Love Is Brave

“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!

5 thoughts on “Love Is Brave

  1. Julie

    Thank you so much for sharing this. While your marriage is obviously very special, it is also reflective of so many of the challenges and struggles that most married couples face, even if those struggles look different from person to person. It is reassuring to read of other couples who continue to work hard at the things that make marriage both difficult and extremely rewarding. We are about to hit 35 years and we are still learning how to be married!

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  2. Elizabeth

    Wow! A story of God’s faithfulness. You are right, people don’t talk much about their own marriages and it’s a shame because it is normal to walk through valleys. Thank you for opening up and sharing. This is helping more people than you know.

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  3. Anonymous

    There is no room for perfection or it’s black or white in relation to our relationships. All or nothing leaves no room for negotiation, compromise or growth. Concession does not equal compromise. One cannot keep themselves authentic and whole through repeated concessions and feelings of inadequacy as a partner. Unconditional love, acceptance, admiration and affirmation is what we all need. Brave Love.

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  4. Mark Henson

    Stephen,

    Thanks for writing this and being so vulnerable. I have been in a similar place in my own life and marriage — including the depression and the shocking reality that my wife thought she wanted out about a year and half ago.

    A year ago I took off my wedding ring. I looked at it one day and it just didn’t look right anymore. I realized that my marriage was over. Even though we were still sleeping in the same bed, the marriage we had experienced to that point was done. Unrecoverable.

    As painful as that realization was, it was the turning point I needed. And taking off my ring was a symbol to myself that I needed to let go of everything I had been desperately trying to hold on to.

    I’ve never prayed more in my life than I did during that time. All I ever asked was for wisdom and clear direction for the next step in my/our journey. Just the next step, that’s all. I got the same answer every single time: Just…Stay. I was hoping for a promise that it would get better, easier, smoother. It did. Then it didn’t. Then it did. Then it didn’t. Roller coaster. “Just Stay.” Roller coaster. “Just Stay.”

    She’s still here. So am I. We’re 30 years into this partnership now. It’s still a roller coaster of love and doubt and passion and pain. It’s so far from perfect it’s almost laughable sometimes. I, too, have done a boatload of counseling, and we are in counseling together. The irony is that when I try to fix or control or “positively influence” my marriage it seems to backfire. When I Just Stay, allow myself to experience my feelings, and speak my truth, it goes much better.

    And all of this is why I purchased the Withstand Ring. I call my old wedding band the ring from my “first marriage” even though I’m still married to the same woman. It was gold, and perfectly round, smooth, and polished. Which is why it no longer “fit” my marriage. Marriage, as it turns out, is NOT perfect, smooth, and polished. It’s imperfect and full of dents, dings, scratches, and scars.

    Ever since I took off my old ring, I have been looking for a new ring that represents what marriage actually is, not the crazy ideal that we impossibly try to live up to. It took me over a year to find it. I know now that it took so long to find the ring because I wasn’t ready to step back fully into my marriage. I didn’t wan’t to open myself up to being hurt so badly ever again. But as my counselor says, “hearts don’t break closed, they break open for a reason.” My heart is open(ing) again and I recently told my wife, “I want to wear a wedding ring again.”

    I found the Withstand ring a few days later. Can’t wait to receive it, wear it, and continue to Just Stay. Hopefully for the rest of my life.

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