“I don’t think I love you. I made a mistake. We shouldn’t have gotten married!” These were Lisa’s words to me, not after a big fight, or during the break down in our marriage a few years ago, but the morning of our first full day in Hawaii on our honeymoon. We were off to a strong start! For some reason, I wasn’t threatened or scared. I knew people freak out after getting married. My response? “Don’t worry Babe, everything will be fine. Let’s get breakfast and go snorkeling.” People don’t talk about their marriages much, but these are the real moments that happen between two people as they bring their lives together.
This summer Lisa and I will celebrate our 20-year wedding anniversary. When we got married twenty years ago, we were in love and couldn’t wait to start our lives together. We knew no one in the history of the world had ever been in love like us. We had intense feelings, deep faith in Jesus, and the community of the Church all in our favor. Our relationship would stand as an example of love and commitment to all around us.
Three years ago, all those hopes and dreams seemed to shatter when we sat in a therapists office and Lisa, struggling to even look at me, said four painful words, “I want to separate.” It was an intense time and my world was crumbling around me. I had no words of reassurance or confidence things would work out. I was scared.
This came in the midst of a long struggle with depression, an internal sense that nothing I do is good enough, and an all or nothing approach to many areas of my life driven by perfectionism. Lisa had told me a year earlier if something didn’t change, she didn’t know what would happen. In response I went on a week-long intensive therapy retreat in Nashville followed by a year of therapy—including a few months of couples counseling. Between therapy, my depression, and an intense period as CEO of our business Lisa Leonard Designs, I was in a dark place during these days. Even though we had had many hard conversations during this time, I was shocked and caught off guard by what Lisa was telling me.
We decided together Lisa would get away to spend time with her sisters and get some time alone. She walked, I worked out at the gym. We both journaled about what we wanted. We were both scared and uncertain of where our relationship was headed. After those ten days, we spent a couple days together, even attended a Paul McCartney concert—nothing better than being on a date having Sir Paul serenade you with his silly love songs! Then we each went away to a week-long intensive therapy retreat. I went for my second experience, then Lisa went when I returned.
At this point I’ll reveal to you that I’m a sappy and sentimental person. I tend to keep little mementoes of special occasions—the wristband I wore for entry to a concert, a torn dollar bill signifying a close friendship, a sticky note where Lisa professed her love. I think Paul McCartney is my favorite Beatle because his love songs hold nothing back. I’m a romantic who loves the idea of love. As a pastor I loved standing with a couple performing their wedding, getting to see every tear, every longing look, every unspoken inside joke between the couple.
When I asked Lisa to marry me I bought new pants for the occasion (a tip off to her when I showed up at the door!) and drove 45 minutes to pick her up for the dinner that was close to my house. I told her it was a symbol that I would got any distance for her.
And, 20 years into marriage, I have come face to face with the reality that real love between two people is not a love song. Two people with hurts and insecurities come together seeking to give and receive love. Often, even unknowingly, we look to one another to heal our hurts and patch our broken parts. Romantic love is a beautiful thing, but no matter how much we may wish it would, it can’t save us.
I have discovered, through the breakdown of our marriage, each of us has to take responsibility for our own healing and wholeness. Most problems in our marriages are not with our partner, but with us (yes, there are exceptions). As a Christian, I believe Jesus healing work in the world is the healing of our hurts and carried shame. The good news talked in the Bible is about restoring ruptured relationships—with God, others and ourselves. We are made in God’s image and through healing, we learn to see that image in ourselves and others. This healing requires faith, hard work, and a deep desire to grow and change.
As Valentine’s Day approaches, I celebrate the love Lisa and I have together. It is a love that has endured having a child with special needs, the pressures of pastoral ministry, running a business together, long-term depression and a break down. It is a love characterized by friendship and trust. A love where we tell each other the hard things and we prop each other when we’re down. It is a love forged, like fine metal, through the crucible of trials difficult times.
One way Lisa and I work on our relationship is to ask how we can be a better partner. We share and listen—even when it’s hard. As you celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, think about how you can be a better partner. Ask your partner to share with you a growth area. Share something vulnerable. Love requires sacrifice, courage, strength and willingness to change. May you and your beloved grow closer this year!