Wedding-day kiss will be couple's first
By Gina Kim
Seattle Times staff reporter
Jill Merry and Adrian Burwell began dating last November. They got engaged in May. But the first time they kiss will be Aug. 16 — at the altar, in front of more than 600 people.
For the couple, who met at a Southern Baptist evangelical church in Renton, not kissing, not hugging and not having sex before they are married is an avowal of purity.
"We have all the same emotions everyone else does. We just decided to put guidelines to it," said Merry, 26, of Bellevue. "We knew that if we starting touching, things were going to start happening."
While it is unknown how many of the almost 2.5 million couples who get married in the United States each year set limits on the physical aspect of their relationship, it's not uncommon in the 350-member community of Trinity Baptist Church.
Pastor Richard Seim said he does extensive premarital counseling, involving eight sessions with every couple, and talks with them explicitly about the limits they are setting.
The vast majority of couples he marries — as many as four out of five, he said — have committed to do nothing physical besides kiss and hold hands before their weddings. About one-third kiss for the first time at the altar, he said. And when he gave his own daughter away at her wedding, he felt sure he was placing her hand into her husband-to-be's for the first time ever.
"We believe the Bible teaches that a person should remain sexually pure until marriage," said Seim, who, along with Burwell's father, will oversee next Saturday's wedding.
Whatever people's religious beliefs may be, the prenuptial path Merry and Burwell are taking certainly places them in a distinct minority.
The majority of Americans today are sexually active before they are married, and more than half of all couples live together before a first marriage, said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project, a research organization at Rutgers University focusing on trends related to marriage.
Whitehead is aware of efforts to emphasize chastity before marriage, although she hadn't heard of couples who refrain from kissing.
"I don't think it's strong enough to say it's a full-fledged movement, but there is a backlash among certain religious groups to return to traditional forms of courtship," she said.
Religious couples tend to stay married more often than nonreligious couples, she added.
"But whether they are actually happier or whether refraining from physical contact (before the wedding) would strengthen a marriage, we wouldn't know empirically by any research," she said.
"I think a sort of sociological commonplace is 'like marries like.' And on those major, important issues, when people agree, that is a good sign. Perhaps their religious commitment and the fact they agree on these questions that have to do with sex and kissing means they are quite compatible and in sync with each other."
Merry and Burwell certainly feel their faith has led them to each other and a common lifestyle.
Although they had been attending the same church for several years, Burwell, 28, wrote Merry a letter in November asking if he could get to know her better. He admits he didn't have strong feelings for her at the time, but he felt drawn to her.
"I did have some emotion for her, not a lot," said Burwell, who owns a custom-cabinet business in Maple Valley. "But I knew deep down that this was the person God wanted me to have."
They agreed to date, and they both admit the first month and a half was something of an effort.
"God just opened our hearts and we really began to fall in love," said Merry, who wears a silver cross around her neck and has "JESUS" written on block letters on her key chain. "It was January of this year that everything just exploded and just changed. And we were both filled with a deep sense of love for each other."
Burwell proposed. Merry accepted. But they still didn't kiss.
"The only lady I've kissed is my mom," said Burwell, whose father is a pastor. "To me, the first kiss is one of the most precious gifts I can give away, and it's something I'll only give my wife."
Merry hasn't kissed anyone, either, mostly as a result of seeing friends getting in and out of relationships, she said.
"I knew I didn't want to date around and give different parts of my heart to different guys," she said. "I just decided I wanted to save my first kiss for my wedding day."
They do hold hands. And their fingers are often interlaced during their premarital sessions with their pastor, associate pastor and counselor. But that's where their physical contact ends.
"Today, it's like everything's backwards. You start on the physical level and then you get to know each other on a deeper, emotional level," said Merry. "We wanted to get to know each other on the emotional level first. And the physical is just the icing on the cake."
All rules are off once they are married and living in the Renton home they've bought, they said. They just need to get past the first kiss at the wedding.
"My only concern is that it's going to be so wonderful, one of us is going to faint," said Burwell.