Lisa Combest and James Hanson-Brown spoke about their marriage — and their divorce — at StoryCorps in Houston. "Our relationship really has helped me define unconditional love," Lisa says.
Lisa Combest and James Hanson-Brown spoke about their marriage — and their divorce — at StoryCorps in Houston. "Our relationship really has helped me define unconditional love," Lisa says. StoryCorps
After the marriage between James Hanson-Brown and Lisa Combest ended, something unusual happened: Their relationship deepened.
"We got married Jan. 11, 1986, and the minister who married us told me, 'You guys are the best-matched couple I've ever talked to,' " Lisa recalls. "But I guess we were in our marriage for about a year when I started thinking that something was wrong. Emotionally I was supported, but it was the physical side of things."
At the same time, James was trying to figure out what was going wrong, as well.
"I was looking at everyone else, going, 'Why aren't we like that?' " he says. "And one night, I had this realization and went: 'I'm gay.' And part of me was like, 'No this can't be — because I love Lisa.' "
James admits to being "terrified" by the implications of his realization.
"And East Texas ... that's definitely not the most wonderful place to come out, either," Lisa says.
"Yeah, East Texas is definitely not the San Francisco of the South," James says. "You know, my mother had suspected I was gay all my life, but she wasn't quite supportive. Her idea was that, you know, gays should be rounded up and put on their own little island and left to die."
"I remember when you told me that you were gay, I thought, 'Oh, is that all?' " Lisa says with a laugh.
"Actually, that's what you said ..." James starts to say.
"Yeah!" Lisa interrupts.
"... You said, 'Oh my God, is that all? I thought we were growing apart.' "
Not long after, the pair ended their marriage — but not their relationship.
"We've never really untangled our lives," James says.
"Our relationship really has helped me define unconditional love," Lisa says. "One of the things that I want to say to you is: Thank you for having the courage to be honest with yourself, and with me. Since then, you and I have both gone out and found relationships that are wonderful for us."
Both Lisa and James have remarried.
"Right after I had met Todd," Lisa tells James, "you said you wished that I would let myself feel love again, and to allow myself to be loved like I deserved. And so Todd owes you a debt of thanks, because that was when I realized that he was the guy that I wanted to marry. I remember just how thankful I was that you understood me that well."
"We are best friends. You have to have someone like that in your life that you can count on in any situation," James says, "and that you completely love and know that they completely love you.
"Just in this case, it doesn't happen to be my wife," he adds.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher.