“Ask a Priest: Is It OK to Leave a Marriage If the Husband Isn’t a Spiritual Leader?”

Q: What do you do in a marriage situation where your husband is not the spiritual leader? As his wife, am I still bound to submission when he says and does things that are contrary to Christ and his teachings? If the husband is not faithful in matters of spirituality, or of the heart, or financially, is the wife still bound to the marriage? Thank you and God bless. -J.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: I am sorry to hear that your marriage situation isn’t as good as it could be. I empathize with you.

There are various dimensions to your questions. Let me try to deal with them separately.

First, you mention that your husband isn’t the spiritual leader you want him to be. Granted, he might in fact seem to be closed off to all things spiritual. Is it also possible that he isn’t as far along in his spiritual life as you are? Perhaps he isn’t capable of more spiritual leadership right now, or perhaps he doesn’t even sense your disappointment, or doesn’t know how to live up to being the spiritual leader.

No one, men especially, wants to be seen as a failure. Men want to thrive, to live up to the task of being a man. Sometimes his image of what it is to be a man is skewed by his upbringing, the culture, and even his own weaknesses. His ability to do what he might desire deep down might also be hindered by his feeling the pressure to be spiritual or holy.

Men need to be encouraged — and yes, educated, and in small steps. The woman is so often more sensitive to spiritual things. This is a gift for her benefit and the benefit of others. In your deepening union with Jesus, you can add great spiritual warmth to your marriage and the family. You can radiate the attractiveness of what it is to be in love with Jesus. You might need to guide your husband with words. It might be helpful for him to go on a solid retreat, preferably a men’s retreat. Or, if he isn’t open to that, think about a couples retreat. There are marriage renewal events that could be helpful, too. Your husband might need a lot of positive feedback, so let him know when you appreciate the steps he is taking.

Here, I can’t help think of St. Monica. Besides a wayward son, she also had a very difficult marriage and through her perseverance in prayer and her love, she eventually won her son and her husband over to the faith. Ask her to intercede for you (see the novena prayer).

Second, no one is obliged to go against her conscience or Church teaching. There is a hierarchy of authority — and God comes first. If your husband asks something that goes against Church teaching, you need to educate him. It might be helpful to seek out counseling for serious, ongoing issues.

Third, marriage is meant to be for life. I’m not sure what you mean by not being faithful “in matters … of the heart.” Rather than speculate what you mean, I would say that you should try to work on the issues one by one. Certainly it is not easy to deal with someone in the areas you mention, but the alternatives (a separation or civil divorce) are not appealing. They could, in fact, lead to worse situations.

Rather than think in that direction, you might want to look into marriage counseling, preferably with a solid Catholic. Having a third party, an objective viewpoint, can help a lot. Working through the difficulties you are facing might be a way for both of you to grow together in the Lord. Every marriage has difficulties, and God will give you the grace you need to face them and make new discoveries through facing them.

In the meantime try to intensify your prayer life and sacramental life. Take confidence in the fact that your marriage is a sacramental bond. It is not only the two of you who are called to be faithful; the Lord is the first to commit his fidelity to both of you, especially in this difficult situation. This is a privileged moment to turn your aching heart to Our Lord. Cling to the divine Bridegroom, who is on the cross giving his life for you and for your husband, for your marriage. Stay close to the Blessed Virgin Mary, too.

For more reading, check out the materials of Gregory Popcak).

I hope some of this helps. Count on being included in one of my Mass intentions.

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