How Splitting Up Brought Them Together

BALTIMORE — Steve and Terrie Nelson, high-school sweethearts, never planned to “live in sin.”

They grew up in the same Baltimore parish, St. Thomas More, dated as high-school seniors and all through college, even though their colleges were in different states. After graduation, they moved back with their parents and plunged into their new careers — Terry in nursing and Steve in computers.

But after several months, things changed. Steve, stressed with living at home, wanted his own place but needed a roommate to share expenses. Terrie, fed up with the roommate scene since college, suggested they move in together. Steve agreed. They rented an apartment and thus joined the more than 4 million couples (according to the Census) who cohabit, that is, live together in a sexual relationship outside of marriage.

“It was mostly for convenience,” admits Steve. “We'd do things differently now that we know better. But at the time, it seemed like the normal thing to do, almost like another stage in our relationship. These days, most people live together before marriage, even many Catholic couples. Why not us?”

A Compassionate Pastor

But a funny thing happened on the way to the wedding. They went to their parish to register for the sacrament of marriage and the deacon helping them fill out forms, Tom Mann, noticed they lived at the same address.

Mann, well aware of the sensitive pastoral issues involved with marrying a cohabiting couple, brought their situation to the attention of the pastor, Msgr. Victor Galeone. The monsignor, known to parishioners as Father Vic, had recently finished a set of parish guidelines for cohabiting couples seeking marriage.

“Cohabiting is far from harmless,” Father Vic, who is also director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, told the Register.

“Did you know that sociological studies show that living together before marriage increases the risk of divorce — by as much as 50%? Former cohabiters have higher levels of conflict, abuse and violence, plus overall lower levels of happiness.”

He called cohabitation “training for divorce.”

In his church, cohabiting couples who continue to live together must get married “in a small, quiet ceremony without flowers, music or gowns. Marriage is a couple's natural and canonical right, but unless they separate and live apart, there'll be no big traditional wedding. The big wedding would be a false sign.”

When Deacon Mann broke the news to Terrie and Steve, Terrie cried. Mann explained not only the sinful nature of cohabitation, but also its grave sociological risks. The couple said they needed time to think. They left the deacon's office in stunned silence, carrying some literature about the dangers of cohabitation.

Cohabitation's Cheerleaders

There are those who disagree with Father Vic's and Deacon Mann's position — and, indeed, with the magisterium's — that cohabitation is intrinsically harmful.

Secular marriage specialists often claim cohabitation can be, and often is, helpful. In fact, they say, with the 50% divorce rate, it's a popular assumption that a “trial marriage” makes good sense.

So says Marshall Miller, who founded the national non-profit organization called the Alternatives to Marriage Project with his domestic partner, Dorian Solot. Their organization is located in Massachusetts.

“The vast majority of couples we've talked to,” says Miller, “say that cohabitation was a really smart decision for them, for any number of reasons, including financial. … Living with someone is a way of getting to know what they are really like.”

They did acknowledge that the research is against them, saying, “Research shows that those who choose not to live together first tend to have more conservative views and are less likely to see divorce as an option. Therefore, that group has a lower divorce rate as a result of their values, not because they didn't live together.”

Other marriage specialists hold that good marital communication skills are more important than whether or not the couple cohabits. Diane Sollee, LSW, founder and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couple Education in Washington, D.C., wouldn't see a need to advise a cohabiting couple to separate.

“They won't learn the necessary skills by being apart.”

Father Vic, in response, says: “These positions evade the real issues. These experts are putting the cart before the horse. The reality is that sexual communications preempt, forestall and overshadow the development of solid verbal skills.”

After their meeting with Deacon Mann, Steve and Terrie talked, worried, wrestled with their consciences, and went over and over the literature he'd given them.

They surfed the Web and read recent sociological studies from several major secular universities, including “The Marriage Project” from Rutgers in New Jersey.

The findings were dismal. Cohabiters who married had substantially more divorce, instability, conflict, violence — and the women and children were always on the losing end.

The Rutgers' researchers concluded, “Living together is not a good way to prepare for marriage or to avoid divorce.”

It was an emotional time, remembers Terrie. “It's a shock when you realize you're doing wrong, especially when you didn't think you were. I was brought up Catholic. I must have known cohabiting was wrong, but I guess I thought the rules didn't apply to me, not at age 24 anyway.”

It was the scholarly evidence that initially convinced Steve and Terrie; then prayer and Scripture study converted their hearts. Love for each other and the desire to help each other do the right thing made them separate and put their sexual relationship on hold.

Terrie moved back into her parents' home.

“It was hard,” she remembers. “Really hard.” Steve stayed at the apartment and the couple scooted their wedding date forward to May. They spent five months living separately, going through marriage preparation, material on marital communication skills and a PreCana weekend. They reflected, thought and dialogued more deeply than they'd ever done before, and explored their understanding of commitment, covenant and sacramental marriage.

“We ended up being glad we separated,” says Steve. “Because it was during that time that we really became best friends and learned to be intimate in non-sexual ways.”

They also discovered and fell in love with the Catholic view of sexuality and the necessity of marriage. Currently, they are natural family planning.

Dr. James Healy, Director of the Center for Family Ministry in the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., and author of the Couple's Handbook for cohabiting couples, explains that sexuality is a created gift and a spiritual mystery:

“The Catholic community believes that persons who give themselves sexually to each other are offering not just an action, but the totality of their very lives. Ultimately, their dignity and honor as human persons can only be protected in a relationship that intends to be permanent, faithful and open to life.”

Five Months Later

After a slow start, the five months seem to fly by. Then on May 26, 1990, Deacon Mann heard Steve and Terrie's exchange of vows and Father Vic celebrated their nuptial Mass in a fine traditional Catholic wedding, complete with all the lace and flowers and beautiful trappings.

But for the deacon, the priest, and Steve and Terrie Nelson, this wedding day was first and foremost a monumental spiritual event — the joining of man and woman in holy matrimony, irrevocably and completely.

Una McManus writes from Columbia, Maryland.