Lessons on Marriage from Life Overseas

For half of our married life we have lived overseas. Recently as I reflected on our life together, I realized that learning to live in another country is like learning to live with your spouse. So here are some tips on marriage brought to you from our life as expats.

Become a fluent speaker and help your spouse become one, too.

Over the past two years I have dedicated many hours to learning Arabic. As I have done so, I have seen some similarities between the work of marriage and the work of language learning.

For starters, in both we have the goal of fluency. Just as we want to speak a new language clearly and gracefully, we also want to learn to speak fluently the language that communicates love and respect to our spouse. There are Biblical principles that apply to marriages everywhere, but there are also specific ways we love and honor our spouse that are unique to them.

To know those things about our spouse, we study them. We ask them lots of questions, we observe them, and we develop a delighted curiosity on what makes them, them. So, for the last 10 years since marrying my husband Ethan, I have been studying him to become fluent in Ethanese.

Another way marriage and language learning are similar is that just as we need native speakers to help us learn their language, we also need each other to achieve fluency in marriage. Not only do I need Ethan to teach me about himself, but *I* also need to teach *him* how to speak Aylinese fluently by communicating with him.

I have hesitated often to speak about preferences that mean a lot to me because I don’t want to be a nagging wife, nor an entitled one. But over the years that hasn’t really helped my husband in knowing important parts of who I am. He can’t learn to care for those treasured pieces of my heart if I don’t give them to him.

God’s purpose for marriage is for us to be unashamedly naked – in both body and soul (Genesis 2: 5). So growing in intimacy with my husband, I bare my heart to him.

Love communicates truthfully (Ephesians 4: 15). I give Ethan a good gift when kindly, humbly and gratefully I share openly what I love, what hurts me, what brings me joy and how he can better serve me and care for me. In doing that, I am not demanding rights, but being the helper God made me to be for him.

I know this can be really vulnerable. That is where we need to know how safe we are in Christ’s love for us. Even if it takes a long time for our spouse to learn to love well everything we are, there is rest in believing Christ’s love for us is firm, fierce, unstoppable…and completely enough.

In baring our hearts to our spouse, we also need to trust we are humbly entrusting ourselves ultimately to the Lord, and not them. We can’t make our husbands see. We can’t change them. But the Lord can. So we wait on the Lord to work, because no one that waits on him is ever put to shame (Psalm 25: 3).

That is why both the work of language learning and the work of marriage is a work of faith. By faith we study both language and spouse, trusting Christ is gracious to enable our fluency…and theirs.

So be patient in the process. Just as it takes years for you to learn a new language well, it will take time for you and your spouse to learn each other well. It might be tempting to feel discouraged, and to think you will never make the progress you want. But trust the Lord’s faithfulness to you. He is committed to your marriage. Celebrate his grace in both big and small victories and be confident in how sufficient he is for you both.

  • Become a cultural learner not a cultural critic.

Language and culture are often very closely tied together. You learn language as you learn culture and you learn culture as you learn language. In the same way, a big way you learn your spouse is by understanding and learning the culture he comes from. Not only the country he comes from (if you are in a cross cultural marriage, like me), but his family’s culture and even his personality’s culture. 

If you think about it, each person has a culture of their own; a strong set of values; a preference in how they do things; an idea of what life in community looks like; a definition for rest; a love or hate of risk, etc.

That is why my husband and I love to say that in a very real sense each marriage is cross cultural. But something really important in the process of learning your spouse’s culture is that you are really a learner, not a critic.

When we are learning a new culture that is different than ours, it is very easy to see all the ways that culture is not as good as ours. We see their flaws, their blind spots and want somehow to fix them.

The best expats I know are the ones that have learned to see beauty in the culture they live in. They truly learn from the people around them and see how their culture is strong in areas they are weak in. They are not filled with cynicism. They are grace-hunters – looking for and finding evidences of grace and goodness around them.

We need that spirit in marriage. The Lord has fit us for our spouse – not so that we can fix them, but so that we can learn from them and grow with them. Our spouse is God’s image and we will discover more of God’s glory as we enjoy the ways our spouse displays God’s beauty in the world and in our home.

  • Learn to live in paradox.

On this side of Eternity it serves us well to accept the paradox that a good thing can have hard things about it. When you don’t know how to do that, the hard things sometimes make you want to quit it, because you don’t have eyes for the good things.

Life overseas is filled with paradox. There are some really wonderful things about it and some really hard things. Marriage is like that. Even in the best of marriages.

You really do lose your life to gain another one.There may be the loss of dreams, the loss of yours or your spouse’s health, and the loss of relationships.

Circumstances are not the ones you expected when you married. There are patterns that are deeply ingrained that never seem to change. Your life is stressful and it feels like all the differences between you both contribute to the struggle.

In the day to day of life, it might be easy to lose sight of the joys and only see the hard. When that happens it is good for us to list God’s provisions and kindnesses to us, and all the gifts that have come with marriage.

But even as we do that, we also need to be honest and name the hard things – both to ourselves and to Christ. Doing that is not necessarily ungratefulness or discontent. It is learning to live in paradox – recognizing the joys and sorrows in your life.

There is a grieving that is appropriate in marriage. We can lament our sin, our spouses’ sin, any loss that has come. Sometimes we grieve the sin and trauma in our extended families and its impact on our own. Maybe our children have a chronic illness or disability and we are ships passing in the night as we care for them.

Lament postures our hearts toward God. We grieve with Him, and remember who He is in our grief. Lamenting really is the way to hope and joy in times of suffering.*

I think that is why we have the most hope in our marriages when we allow our hearts to feel both the gains and the losses that have come with them. Only then we can truly taste Christ’s sufficiency for us. He alone is our Savior and Redeemer.

  • Laugh.

Laughing keeps you sane when you live overseas. You learn to find the humor in your speaking mistakes, in the ridiculous expectations you had, in the unexpected situations you find yourself in. You smile at the beauty you never knew existed. You treasure the memories you made in the middle of hard things. You even laugh at things your passport culture doesn’t think it’s funny.

And oh man, laughing is quite the gift in marriage too. You learn to laugh at things that are hilarious to just the two of you. You find delight in your differences. You cherish the joy that your kids are. You look back on hilarious moments and somehow, laughing together makes you look forward with hope to what’s ahead.

Marriage is a beautiful shadow of something precious to come. Just as life overseas feeds our longing for our permanent Home, marriage sets our sights on the day when Christ will return and all things will be made new. Then, we will experience a glorious and satisfying consummation when we are wed to Christ.

So, friend, as you wait for that day, embrace the home you are to your spouse and the one he is to you. Through the life of Christ in you, hope in God fiercely, love steadfastly, and, with a trusted heart before the Lord – laugh! Laugh with your spouse, laugh at yourself, and laugh at the days to come.

*Read these Psalms to discover the pattern of lamenting, remembering, trusting: Psalms 13, 22, 44, 77.

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