Divorced Couple Are Committed to Family After He Comes Out as Gay: 'Our Love Is Different Now'

"It is still really easy to love each other," Jessica Turner says of her ex-husband Matthew

Last July, Jessica Turner's husband Matthew, a best-selling Christian children's book author, took to Instagram to share the "difficult news" that he was gay and that they were ending their 16-year marriage.

"Being gay isn't a new discovery for me," he wrote. "However, as someone who spent 30+ years in fundamentalist/evangelical churches, exploring God through conservative theologies, I lived many days overwhelmed by fear, shame, and self-hatred."

Jessica, 39, founder of The Mom Creative blog and an Instagram influencer, grieved the end of their union.

"We deeply loved each other," she tells PEOPLE in this week's Family issue, "and didn't want things to be different in terms of our family. But I wanted Matthew to be whole and happy."

The couple's three children — Elias, 13, Adeline 10, and Ezra, 6 — cried because their parents were divorcing and "because daddy was going to a different house," Matthew recalls of moving three-quarters of a mile away from their Nashville home.

Despite the feeling of their lives in limbo, the exes have remained best friends through a year of "uncertainty," as Matthew, 47, describes it. The children split their time between the two homes, yet have seen each parent seven days a week, with the clan gathering for meals, birthdays, holidays, Friday movie nights, and a Florida vacation.

turner family
Turner family.

"No matter who has the kids." says Jessica, "the other one is doing the soccer practices or making dinner."

And the year has been one of growth for the children, who "are incredible" amid the changes, says Matthew, : "They're strong and compassionate."

In June, the family received some extraordinarily good news: Matthew's new book, What Is God Like?, became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. Jessica and the kids surprised him with a celebratory giant lawn sign — and lots of hugs.

"It is still really easy to love each other," says Jessica. "That love is different now, but it's beautiful."

Their love quickly developed when they met in 2003. At the time, Jessica was in college at the University of Wisconsin and Matthew was the editor of CCM magazine, a Christian music publication. The pair connected over instant messenger when Jessica was coming to Nashville to intern at a record label.

"We just instantly hit it off," Jessica recalls.

The pair married in October 2004 even though Matthew had suspected he was possibly "not straight" since he was about 17. But growing up in a conservative, fundamentalist Baptist church, he was taught over and over again that God rejected homosexuality.

For more on the Turners' journey, pick up the Family Issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

"I just knew something was different," Matthew says. "I was very, very afraid. Lots of going to God and asking him to take these feelings away. Lots of guilt and shame and just this determination to stay on the straight and narrow."

"I lived with the idea that I just couldn't be gay," he continues. "I could not be gay. It was not acceptable."

Matthew says he only dated women and fell deeply in love with Jessica, never hesitating before going ahead with their marriage.

"There was not even a blink, I really didn't think about it," he says. "Jessica and I loved each other and I believed she was the one for me. There were so many parts of our stories that fit together like puzzles and it just worked."

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But two or three years ago, Matthew "wasn't happy," he says. "I just wasn't myself." Jessica, meanwhile, felt "something seemed off — Matthew just seemed depressed and distant."

The pair entered marriage counseling, and in the summer of 2019, Matthew revealed he was possibly bisexual, sharing a few months later that he was gay: "I mean, she flat out asked me, 'I want to know, are you…'"

The couple kept the revelation private and tried to make the marriage work.

"When he said he was gay, I was like, 'Okay. Can't we still be married?'" says Jessica.

In the end, the couple found it too difficult.

"We would be good for a while and it seemed like it was going to work, and then he was bad again and in that fog and disconnected," Jessica says. "And I was crying all the time. I would cry every day driving to work."

Matthew credits Jessica's unwavering support for their continued bond and his bravery to come out — including a most difficult conversation he had with his conservative Baptist parents and family members.

"I joke that if you're going to get divorced, your spouse being gay is the best reason, because there wasn't this big long affair or we hated each other or anything like that," Jessica says of her continued support.

"Certainly I've had moments of frustration and resentment — I think that's a healthy, normal part of grief," she adds. "I think because our marriage ended from a place where we just still deeply cared for each other, the idea that you can still love one another even after a marriage has ended is something that's powerful."

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