When I teach marriage preparation courses, I remind the engaged couples that their role in the marriage is to help their spouse get to heaven. As a priest-friend of mine says: “Make each other saints!” If both persons in the marriage are focused on the sanctity of the other, then both are pulling together toward heaven. The burdens of married life become light because they are shared. Just like two well-matched oxen yoked together, the husband and wife pull together in the same direction. Their path is made straight, their rows even. The strength of one becomes the strength of two, and no matter the obstacle, their joint strength and dedication to the sanctification of the other sees them through to the other side, stronger than when they started.
But what happens if the spouses are not dedicated to each other’s holiness, when they are not both pulling with the same effort toward heaven? This happens from time to time in most marriages, but in some it becomes long-term or even permanent. This can be likened to two oxen pulling together, but one is much larger or stronger than the other. A poorly matched team causes pain on both sides. The larger and stronger of the pair bears much more the weight of the load. The yoke rubs and pulls, knocking him off balance and threatening at each step to pull him off the straight path. In a marriage, the spouse more oriented toward the spiritual life can become so focused that he can seem to ignore the needs of his spouse. His experience of having to pull harder causes him to redouble his efforts, and this double effort can cause feelings of resentment, anger, and frustration to manifest. The smaller and weaker of the oxen pair can get knocked about by a loose yoke, suddenly pulled and then pushed as the other forges ahead. In a marriage, the one who is not oriented toward the narrow path which leads to heaven can become confused and begin to feel the same type of frustration, anger, and resentment which her spouse feels. It becomes quickly evident to both that the Yoke of the Lord and the yoke of the world are not compatible with each other.
Questions begin to arise in both spouses’ minds: is the loneliness and pain worth it? Is it wrong to focus on my own growth in holiness when it obviously drives my spouse away? Why does my spouse love God more than me? Should I just join my spouse in his worldly pursuits to lessen the pain? If the Christian life is about love, then why does my spouse seem so distant and judgmental?
There are no easy answers. The guidance of a good spiritual director and confessor is essential for the spiritual aspect of these difficulties (a good, Catholic marriage counselor can help as well). But the goal of marriage stays the same (even if both spouses aren’t pulling together): Help your spouse get to heaven! Focus on the Cross and take on the yoke of Christ. The more you love Jesus, the more love you have available to give. Pray daily for your spouse, not that they become what you want them to become, but that they become what Jesus wants them to become. Ask for help so that you can become a good husband, a good wife, who puts the needs of the other before your own. In this way, though the pain will most likely not be lessened, you can join yourself to the Cross and grow daily in imitation of Him Who was crucified upon it for you. This is not easy, but at least it’s simple. Saint Monica, pray for us!