ask for help even when it is available because of the shame involved. They say the expat life will make or break a marriage and I have seen that time and time again, often because of a lack of qualified counselors overseas. I am so glad that you gave up the home you loved, hard as that was, and found the help you all needed to heal and repair. The blessing was coming out the other side to show that the hard work is worth it!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      For such a long period of time I had so much shame. Walking in shame is defeating and sucks the life out of you. Anything good that would happen I would think inside “we don’t deserve that” – It was exhausting and walking in freedom has opened the door for so much healing. Writing has helped in the process. I cannot wait to meet you!

  • Ahhh….this is why I just bought your book, Marilyn! Looking forward to reading it 🙂 You offer such tender honesty here on the brutally difficult yet life-giving choices of marriage. Thanks for sharing so vulnerably.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thank you thank you Jody! So grateful for this affirmation. I love your use of the word “life-giving” – yes! During the darkness it feels anything but life-giving, but experiencing day by day grace is the worst/best relationship of our lives is just that.

  • 2476

    Had to make the same difficult choice less than one year ago. We are in the healing process. There are many details, of course, but addiction played a huge role in our departure. I am leaning into God’s grace everyday but this time has been very challenging. Since being ‘home’ it seems one addiction has just been traded for another ‘work’. Just praying for Mercy as we continue to walk on this difficult path. Thank you for your honestly and post..it helps to bring hope!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I’m so there with you. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on us – is the prayer on my lips for you and for me. It’s a lonely journey but one marked by milestones of grace. I’m so happy you came by.

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    Thanks for your vulnerability here, Marilyn. Beautifully shared. I appreciate that what needs to remain personal and belongs to you and your husband is kept — yet this is totally honest. I always say “never ministry abroad at the cost of marriage and/or family” — when tested I hope I will choose correctly. Thanks again.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Tara – I needed these words so thank you. And your words on never ministering abroad at the cost of your marriage/family – so glad to know someone who is daily walking this journey of a life overseas is proclaiming that to others! So true.

  • Katheryn Hewatt

    This is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing…this is encouraging to me right now. How much of your wonderful journey I don’t know!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Ah Katheryn – how I miss you! Thank you for this lovely message on a day I needed it most.

  • Kim

    Thankful for your post on this topic. The weight of work overseas often brings the ‘cracks’ and weaknesses to light. Our loving Father arranged our home leave times and crises together, so we have been able to find help and can now be thankful for the storms that led to renewal. There is an isolation and public spotlight in a marriage overseas that isn’t a factor ‘back home’. So glad for your freedom and boldness!!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      “Storms led to renewal” – what a picture of grace. Thank you Kim. And I love that those times came on home leaves so providentially. Your words on isolation and public spotlight are so true.

  • Thank you for being so open with us. It is a very important subject. I went home from years in overseas missions work because I needed to get help, personally. And to normalize. I knew I needed to, but I resisted returning to my home culture with all my being because I was still so convinced I was called to the cross-cultural life (especially in that season). This is not just for marriages, but for anyone who calls themselves a human. Thank you again for sharing!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Yes! “For anyone who calls themselves a human” – it’s amazing to me how we marginalize the need for help. When someone is diagnosed with breast cancer and they have to leave a life overseas we gather around and tell them its the right thing to do. When someone needs counseling help, they often – like us- shield it from those around. Would that we normalize this. Thank you Alison.

      • Thanks for the reply! Yes, I think it is becoming more and more normal, as these topics are now being talked about and “coming into the light”, so to speak. It is especially helping that church leadership (especially MEN) are becoming more and more transparent with the need for emotional health in self and in relationships.

        Have you read “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” and other books by author/pastor Pete Scazzero? He hit bottom in his marriage and his church leadership, and it forced him to change his whole way of life, to become emotionally healthy. Very good stuff. http://www.emotionallyhealthy.org/product/emotionally-healthy-spirituality/

        • Just read this blog post from Pete Scazzero on the Emotionally Healthy website blog. It’s good! http://www.emotionallyhealthy.org/if-you-are-going-to-marry/

        • Marilyn Gardner

          Thank you so much for the recommendation. Looking it up. I’ve been struck by the mystery that is marriage, despite it’s obvious flaws in even the best of marriages, I think that in the Garden when God designed man and woman there is a divine thread that is woven through the marriage relationship. So when a marriage is wounded it hurts a place deep within us and we cry out to reclaim Eden.

      • Guest

        P.S. Just read this blog post from Pete Scazzero on the Emotionally Healthy Spirituality site. It’s good!


  • Michi

    Wonderfully written. Been in your place with no “professional” help in a third world country for family problems… Thankful for the great author of marriage who gives us grace wherever we are and helps us through those horrible times.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Yes and Yes! And I love that you put it right out there and proclaim these times as horrible. They are just that and more.

  • Thanks for bravely sharing this, and for making that brave choice at the time. What a good example to us and many others.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Cindy – thank you! It was a few years into our healing, when I felt like we were damaged goods, that we heard the phrase “brave marriage” and it so resonated. Not a perfect marriage, a brave one.

  • Wow, this is so powerful, Marilyn. Thank you for this, for laying down the idol and then being brave enough to share about it. It’s a message that needs to be heard.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thank you Danielle. I appreciate how you deal with so many of these issues honestly on Velvet Ashes.

  • Taken By Grace

    Thank you for this. The idol of oversees ministry! So true! My family is in preparation for this venture. We go on short term to the village that we will be relocating at…with that being said my marriage was wounded before our last trip there. I was devestated. Hurting. Having no where to run. But God. We were still state side but I did not want any one close. And the funny thing is my husband and I had been praying for preparation…!!!! God is a funny thing…through this reworking and preparation I see God differently. We did the 7 day visit to our soon to be home..and it was fragile, beautiful grace. I had to give up my vision of overseas as being the cure all and get real about the wound before me. And God in his mercy is still leading us back to the country we love.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I.LOVE.THIS – because this is what’s happening to us. In his mercy we are slowly but surely being led back. Grace indeed. And your words that you didn’t want anyone close…..we are so like burn victims are we not? That touch hurts so much, it’s the grafting and the debriding and the healing of the raw flesh. I’m so glad you came by. Thank you.

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  • Marilyn Gardner

    Just a note to all of you who commented – I am loving the conversation on this piece. Thanks for adding to it.

  • Tamara Tammy White

    This is a gift to others struggling overseas and at home. Thank you for sharing honestly, with boundaries and respect, and with hope.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thank you for your response to the sharing. These words are affirming — you can probably imagine there was this period of “what have I done?” yesterday as soon as I hit publish.

  • Yaya

    I work for a church in the US and they have partners all around the world who they support in various ways. I am currently in the south of Mexico (single, white 20-something female) and tried to make friends as much as I could with the limited Spanish I knew. I became good friends with a fellow male co-worker of mine. We got along very well though we had a language barrier. He is married so I reminded him from time to time that we were just friends, he was cool with that which I hoped he would had considering he was also a pastor. We had a party for him on his last day of work, he was off to do other things in life. To make a long story short, he sexually assaulted me that night. He tried his best to sleep with me. I over-powered him and got away after a 20 minute struggle. I kept it a secret for a couple weeks. I thought that I couldn’t trust anyone anymore but it was driving me crazy that everyone thought he was the best thing since slice bread and that I knew otherwise. I slowly started to tell people, first friends, then other co-workers. I was asked if I wanted to leave by some, others tried to force me to leave because they thought I was in danger. My love for my work here made me stay, and I’m happy that I did. I have seen the guy a couple times now. I do get episodes of PTSD from time to time, especially when I hear his name said or I see him (which is worse). He tries to act like nothing happened but I don’t give him the time of day anymore. I have seen a therapist. I think, in the end, this will make me stronger.

    • Karin

      It’s a terrible thing that happened to you and I hope you leave it behind without scars and be stronger and more compassionate for it.

  • Gary Boivin

    Our marriage wasn’t so much wounded, as in need of direction, after our dream life of living in Korea was interrupted by rising cost of living, and her parents making themselves physically sick, over not seeing our son-their only grandchild, but once a year.

  • Amy

    Hi Marilyn
    Those words “idol of ministry overseas” definitely have made me think a bit. I am in the beginnings of hearing and responding to the call of missions on my life. I know that my husband is called as well but he is not interested in going overseas or even going to church. He is letting me go on a three week trip to Africa but how the future will turn out I have no idea. I want so desperately to step out into my future with God. Any suggestions?

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I would say pray and don’t push, your marriage is of far more importance to God than missions. I really believe that with all my heart – we are called to reflect God within our marriages. We can’t do that when we’re divided. I love that you are going on a 3-week journey – and that your husband is behind it. Enjoy each day of that journey but don’t push for something that will end up hurting the relationship. I’m so glad you came by and happy to chat more.

  • ThreeJ

    Wow, I needed this today. My husband and I are first termers in Italy, and while in our hearts we may have signed up for the “long haul” here, life has proven to be harder than we ever could have imagined! I often wonder if we will even make it to our home assignment. There are days we can’t even be in the same room together. This life, the transitions, the ups and downs and complete loss of everything, takes a toll on marriage that is unprecedented for us! So, I think to myself, “If we are one termers, so be it, but I would rather us be one termers, than to be divorced.” It’s just nice to hear that we aren’t the only ones that have struggled through this, but it also helps to know that sometimes you may have to pull up the stakes and retreat.

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