Ask a Counselor: three dysfunctional missionary marriage patterns

I see missionary marriage dysfunction falling into three broad patterns:

  • disconnection
  • addiction
  • abuse

Let me tell you a bit about each pattern, and share some resources that can help.


Disconnection is the easy one to deal with.

All you need to fix the problem is:

  • two people willing to invest in the relationship,
  • and the right ways to invest, so you don’t waste your precious time and energy.

Lucky for us, John Gottman has done all the hard work of research AND writing books that put his research into user-friendly form.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is the best research out there on the guts of a healthy relationship.  It includes quizzes and exercises in each chapter.

If you’re decent human beings who want to have a better marriage, buy this book and go through it together.

Do what Gottman says.

Problem solved.

The thing is, though, that many missionary marriages today have a little speed bump called addiction.  And when you add addiction to the mix, you’ve complicated your simple problems with bigger ones.


As soon as I say addiction, everybody thinks “pornography.”  And it’s true, porn is a very real and present problem in today’s missionary world which needs to be addressed.


Addiction has been a problem for missionaries since time began.  And I don’t just mean sexual addiction.

I mean, the addiction of using comforting behaviors in order to avoid dealing with feelings like pain, distress, discomfort, insecurity, depression, anxiety.

In the missionary world, ministry is a serious addictive substance, used by many to avoid the difficult work of

  • facing up to one’s own personal pain and
  • turning toward a spouse emotionally.

All those seminary papers to grade, all those workshops to plan, all those sermons to prepare, all those emails to answer, all those visions to cast.

All those wonderful activities that feel so good and earn so much praise?  Those can cut the heart of emotional trust right out of a marriage.

John Gottman explains how this happens, slowly, over time.

You see, we have three choices when it comes to our relationships:

  • Turn toward
  • Turn away
  • Turn against

It’s easy to see how a pornography habit is all about turning away from the emotional and sexual relationship between husband and wife; in fact, it all too often becomes turning against as entitlement builds in the addict.

But the same is true of a ministry habit.  All too often, ministry is a spiritually-sanctioned way to turn away from a spouse.

The first step toward healing of addiction is honesty:  telling the truth about what’s going on within our emotional selves

  • to ourselves
  • to our spouses
  • to safe people who will support us in recovery.

Don’t think you can keep addiction a secret and still recover.  Being honest with others and turning toward others in true vulnerability is the purest opposite to any addiction.

The next step—for any kind of addiction–is to pursue healing opportunities through recovery groups, marriage seminars, and personal therapy.  Recovery is a long, slow process that requires real work and real support.  If those aren’t available where you’re living, MOVE yourself to a place where they are available.  Don’t sacrifice recovery on the altar of geography.

Good boundaries will be part of the healing process, for addicts and for spouses alike.

For addicts: good boundaries mean  that you will be responsible for your own sobriety, whether from work, porn, or any other bad habit.  Have a plan for behavioral, emotional, spiritual aspects of your recovery; work the plan. Access the help you need. TALK to your people.

For spouses: good boundaries will  include being responsible for your education on sexuality or other addictions, for your emotional processing, for your choices about what is healthy and not healthy for you in the relationship; have a plan for your own self care; work the plan; talk to your people.  If the issue is pornography or other marriage betrayal, you might want to look at the online resources at Bloom for Women.

Whatever marriage challenges are before you, whether you’re the addict or the spouse, you must be responsible for yourself and your own process in recovery.


Abuse is a real issue in missions.  I’ve had clients who are the victims of emotional, verbal, mental, sexual, and physical abuse by their spouses.  I’ve had clients who are the victims of neglect by their spouses.

I’ve written about domestic abuse in the past, here and here.

We don’t expect any spouse to be perfect, but when hurts happen, we should be able to talk about them with our partners, and expect a restoration process to occur.

A partner who has caused harm to his or her spouse should

  • change behaviors so that they don’t continue to cause pain
  • make amends for the harm they have caused
  • listen non-defensively, and
  • do their own emotional work, not expecting the victim to soothe their shame.

If a restorative process does not occur, if there is no ability to aknowledge hurtful behaviors and do better in the future, if you’re walking on eggshells hoping to prevent the next hurt from happening, you might be in an abusive relationship.

“There is no such thing as a perfect family or church where people don’t ever get hurt.  But the difference between an abusive and non-abusive system is that while hurtful behaviors might happen in both, it is not permissible to talk about problems, hurts, and abuses in an abusive system.  Hence, there is no healing and restoration after the wound has occurred, and the victim is made to feel at fault for questioning or pointing out the problem.”  Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (emphasis mine)

If you’re a victim of domestic abuse, know that there is help and healing for you.  There is support for you, even if you’re overseas.  Check our Resource tab for options, and again, check out the online resources at Bloom for Women.


The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman

Boundaries in Marriage, Henry Cloud and John Townsend

How We Love, Milan and Kay Yerkovich

Pure Desire, Ted Roberts

Surfing for God, Michael John Cusick

When Your Husband is Addicted to Pornography, Vicki Tiede

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Jeff Van Vonderen

The Verbally Abusive Relationship, Patricia Evans

Should I Stay or Should I Go?  Lundy Bancroft

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Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:

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