A longtime South Carolina pastor, Eddie Leopard, and his wife, Dawn, have launched a ministry devoted to helping couples who love each other to “learn to like each other” again.
The Leopards noted they’ve heard some spouses say, “I love him or her, but I just don’t like them,” Dawn explained. “Well, at some point you had to have, because you wouldn’t have gotten married if you didn’t like each other.
“Sometimes it’s just helping them revisit that time, going back a little bit,” she added. “We tell young couples, especially when they get married, that you bring so much of yourself to this puzzle, and you each have these puzzle pieces but [now] you’ve got to find a new puzzle.”
Now in the “empty nest” phase of their lives, the Leopards have had to do that again themselves, Dawn admitted.
“We’ve had to find some new things that we both enjoy together.”
“Some folks go through their marriage pouring all the time into kids or their job, and I get that,” Eddie noted. “And then the kids leave and you look at one another and say, ‘Well, who are you?’”
The couple says it hasn’t been that way for them.
“We enjoy doing the same things. And it’s like we are good friends, best friends, soulmates — we enjoy being together,” he said.
That’s what the Leopards hope they can help other couples rediscover.
Together, Eddie, who retired last month from Fairview Baptist Church, Greer, South Carolina, after nearly 10 years, and Dawn, who has her own business, founded Leopard Home Base Ministries, which focuses on family health, offering marriage and parenting conferences and retreats.
And they’ve co-written a book, “Home Base Marriage: Essentials for a Healthy Marriage That Will Last Through the Generations.” In it they take turns sharing life experiences and offering practical, biblically based advice to help couples build a more solid, fulfilling and mutually supportive relationship.
“There are a lot of challenges [that can interfere with marriage],” Eddie acknowledged, “especially if you throw in a few children and busy work schedules and other things — health issues, family issues, in-law issues, parenting issues. But it’s so vital to prioritize your marriage.
“We’ve tried to do that through the years, and we encourage couples to do it,” he added. “You’ve got to make time for your marriage, whether that’s a date night or a date lunch, just doing those things that help keep a marriage fresh.”
“Think about what you want things to look like 40 years down the road, when the kids are gone,” Dawn suggested. “We knew we wanted to actually like each other, be friends and still know each other. So we just poured ourselves into doing a lot of things with one another and keeping our relationship primary.”
She suggested couples go back to the little things to rekindle their relationship. Adapting a popular book title, she reminds couples that “everything we ever needed to know we learned in kindergarten — how you talk to people, you learn to share, you learn to take your turn, just the way you treat one another.”
Practical courtesies are important, especially in a marriage, Dawn said.
“Sometimes we get married, and then somehow we just leave those things aside. We forget our ‘thank-yous’ and our ‘pleases’ and things like that — but showing respect for each other is really important.
“It’s like sometimes we treat other people so much better than those people who are under our own roof — and we should treat everybody well — but those people take priority.”
Rather than being like a turtle and crawling back into a shell, “be really quick to deal with your issues,” Dawn encouraged. “It’s a lot easier when you’re dealing with it when it’s fresh and new, than to keep sweeping things under the rug and thinking they’ll go away.”
Many people struggle to deal with conflict in a healthy way, “because we’re all selfish to one degree or another,” Eddie said, acknowledging it can sometimes be difficult “to put your spouse’s needs first, to put their desires first, to put their interests first.”
Little things, though, often make a big difference in maintaining a healthy relationship, Dawn noted, something as simple as holding hands.
“I’m a big hand-holder. Whether we’re sitting there watching TV, or we’re walking across the parking lot, there’s just something about connecting with each other in that way that says, ‘We’re together. We’re a team.’ ”
Another little thing the Leopards suggest is continuing to “date one another,” even after having children.
“You don’t have to have a lot of money. You can date at home,” Dawn said. “We put our kids to bed early so that we had the evenings to ourselves — that was kind of our way to connect, to stay in touch with each other.”
“In ministry life, in any life, it can get so busy and circumstances can be such that you might miss that date night,” Eddie acknowledged. “Maybe things are happening in your family, in your business and just in life in general, that will demand your time and attention — but hopefully the next week or the next month, you’ll be able to get back on track and reprioritize.”
‘Maintaining a strong foundation’
Most important for a healthy marriage is beginning with and maintaining a strong foundation, the Leopards said.
“Our foundation has always been our faith,” Dawn explained. “We’re believers in Jesus, and we have been since we were young. We were raised that way. So I think we went into it knowing that this is for good. There’s no turning back. We’ve got to make this work.”
Having a strong community for support, like a church, also is essential.
“Having a community of people who uphold the sanctity of marriage, who are not going to let you get by with saying, ‘I’m just tired of it. I’m going to throw in the towel’ — that community is extremely important,” Dawn said.
Through their conferences, retreats and book, the Leopards want couples to have a sense of hope and encouragement.
“We don’t have it all together,” Eddie admitted. “We don’t have all the answers. Most of us know what to do. We just need to be encouraged to do it and to live it out.”