Cross-Cultural Worker Marriage Issues: Digital Distractions
download this brochure as: a
During the last century changes in technology have brought about profound
changes in how most people in the world live. During the last half century the
digital revolution has changed how people relate, even in their marriages.
Two Millennia Ago
When Paul and Barnabas first served as cross-cultural workers, people had a
more limited number of ways to communicate as mentioned in Acts 15.
- They could go in person and talk face to face so that both verbal and
nonverbal cues were available (Acts 15: 4).
- They could tell another individual who would then go and repeat what was
to be communicated (Acts 15:2). Adding that middle person could result in
the message being changed.
- They could write a letter for someone to carry to the recipients (Acts
15:20). This meant that no additional clarification could help remove
- They could use combinations of the above (Acts 15:22-31).
These examples are all found in communication between the first and second
terms of cross-cultural service.
Most of the New Testament epistles are letters written to relatively young
national churches or pastors of these churches. These letters were written by
veteran cross-cultural workers or church leaders at headquarters in Jerusalem.
The letters include advice, warnings, and greetings to individuals at the church
Two Centuries Ago
Little had changed when William and Dorothy Carey went to India as
cross-cultural workers in the late 18th century. They still traveled on foot, on
horseback, and by sailing ship. They communicated in person, by sending oral
messages via a third person, and by writing letters.
However, in the 19th century changes occurred when people invented the
telegraph, the telephone, and the radio.
- Letters of the alphabet could be coded into dots and dashes, sent great
distances via electrical impulses over lines, and decoded at the other end
with the telegraph.
- Voices could be coded into electrical impulses, transmitted over lines,
and transformed back into voice-like sounds with the telephone.
- Voices could be coded into electromagnetic radiation, sent through the
air, and transformed back into voice-like sounds at the other end with
radio. No longer did people have to be actually present, send an oral
messenger, or write a letter to communicate.
At the beginning of the 21st century with the digital revolution we have many
additional ways of communicating, and these may become issues in marriages.
During the last half of the 20th century with the development of the computer,
information could be digitally coded so that it was readily available. This
brought about huge changes in communication and entertainment readily available
to cross-cultural workers all over the world. New means are continually being
developed, but here are some available at the time of writing.
- Cell phones: People can converse, leave oral messages, or leave written
- Email: People can send written messages for others to read at their
- Skype: people can converse orally via their computers and even see each
other if they have webcams—free of charge.
- Facebook and MySpace: People have social networks around the world.
- Blogs and YouTube: People can post thoughts and videos for others to
read, hear, and see.
- Internet: It has news from home as well as information from
- Chatrooms and instant messaging.
- Satellite TV and Radio, Podcasts—the list becomes longer every year.
- DVDs, personal viewers, and iPods allow people to carry thousands of
songs and movies anywhere with them.
- Personal Digital Assistants (PDA), such as the Palm and Blackberry,
allow people to carry their work and all of the above literally in their
Cross-cultural workers find the above extremely valuable. They can find
needed information at the click of a mouse, reach group decisions without
traveling thousands of miles, stay in touch with family and friends and so
forth. No one wants to go back to more primitive methods. However, these may
distract from more important things, such as your marriage.
These inventions have raised concerns in many areas, such as transportation
and business. The digital revolution has greatly improved transportation, but it
has also played a part in train, plane, and automobile accidents. It has
revolutionized some things in business, but it has also sometimes resulted in
lower creativity and productivity.
- Multitasking. At the end of the twentieth century people said the
new generation could multitask, could listen to the TV, talk on the phone,
and study—all at the same time. Psychologists have long maintained that
people can attend to only one thing at a time. Recent research shows that
when people “multitask,” they just rapidly shift their attention from one
thing to another rather doing more than one thing at a time.
- Interruptions. When people stop to answer a phone or read an
email, the interruption is much more than the few seconds to listen or read.
It is usually 10-15 minutes before they can refocus and proceed on their
- Boundaries. Before this revolution, when one went home, other
relationships and tasks were left behind. However, with a digital device in
one’s pocket, that boundary is no longer in place. Anyone with your number
or address can reach you at any time you have it on.
- Time. Work and entertainment can also be carried into your home
in your pocket. This may mean time taken from your family or time you spend
with God himself.
As such, it is an issue of the stewardship of time. When Barak Obama became
President of the USA, he had to “fight” to keep his PDA. The major concern was
that he might receive an email alert, instant message, or text message that
would distract his attention during an important briefing.
Specific Marriage Examples
Of course, here we are not as concerned about national security as we are
about marriage relationships. Here are some issues that can arise.
- Relationship with spouse. Your spouse may begin to feel like he
or she is not very high on your list of priorities and come to resent your
- Relationships with colleagues. If one partner becomes overly
attached to digital activity, the couple may not interact with other expats
in their agency or in their city. Such interaction is vital to marriages,
especially if the couple have children.
- Lose real contact. A person enmeshed with digital distractions
may not recognize problems with family and spouse, not know that anything is
wrong until too late.
- Giving impressions. Checking a cell phone to see who is calling
or reading text messages may give the impression that people are not giving
their full attention to their spouses, even if it is discrete glance below
- Sexual fantasy. Even if one is never caught viewing pornography
on the Internet, such activity still results in another fantasized person in
the marital bed.
- Drain on time. When one spends hours keeping up with “friends” on
Facebook, viewing DVDs, or playing electronic games, it may mean less time
for the physically present spouse.
A February 2009 article in Newsweek is titled, “Will the Blackberry
sink the Presidency?” Stopping to spend 15 minutes with your Blackberry may not
sink your marriage, but it may cause your spouse to question your relationship
to him or her.
What can be done?
Though problems may arise through digital distractions, here are suggestions
to minimize the likelihood.
- Discuss these issues with your spouse and agree on steps you can take to
- Schedule daily time with your spouse.
- Turn off your cell phone or PDA before arriving at home to set a
boundary and prevent interruptions.
- Check email and voice mail only at agreed on times, such as four times a
day or not more than once every three hours, when with your spouse.
- Take steps to avoid pornography on the Internet, and have specific
planned steps to escape it when it appears.
- Set a limit on how much time you spend each day on Facebook or other
- Limit how much time you spend watching DVDs and playing electronic games
so that you have time for personal social interaction.
- Tell your colleagues the times you will be available (“on call”), and
turn your digital device off at other times. Of course, during times of
emergency this may not be possible.
- Take time for yourself, your spouse, and your family. Otherwise you may
burn out, or your marriage may crash and burn.
All of these suggestions are specific steps people can take to set priorities
in the stewardship of time. Remember that all—rich and poor, old and young—get
the same 24 hours in every day. How they use that time depends on their