For so many couples, true love is elusive. In our quests to find our Ms. Rights, we idolize and try to emulate the celebrity couples in the news who seem to have it all: a gorgeous family, true affection and respect, supportive in-laws, the real chance for a relationship that could outlast everything else. Until, of course, the messy breakup. It makes us wonder—how can the rest of us find true love and make it last?
Chrystal Turner and Sunny Walker might have the answer.
The Newark, NJ couple met two decades ago, and while love at first sight might be a slight exaggeration, the spark was immediate and undeniable. They celebrated more than 19 years together in 2010, first with a wedding ceremony, and then by renewing their vows among family and friends.
The journey to bliss wasn’t always easy, but their relationship is one we can all admire.
“We’ll never forget the day our eyes met,” remembers Chrystal, 40, a professional singer and director of a family-owned childcare center. They were both at a popular party in 1992, and “as Sunny passed me by, she gently touched my leg. We didn’t have time to talk just then, but our spirits connected immediately,” she says.
“I remember thinking she was the most attractive woman I had ever seen. I knew she was special,” recalls Sunny, 45, a salon owner. Despite the auspicious introduction, they didn’t manage to speak that night, or even exchange phone numbers.
About a year later, Chrystal found herself at another club, minding her own business, when a woman there began to harass her. Chrystal tried to fend her off, but the woman became more aggressive. Then, “out of the darkness came Sunny,” Chrystal says. Though they hadn’t laid eyes on each other in more than a year, “Sunny grabbed my hand and led me through the back exit of the club. We sat and talked in Washington Square Park until the sun rose.”
Because they were both in relationships with other people at the time, they chose to remain close friends. Their respective situations at home weren’t ideal—”on the brink of breakup”—and “we became the best of friends, all the while realizing that we were attracted to each other in a deeper way.” Perhaps inevitably, Chrystal and Sunny grew closer as their other girlfriends faded into the past.
Once again single, “we decided it would be fair to give ourselves a chance, and we did,” Chrystal says. “It’s been 19 years!”
Despite nearly two decades together, Chrystal and Sunny didn’t make their relationship “official.” New Jersey legalized civil unions for same-sex couples in 2006, but it wasn’t the right option for them. “The reason we’ve been together so long, without being legally married, is because we wanted to do it in the state we live in,” explains Sunny. “We didn’t just want a civil union. We wanted an actual legal marriage.”
Lawmakers introduced a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in New Jersey in 2009, but it failed to pass the state Senate during the waning days of Democratic Governor Jim Corzine’s administration, which supported the bill. With the inauguration of his Republican successor Chris Christie, who opposes marriage equality, hopes for legalizing it in the Garden State were dimmed.
With that political development in mind, Chrystal and Sunny had to find other options. They decided to travel to Sunny’s hometown of New Haven, Conn., and get married fair and square on March 8, 2010. “Because we’re very private people, we decided to do the technical part of the ceremony pretty much alone. Even after 19 years, we were a bit nervous!” Chrystal says. They had only one witness, Sunny’s cousin.
But after the marriage, they realized they wanted to share their experience with the world. Unbeknownst to Chrystal, Sunny had already started planning a fabulous ceremony, with all of their family and friends in attendance, in which they’d renew their vows together. Sunny set the date for Chrystal’s 40th birthday and kept the whole thing under wraps.
“I knew she was looking forward to her 40th, and I wanted to do something special for her,” Sunny says. “So I figured, why not do it among friends and family? The only way I could plan it without her knowing was to tell a chosen few whom I trusted wouldn’t tell her. It was hard, because she’s close with everyone! I thought someone would surely let it slip, but to my surprise, it was kept a secret until the end.”
Chrystal was stunned and elated when she arrived at the event. Sunny sported a powder-blue suit and dashing tie, while Chrystal wore a form-fitting black dress and stilettos. They exchanged rings while renewing their promises to each other, then Chrystal sang for the audience before the champagne corks popped. Members of both of their families celebrated: “We are very close to all our in-laws. The level of respect and understanding has grown tremendously throughout the years,” Chrystal says.
“Chrystal was already surprised about the [birthday] party, but the ceremony just took it over the top for her,” Sunny beams. “She blushed all night—and the honeymoon isn’t over yet!”
“I must admit, a public declaration of love empowers us to love each other whether we’re in the confines of our home or out in the world. Not only have we committed to each other, but we’ve promised to love each other until death do us part in the presence of family and friends,” Chrystal says. “Divorce is not an option!”
Chrystal and Sunny seem to have found the formula for happiness together that stands the test of time. “The secret, for us, is keeping all unhealthy people at bay,” Chrystal says. “We all make mistakes—and maybe even some pretty tough ones—but at the end of the day, we’re not going anywhere [without each other]. We also understand our places in this relationship—our needs and our desires—and we strive to take care of the things we both need first.”
And after the memorable vow-renewal ceremony, the community also knows they’re committed to being together. “For 19 years, no one has seen either of us with anyone else but each other. That is something to be very proud and grateful for,” Sunny says.
For this couple, marriage represents a lifelong commitment to love and shared joy. “Marriage is the greatest thing on this earth,” they say. “There’s nothing greater than declaring your love for someone in a legally binding way. It’s a gesture that surpasses all others. When you can be selfless enough to put your private, personal life into someone else’s hands, it shows the depth of your love.”
“We’re not a perfect couple,” Chrystal smiles, “but we strive to be. And that’s what counts.”