HAPPY COUPLE HIGHLIGHT:
Reverend Maressa Pendermon and Mellonee Rheams from Atlanta, Georgia
How long have you been together? How did you get together/meet? We have been together five years and we met at church (Unity Fellowship Church of Atlanta).
What would you say is the key to the success of your relationship? Friendship and open, honest communication. It also helps that we enjoy so many of the same things.
Many couples talk about the importance of honest communication. What helps you to have open, honest conversations?
Mellonee: We were good friends before we started dating and I think that developing a friendship first always helps. In my past relationships, I was not able to be myself. With her, I can be open and vulnerable. I know that she loves me in spite of it all, and I know that she is truly my friend.
How do you define friendship: Maressa: A friend is someone who knows all of me and still loves me anyway. A friend is someone that I am not afraid to be myself with. With a friend I don’t have to conform to rules or roles.
What things do you enjoy doing, and how does that support your connection? Maressa: We are both active in church, and we are supportive of each other’s participation in church. Mellonee: In my past relationships, I had to “fit church in”. I don’t have to do that with Maressa and that feels good. We both also love board games – Checkers, backgammon, etc. We even have travel sets, and we love just playing together. We enjoy each other.
Maressa: We like sports too. Mell did not know it when we started dating, but I am a huge basketball fan so we watch sports together. We also love to read together.
Mellonee: The first 3 years of our relationship, I commuted for work and we saw each other every other weekend. We made time to be together. We have not been as intentional about planning time together lately. But we do date night.
Maressa: We have to be more intentional about our time. We both like to have parties so we have to be stingier about the time we spend by ourselves and with our friends. We know it is time to reconnect based on the quality of our conversations. If our conversations are centered on superficial things, we know we need to connect. If we are not talking about our dreams, visions, and our thoughts we know that we are not in sync. Sometimes we are like ships passing in the night and then we know it is time to connect.
Mellonee: She knows me. She knows when my mind is troubled. She can sense when something is wrong. She knows when I need to talk and she allows me to be emotional and vulnerable.
How do you deal with and face challenges that might come up in your relationship? We talk about everything even when it is difficult. We have a commitment to be extra kind to one another when things are difficult. We are both more committed to resolving our conflicts in a mutually satisfying way, then we are to being "right."
Conflict management is a challenge. How do you resolve in a mutually satisfying way? What’s your process?
Maressa: Our processes are different. When I am in conflict, I need to step away, but my commitment is to always return to the conflict when I can’t have an adult conversation, I need time to step away or I will go into a shutdown mode. I need time to formulate my thoughts so that I can respond in a loving way. Mell and I allow each other space to be who we are in the moment. I think that is a function of our friendship. We don’t like to be at odds with each other. And, we are committed to get underneath the conflict to see what the issue is. Is it our backgrounds, triggers, etc.? We dig so that we not only understand what, but understand why.
Mellonee: I like to deal with conflict straight up. I like to deal with things right then so my stuff may not come out as loving all the time .Maressa likes to process so that everything she says is done with love. I am learning to be better at that.
What role does spirituality play in your relationship? It is huge! Our individual spiritual journeys dictate that we practice unconditional love with one another and in the world. And in order to do that within the relationship, we invoke God into everything we do, even into our times of intimacy, recognizing that God is already everywhere present.
How do you define unconditional love and how do you practice unconditional love?
Mellonee: I have been in relationships when I couldn’t say what I felt. For example, I couldn’t say anything if I thought an outfit wasn’t flattering. But with Maressa, I can. I can say what I mean and feel and we try to say things in a way that’s loving. For example, I may say that you are beautiful, but that dress does not flatter you.
Maressa: We don’t attack each other. We are really careful about our language. Once the words hit the air, you can’t take them back. We don’t like everything about each other, but we don’t allow those things to be big. We don’t sweat the small stuff.
Many people are challenged around spiritually and intimacy, how do you merge the two?
Mellonee: Our spiritual journeys are different. Maressa is very knowledgeable about the bible and the history of the bible. But sometimes I struggle with understanding some things. I had to tell her that I was intimidated by her and her knowledge. She is very patient and loving with me, and she never makes me feel bad about what I don’t know.
Maressa: Each of us has been on a spiritual journey, and we fully accept that we are creatures of God. The mainstream church wounded me by telling me that pleasure was bad. As a survivor of rape and incest, I had to re-claim my body. I had to re-claim pleasure and the meaning of touch. I know that there is divinity in pleasure. To be able to have a deep sexual connection with Mell, we had to be able to talk to each other. The more we have been able to talk, the more we are able to praise, pray and know that God is present even in our intimate times.
What do you mean by “reclaiming your body” and what was that process? Maressa: One of the ways being sexually abused affected me psychologically and spiritually is that it caused me to disassociate from my own body which meant that I no longer felt that it was mine so I didn’t take care of it nor did I take ownership of it or responsibility for it. Anyone who wanted access to my body was able to have access to it because in my mind, it didn’t even belong to me. I also went physically numb and really couldn’t feel sensations especially sensual ones. Thus, reclaiming my body was a process where I reintegrated myself back into my body and took ownership of it and responsibility for it. That included one on one psychotherapy to help me with the negative feelings I had about my body and the guilt and shame that I held in my body; intentional, non-sexual masturbation; and loving friends reminding me often that my body is beautiful. It took about 10-12 years for me to be fully comfortable with my body and all the ways that it responds to, craves and elicits touch.
Knowing her background, how did you show and/or participate in her healing journey? Mellonee: I tried to make her always feel safe- to let her know that I am safe ground. I always remind her that I love her. Maressa is the type of person that is very easy to love too. I don’t judge her or her past. As a result, she was able to let her guard down and let me love her. She was able to tell me what happened. It is important to know and understand the entire story so that you can be there for your partner.
Divinity of pleasure is a new concept to many. What does that mean? Maressa: Well, the concept is that “pleasure is divine” and for me that means that the experience of pleasure is an attribute of God. In other words, pleasure, in all the ways that we experience it, is meant to be completely enjoyed, which is the opposite message from what most of us have been given; especially those of us who have religious backgrounds. Sin, shame and guilt are always associated with pleasure. I want to proclaim that Pleasure is Divine and it comes from our inner most parts which is where I believe God’s breath resides in us.
What ways can partners provide support if their loved ones have had the same experiences? Mellonee: It is important to provide reassurance. I try to reassure her. You have to try to protect without overcompensating. You have to let her know that you are there for her. You have to realize anything can trigger a memory. Sometimes we are watching TV and I can tell that something triggered a memory for her. I had to realize that and try to reassure her when that happens. You can’t take flashbacks lightly. That is why it is so important to know the whole story. You also have to understand abuse and how it affects people. Everybody deals with abuse and pain differently. I had to be able to put myself in her shoes and try to “walk in” her experience. I tried to imagine what that experience must have been like for her. Being violated is serious and can’t be taken lightly. I had to let Maressa know that she could be open with me and be vulnerable with me. That is really important to let your partner know and feel.
I know that everybody’s healing journey is different. From your experience as a minister and a survivor, how can women start to heal and how can their relationships support the healing? Maressa: Based on my experience, healing can only begin when we ask ourselves: “Do I want to be made whole? And the genuine answer is YES! Once we truly desire wholeness, we will automatically place ourselves in healing situations and create opportunities for ourselves and others to heal. That’s the starting place. Then we must find other women who are in the healing process, which is continuous, and surround yourself with those women. Young, mid-age and older women who are in their healing process have much to teach and much to learn from you. Then I recommend writing or speaking for your life! By that I mean, journal either by writing or speaking what’s inside of you, outside. Relationships, both those that are romantic and those that are not can support your healing by allowing you to define healing for yourself and to carve out your own journey toward wholeness. Sometimes it will also mean loving her until she can fully love herself. Finally, never treat a woman in her healing process like something is “wrong” with her.
Given your experience, what role does sensuality and mutual attraction play in your relationship? It is very important. Five years later we remain attracted to and excited about one another. Our sensual selves show up all day long and not just as foreplay. For example: I find the way that she smiles at me or says bye or hello very sensual.
You mentioned your sexual selves showing up. Can you explain more?
Mellonee: Before we got together, I would daydream about what our kisses and love-making would be like. Prior to our relationship, my desire for sexual activity was limited. But Maressa was like a breath of fresh air. She brought life to me. Feelings that had been placed in a closet for a long time came out.
Maressa: Mell gives me sexual looks. She knows that I am not one of those girls that you just can move on at night. We flirt. We send texts. Mell is a natural flirt.
Mellonee: I am attracted to her lips. I can sit and day dream about kissing her lips all dayJ.
What tips would you give to other lesbian couples? Be intentional about being friends; communicate openly and honestly even when it's hard; spend quality time together, especially when you don't have a huge quantity of time; take your relationship seriously; enter the relationship whole and stay that way, never be reduced to someone else's other half and honor your individuality.
Enter the relationship whole and stay that way. Tell me more. Mellonee: When we started dating, I was broken. I couldn’t ask for affection, but I needed affection. One day, I asked her if I could I lay in her lap. She told me that I could do anything as long as it was done with love. That changed everything for me. We talked about that afterwards and it changed how I felt about me.
Maressa: I walked slowly and deliberately into love with Mell. It was a conscious decision to love her, and to allow her to love me. We make sure we stay whole by hanging out with our friends or by spending time alone. Sometimes, I need time alone to reconnect with myself. I stay in touch with me, not just Mel’s partner, but me. I have my prayer time alone. We make sure that we have sacred time alone. We both have rituals of talking to our mothers every day. That’s grounding for us. We grew up very differently and we teach each other about why we do what we do.
You mentioned that couples should declare their home a "no competition zone." Please explain?
Maressa: Mell is so incredibly supportive in everything. Early in our relationship, I decided to go to seminary. Mell said; “I got us until you are done” She never sweated me about anything and she always celebrated me. She always supported me around my life’s work. Whatever she wants to do, I always ask how I can support her. She’s my greatest cheerleader. She always encourages me in whatever I am doing. We do that for each other.
Mellonee: She encourages me too and she also reminds me that I can do all things. We re-assure and motivate each other. I am the luckiest person in the world
Why do you feel partners are reluctant to share their journeys? Maressa: People want to forget their journeys when they arrive. People are not comfortable with their issues and their past. But, you don’t know a person for real if you don’t know how people arrived to where they are now. People are always recovering and evolving. Couples should say “here are some things that I had to work on”. We tell people what our “deal breakers” are, but we don’t explain why. The journey is important. Share with your partner not just who you are today, but also share your journey to yourself. Mellonee: I am an open book. I will tell you my journey –good, bad or indifferent. Most of my friends are masculine identified, and they don’t know how to be vulnerable in their communication. I let them know that it is ok. Before, I never thought that I could openly express my insecurities, be true or be vulnerable. With her, I can.
What have your learned or about yourself in the partnership?
Mellonee: I have learned that I am lovable. Sometimes, I feel masculine. Sometimes, I feel feminine. With her, I can be both without judgment. I can just be myself. Before Maressa, I saw myself in dysfunctional relationships. I didn’t want that because I knew that I deserved something better. I have been able to say what those things are without any judgment. I can be in a relationship with Maressa for over 100 years.
Maressa: I have learned that I am lovable more than I believed was possible from other humans. In the past, I entered relationships believing that I was not enough of this, or too much of that. In my other relationships, there were many issues. I would lose myself in my relationships. I was cautious and secretly thought that they would not last. But Mell got busy telling me that I was amazing, wonderful, etc. and I was in a place on my journey where I could hear her. Mell was like my Mom, she said that “I am going to love you until you are able to fully love yourself.” I learned that I am lovable beyond belief.
When you look in her face, you feel what?
Mellonee: I feel like I am the luckiest person in the world. I feel with her I can do anything. I feel that she can do anything. Together, we can conquer it all. When we got together, my friends could tell that I was happy. There is never a moment when I look at her that I don’t see love.
Maressa: Mell has the best smile and when I look at her, I feel safe. I feel that nothing is too for hard me. I look at her and see God. She’s my safe place to fall. I create safe spaces for others, and now Mell has created that safe place for me.
What song describes your love?
Maressa: The Power of Love, by Luther Vandross
Mellonee: Because You Love Me, by Celine Dion
Thank you, Reverend Maressa and Mell, for sharing your love with us. We appreciate your time, energy and generosity in helping us CREATE LOVE!
(Interview conducted by SharRon Jamison)
Be sure to nurture YOUR LOVE at the Create Love! Conference on February 16th...More info.