Missionary Marriage Issues: I’m Just a Trailing Spouse

  • Approximate Time Commitment: 20 minutes

Why write a book about issues in missionary marriages when so many books about marriage are available? The reason is because married couples living in cultures other than their passport culture face some issues that make marriage more difficult than it is for people remaining at “home.”

The booklets found in this series cover many issues that married couples struggle with in the mission field. Each booklet has been read and edited by Bob and Norma Jean Erny, who have read each chapter as it was written. They were each married more than 40 years to their first spouses, and after those spouses died, they married each other, giving them more than century of marriage in three marriages.


Resource Description


The year did not turn out like Tom expected. He had thought that taking time off and living in a developing country while his wife taught in an international school would be a welcome relief from the stress of working as a senior pastor. However, he soon got bored with mowing the school lawn, sweeping floors, painting walls, doing laundry, and trying to find fresh meat at the market.

He felt little satisfaction with what he was doing after just a couple of weeks and was looking forward to getting home and back to work using his talents. However, Mary felt fulfilled and loved what she was doing, and now she wanted to stay at least another year, maybe permanently.

At first these differences led to tension in their home, and they avoided discussing them. However, as tension increased and they talked more about the differences, their discussions began to become disagreements that were never really settled.

Tom was what many people call a “trailing spouse,” a husband or wife following a marriage partner who takes a job in another place. Being a trailing spouse may mean leaving behind a deeply satisfying place of work and service to begin again, somewhere else in the world. The challenge of finding such a place in foreign locations without support networks and knowledge of the local situation may be difficult, frustrating, and time consuming. Consider how this has happened in history, what makes it an issue, and what can be done about it.

Did this happen in Bible times?

This has happened since the Book of Genesis. God told Abram (later Abraham) to leave his country and his extended family. If he did this, Abram’s descendents would be a great nation. Abram took his wife Sarai (later Sarah) and his nephew Lot and followed God’s direction to Canaan, to Egypt, and back to Canaan (Genesis 12-13). The agreement was between God and Abram, and when it was renewed, it was again between the two of them (Genesis 15). Both Abram and Sarai came up with “schemes” for the other to do, schemes indicating that they did see her as a part the agreement.

  • Abram was afraid that the Egyptians would harm him, so he asked her to tell them she was his sister rather than his wife. She did it, and Abram raised no objection even when Pharaoh took Sarai to live in his palace (Genesis 12).
  • Sarai apparently saw her role as a trailing spouse whose major part in this was to bear Abraham’s child. Still without children a decade later Sarai had reached the point where she did not even think she had to be the one to bear the child—She offered Abram her Egyptian maid as the one to bear the child (Genesis 16). After all, the agreement was with Abraham, not with her; perhaps her part was to be rearing the child.

Finally, more than another decade later, when He again confirmed his agreement with Abraham, God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah and included her in the agreement, saying that “she will become the mother of nations; kings of people will come from her” (Genesis 17:16).

This issue affected the marriage relationship even after God said Sarah had an important role in his plan. Here is how it unfolded chronologically after God made the agreement with Abram in Genesis 12.

  • 10 years after the agreement: Sarai told Abram that it was his fault that she was suffering (Genesis 16:5).
  • 25 years after the agreement: Sarah told Abraham to get rid of the maid when Ishmael teased Isaac (Genesis 21:9-10).

This issue was a quarter of a century old. Both times they tried to resolve the issue by sending the maid out into the desert.


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