“Feeling so fearful and alone since moving as a trailing spouse”
Last month someone found my blog because they did an internet search for that phrase. It reminded me how much pain a trailing spouse endures. I remember the struggle; I remember the suffering. And while whoever typed those search terms is actually not alone, I can attest to the fact that it very much feels that way. I remember how dark it felt, how black the future seemed. I remember how much pressure I was placing on myself not to ruin my husband’s dreams. I remember being afraid that nothing would ever be OK again and that it would all be my fault.
Telling my trailing spouse story has opened up conversations with women all over the world, both before and after they reach the field. (A trailing spouse doesn’t have to be a woman, but women are the ones who have reached out to me.) So with that in mind, I’m going to share parts of emails I’ve sent to women who have asked for more of my story. I’ve deleted identifying details to protect their privacy. These are the things I would say to any marriage dealing with a trailing spouse issue.
But first I want to clarify what I mean by the “call.” It’s confusing when Christians talk about “call”; different people have different definitions of “call,” and they tell very different stories. So what I’m generally referring to when I say “call” is a strong feeling or desire to be where you are (or where you’ll soon be going). It feels like a peace and a settledness about your current (or future) location.
It was about a year and a half from my husband’s initial “Let’s move overseas!!” to hearing a call of my own. I know that might not seem like long in retrospect, but it felt like forever at the time. These times can be so dark that they seem to stretch out forever and ever, no bend in the road, to borrow a phrase from Anne of Avonlea. I know you and your husband might be on such different pages regarding your life right now, and it’s hard to understand each other’s point of view. But it’s important to “hear” each other’s hearts in this. You are different, and both of your perspectives are valid, because they are true for each of you.
I’m going to take a deep breath here and say some hard stuff. I hope and pray it comes out right, because I only ever want to point people to God and do for others what my mentor did for me when I was still trailing — provide hope without pressure. In an ideal world, both you and your husband would feel called to your work where you are. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and you are not the only wife who at this very moment does not feel called to where she is. A call is very important, true, but it’s also true that you can’t force it.
There are so many moving parts in a marriage. It’s hard to predict what one or the other will feel or do many years from now. And so I need to say this: it is not the end of the world if this does not work out. I think it’s very important to internalize that. Your vows are to each other, not to overseas work. You are both separately committed to following God, but now that you are husband and wife, you are a team and have to make decisions as a team. I know that does not sound like a traditional explanation of marriage where the husband makes the decisions and the wife follows, but in overseas work especially, having unity is essential.
Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying this overseas thing will never work out. I don’t believe that! I’m also not saying you should just grin and bear it. And I’m not saying you can just pretend to hear a call from God and that acting like you have one will convince your heart you have one. I’m just saying this issue is important and worth investing in. And here’s how I would suggest you approach it, based off the advice I received several years ago when I was in your shoes. . . .
Now this is going to sound scary, but I promise, in the end, it’s not. What you and your husband have to do — both of you — is open up your future to God. Both of you have to be able to say, if I have to give up this life abroad business, it’s not the end of the world. You can’t just decide you know what God needs to change in your heart. You even have to give that expectation up. Now that won’t sound as scary to you as it will to your husband. When he has a long standing dream, it’s going to be hard to say, “God, can I give this up?”
During all this time that I didn’t have a call, it was so stressful for my husband that he got an ulcer. An ulcer. Major stomach pain. “Not going” felt like the end of his life, and “going” felt like the end of my life. But ideally, you would both be able to say those things to God. And then, you would talk to Him and ask Him where He wants you, and what He wants to do in you, and all those things. But first you both have to surrender your preferred futures.
It’s trickier to find your call if you’re already overseas, because if you don’t find it, you feel stuck and unhappy where you are. This is another reason seeking God is so scary. What if He doesn’t come through? What if He disappoints me and doesn’t talk to me? What if I’m still in the dark? Or worse, what if He actually tells me to stay here?? (I think that was part of my fear, that if I really opened up, He would tell me to go, and I did not want to go.) But I just don’t think you can actually hear from God unless you put it all on the line — living overseas or living back home — you’ve got to put them all on the table, and your husband has to, too.
Incidentally, when we did this, when both my husband and I put it all on the line and simultaneously opened up our future to God, my husband came back to me saying we didn’t have to move overseas. He was willing to stay in America. I say this to explain that it wasn’t just me and my problem; my husband was talking to God too, asking Him questions and trying to listen for answers. And that openness to change on both our parts is very significant for our story.
I remember my mentor telling me some things that really freed me up to hear from God. “If you go, and you really, really hate it, you can always come home.” That was brand spanking new to me. I thought it was a lifelong commitment. I thought you went and never came back. Just knowing there was an escape valve allowed me to be able to say yes. I don’t think I could have heard a call otherwise.
The other thing my mentor said that really helped was to say to both of us, “No matter what you decide, one person can’t ever come back and blame the other person for the decision” (or something to that effect). She meant that if we stayed in the United States, my husband couldn’t blame me for ruining his ministry, and if we left, I couldn’t ever blame him for ruining my life. Getting rid of potential blame is a huge part of being able and free to hear from God. It’s hard to hear from Him when we put all these pressures on ourselves.
So what I would recommend is seeking God all over again for living overseas, and both of you laying your plans and dreams down and being open to God either taking you back home or keeping you overseas. I really believe He is with you, no matter what you choose. I also do not believe it’s a failure either way, whether you stay overseas, or whether you leave (but especially if you leave, since human beings tend to attach more significance to that choice).
You have promised each other your lives, and I believe that promise is more important than any one decision about where to live. That is what our church leadership told us, and I believe they were speaking truth; I believe your marriage covenant is that important. I remember being disappointed not to hear a “go or no go for launch” from our church leaders, but only counsel to honor the marriage covenant. Focusing on our marital unity, however, ended up being one of the best helps in overcoming our difficulties.
I hope I made sense with as little pressure as possible. I never mean to push! And truly, I have no vested interest in your staying or going. I simply want you and your husband to be united in whatever and however you serve. I did want to give you some practical steps to take though, and I hope those made sense. Sending you love and praying you will find God when you seek Him, and that even in the confusion and chaos and grief, you will experience the peace that passes all understanding.