Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” St. Matthew 11:28-30
Because of the sensitivity of this subject, I have written this post with the aid of my spouse, Stephanie.
Many of you are suffering courageously in the context of an unequally yoked marriage. If you are not aware, a yoke is a heavy wooden beam laid across the shoulders of two beasts of burden in order to coordinate their strength in an important task like tilling a field. Spiritually speaking, to be “yoked” can be a good thing, or something that is very challenging and painful. In the case of being yoked to Jesus, it is good because he has the ability to make our burden light and restful - to help us in our weakness. Our yoke is easy when yoked with Him because He is strong and can pull for us when we are weak. In the case of being “unequally yoked” in a marriage, this is rarely anything short of being very painful and burdensome.
When animals are properly yoked, they are of equal strength, height, and type. This photo illustrates the opposite of all of these essential elements. In this case, and in any case of an unequal yoking, the two beasts of burden cause one another injury. The reason for this is that they move at a different pace and cadence, they have a different sway in their walk, and the yoke that joins them begins to rub both of them raw. Even if they were cognizant of the differences and could adjust, the natural force of nature would always draw them back into their injurious rhythm and the rubbing raw of their partner. I think you can see why this is such a powerful biblical analogy for what it is like to be in relationship with spouses who are so significantly different in the most important matters of time and eternity.
This situation is particularly exacerbated when one spouse experiences a significant conversion after marriage. The reason for the severity of this situation is that it is often the case that prior to their conversion, they were more closely yoked with their spouse or had at least worked at a rhythm that caused the least amount of pain to the other. An after-marriage conversion can be akin to two oxen working together and then one suddenly transforming into a Camel. The rhythm, natural before conversion, instantly breaks down and becomes painful for both. The severity of suffering only increases as the new convert begins to pull in a direction that the other spouse has not agreed to. In the worst case, this can feel like a complete betrayal or abandonment. Now the non-converted spouse is either feeling as if they are being dragged around, neglected, or in the worst case, chastised or abused.
This challenge is a very difficult one to deal with and has resulted in millions of tears and countless broken relationships. The good news is that it has also worked out well for countless couples. One friend of mine recently told me that when her husband came back from a retreat on fire for Christ, she told him that if he wouldn’t shut up about it that she would leave him. He revealed that he remained unwavering in his faith but worked very hard to love his wife with a renewed vigor. He was very purposeful in his love and self-giving to her in light of the path of self-sacrificing love revealed by Christ and the Church. Eventually, she came to her conversion and now they are a dynamic team of faith, equally yoked in service to one another and the Kingdom of God.
All of this leads to the question of how can we navigate this deeply difficult challenge in a way that is more likely to lead to a happy ending like this?
The first and most important task is for the converted spouse to make a commitment to work on their own holiness, love, and self-giving to the other. The more silently but obviously Christ-like we can be, if our spouse is open, the more compelling our love will be to them.
If we emulate the self-sacrificing love of Christ we will draw open hearts to Him. We can’t force a heart to open but we can ensure it stays shut if we fall into the trap of exhortation, correction, criticism, or wound-licking self-pity.
But, if we embrace this difficult cross, we can be sure that Christ will give us what we need to endure and overcome. As we approach the season of Lent, it might be a good time to take spiritual inventory and maybe even adopt this kind of daily examen for the unequally yoked spouse that can help us find a path where Christ can work in and through us in this difficult situation.
One last note is in order. The faithful Catholic spouse will never survive this kind of challenge without the nourishment of the sacraments, prayer, spiritual growth, and community. We must remain free of mortal sin if we are to receive the grace of God necessary to endure. We must also get as much spiritual nourishment as we can whenever we can. This will pose a challenge because it requires time. One thing you can gently share with your spouse if they struggle with your use of this time is,
“I need this in order to gain the nourishment I need to best love and serve you.”
Regardless of how this is all worked out, remember that the new life you are experiencing or have experienced has caused a change in the experience of your spouse – likely a difficult one for them. Be especially patient, kind, and gentle. Pray for them. Fast for them. Your best hope is to be Christ for them – silently – in service and love. In this, you will be strengthened by Him and they will see God in and through you.
In His love.
Unum est Necessarium
Dan and Stephanie Burke
PS: There is an excellent resource for spiritual reading entitled The Secret Diary of Elizabeth Leseur that can be particularly helpful for women in this situation.