“We say our wedding vows every morning,” Dan said, giving Helen a smile. “It’s just, we started one day committing our life to one another. That is part of our morning ritual.”
For the past 17 years, Dan and Helen, partners in a consulting firm and members of St. Pius X Parish in Wauwatosa, have met with engaged and married couples within the Milwaukee Archdiocese, showing – not teaching – how an intimate and loving marriage commitment isn’t as far-reaching as many may think, by presenting “Learning from Plan B.”
“We focus on kind of a parallel map, if you will, of contract and covenant,” Dan explained about their presentation, which they give together at various parishes three to four times a year. “And ‘Plan A’ and ‘Plan B,’ and how those things intermix because we can have a contract that would serve ‘Plan A’ very well, but when you get to ‘Plan B,’ you clearly need the covenant because a contract only covers that small list of things.” That covenant, according to Dan, is what holds their family together.
“‘Plan A’ is our plans,” Helen finished. “And ‘Plan B’ is reality with God involved.”
Their involvement within the archdiocese was not planned, according to Helen.
“We wanted to do something as a couple,” she said. “And one night, Randy Nohl (then archdiocesan director of adult and family) put on Meyers-Briggs (personality workshop), and after the end of the evening we went up to Randy and said, ‘You know, we don’t know if you can help us, but we’re looking for something to do as a couple,’ and he went, ‘Oh, have I got something for you!’”
Nohl, currently coordinator of the John Paul II Center, got them involved in the Engaged Enrichment program, which helps engaged couples explore the meaning of a committed, sacramental relationship and its strengths and limitations in a caring manner to deepen the future marriage relationship. Dan and Helen leapt at the opportunity and have remained involved for 17 years.
In addition to presentations, they work with couples in a one-on-one focus group. According to Dan, the advice they offer “is as little as possible.”
“Whether it’s the big group, or the face-to-face around our own table, we try to witness our own experiences and try and be open to what the experiences of couples we work with on,” he said. “And try and share with them the experiences of how we dealt with some pretty challenging issues.”
According to Dan and Helen, sharing a faith journey is a trip many couples mistakenly miss, as they testify from their own experience.
“We find that probably the most difficult part of our relationship is building up that spiritual intimacy,” Helen explained, adding she finds people are touched when they bare their souls and share their own journey.
Dan and Helen experienced vastly different childhoods. Dan was raised in a Catholic atmosphere, but never discovered a real connection to his faith, while Helen was brought up in a pre-Vatican II household and had a strong faith commitment. She was also sexually abused as a child, but she never discussed this period of her life with Dan until nearly a year after they had married.
“I know a lot of people who have gone through it – I have gone to retreats and stuff – and there is a lot of bitterness and anger at God,” she explained about the abuse. “And I bring it up just to say that that was not my experience. My experience was always … I felt his presence with me; that no matter what happened to me, I had safety in something greater than me. So I had this sense of a relationship (that) God kept me safe.”
After marrying Dan, she continued on this journey herself, attending Mass and receiving the Eucharist without him by her side.
“One day, for whatever reason, I just started telling Dan about how I felt about God and my relationship with God and I must have talked, well, I have no idea,” she laughed. “And he just sat and listened. Then I went into the kitchen to make tea and while I was at the stove, out of the corner of my eye I saw Dan come in, and when I looked up, he was crying.
“And he said, ‘Someday I hope I have some feeling of that same kind of relationship.’” She added, “That’s our time. That’s when our journey started.”
Sharing their marital experiences with other couples is a vocation and a ministry for Dan and Helen. Although they may make it look easy, Helen admitted it takes effort to open up to one another about who God is in their lives.
“When we do this with couples, once in a while we’ll have couples who have never talked about their faith. We say we’re not going to talk about religion; we’re going to talk about faith, your spirituality, and what your relationship is with God,” Helen said. “And we’ve had people in tears, going ‘I never knew you felt that way,’ because they never talked about it. It was the last thing they talked about.”
As soon-to-be empty nesters, Dan and Helen hope they can take the experiences they learned from raising their two daughters – Jessica, 19, and Rachel, 17, – and share them with others through a family-friendly presentation.
“It’s something that we find is very refreshing, very invigorating for our own relationship, because we have core things in our relationship,” Dan said, “Core experiences, core values, core beliefs. But we always try and keep our material relative to the experiences and dynamics of (our) life. So it really helps us to do this work because for us to tell about ‘Plan A’ and ‘Plan B’ and the covenant and contract, in the context of what happened 16 years ago, isn’t relative to anybody,” he added.
“I think one thing we’d like to branch out into is doing more with families, and not just married couples or engaged couples,” Helen said. “We’ve done some things in the past; we’d like to do some retreat things that involve the family, not just the parents, but actually work with families.”