When the Yoke Chokes

Christian family advocate James Dobson has told the true story of a wife and mother who, after spending hours each day in prayer, Bible study and “listening to God,” gathered her family one day to make an announcement. Out came something along the lines of: I’ve got wonderful news. The Lord is calling me to a mission field far away — and he assures me you’ll be fine while I’m gone. Goodbye!

That’s an extreme example, but it illuminates an important point vis a vis “unequally yoked” couples: A spouse and parent who puts personal piety, charitable work or evangelization ahead of the matrimonial vocation is doing no favors for the marriage, the family, the Gospel or the Church. In fact, an overzealous individual can put just as much strain on the relationship as a lukewarm, apathetic or un-churched spouse. Sometimes more.

“Religious devotion that threatens a family or a marriage obviously has to be examined to see if it is really fanaticism,” says Father Benedict Groeschel of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. “It is not impossible to find religious fanaticism even in the Church because fanaticism is related to the personal difficulties of the individual.”

What to do if you find yourself on the longsuffering end of a spouse’s all-consuming religious zeal? Look at the situation unflinchingly and see it for what it really is — even if this is daunting because the “deeply religious” spouse speaks with intimidating, if false, authority by selectively quoting Scripture, the Catechism, the popes and the saints.

“Often what they’re really saying is, ‘I want to stick it to you,’” says Paulist Father James Lloyd, a psychologist, chastity educator and former missionary. A wife who behaves this way may be responding to feelings of powerlessness in the marriage, he adds. “She may feel she has no other weapons to put him in his place. But things are rarely only what they seem.”

“It seems like being a good person to devote your life to God. But (in these cases) that’s baloney,” he says. “The spouse has an obligation to meet the marital needs” of his or her partner in the sacrament of matrimony.

The priest is quick to question the motive of any spouse who presents herself or himself as a saint in the making while describing the other party as hopelessly irredeemable. “Why is this person doing that?” he says. A married person who neglects or rejects his or her spouse in order to answer the universal call to holiness isn’t going to help anyone’s conversion along and, on the contrary, needs not enabling empathy but “intense and wise spiritual direction.”

Then, too, a lukewarm or non-practicing spouse offers a daily chance to practice the cardinal virtues — prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance — while living out a sage American proverb: “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

— Joseph Pronechen