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It must be love...

As Valentine's Day approaches we explore what love really means as three well-known local women open up about their own relationships and their path to true love. Here they tell Karen Ireland how they met and fell in love with their partners and share their secrets to happiness together

By Karen Ireland

Leisa Stafford (48), award-winning hairdresser and stylist to the stars, is married to Paul (48). They run their salon together and live in Belfast with their two girls, Joni (15) and Ava (14).

Fate brought a young Leisa Stafford into contact with her future husband when as young clubbers at just 18 they were introduced by a mutual friend. The young couple hit it off, so much so that when Paul, who was from the Republic of Ireland was offered a hairdressing job in the province, he took it for granted he could live with Leisa.

"He just assumed he could move in with me. It was never discussed, he just brought his stuff and stayed over," she recalls and jokes. "We couldn't tell my mum Patsy until we were 21, as we were worried she would go mad. She loved Paul from the beginning and thought he was quirky, but we knew she wouldn't approve of us living together."

An art student at the time, Leisa decided to also try a career in hairdressing and went for an interview with a top salon in Belfast.

"I went for an interview and Paul insisted on coming with me. He was fully qualified and they got more interested in Paul because of his qualification and because he was so creative. In the end they took us both on and we have been working together ever since."

Leisa reveals that the couple did have a break about seven years into their relationship, when she wanted to go to London to work and it was something she felt she had to do.

"Paul was very supportive, but he followed me over and I missed him so much that we got back together again and have been together ever since," she reveals.

Despite living and working together all the time, Leisa says that the greatest gift Paul has always given her is space.

"One of the things I love most about Paul is he always gives me time to be on my own - while we have been together a long time and we work together, we have lives away from each other and do separate things. He's never stopped me when I wanted to go out with my girlfriends and be a real party animal. He was okay with that. We have always had our own friends outside of our relationship."

Happy to be together and grow the Stafford name and business, Leisa says that the couple never really wanted to get married or start a family.

"We were together for years and had no desire to get married or have children. I was never maternal until we turned 30 and then something just changed in me.

"I knew then I wanted a family and I told Paul I wanted to get married first. We decided we didn't want to do the whole big white wedding thing so we went off to New York to get married, just the two of us, and along the way picked up two people to be witnesses.

"We then had a big party when we came home."

Leisa explains more about the dynamics of the couple's relationship,

"Paul is one of the most genuine people I know. Family is so important to him and I love that. Even before we had the girls we always had dogs and that was our wee family," she says.

"We have four dogs at the minute so the house is a bit mad. The girls are Paul's world and he loves nothing more than when the four of us go out for dinner and we get to catch up with them and find out what is going on in their lives."

As a busy working mum of two with a salon and hair shows to organise and attend, Leisa says she has taken a step back this year.

"This year I decided not to travel and do the big hair shows in the US. Paul will be away for most of March and later in the year.

"I decided as this is Joni's GCSE year I wanted to be at home to keep things stable. The girls need me at home and I am happy for Paul to do the shows which he loves."

As to the secrets of their success all these years later, Leisa reveals: "Paul and I do try to make time for each other which I think is really important in the busyness of today. We go to gigs or out for dinner or to the cinema.

"Paul is extremely disciplined and doesn't drink any more so we never have big nights out, but it is just nice to catch up with each other.

"We are at our happiest with warm coats on and out walking the dogs and having a chat and a hot chocolate at the end of it.

"One of the first things that attracted me to Paul is how generous he is. It drives me mad sometimes as he is too generous but then I remember that's why I fell in love with him.

"For Christmas and birthdays he spoils me rotten and he is so good at buying for me. He is a nightmare to buy for and I have to be more creative as he buys himself nice things that he wants. There is only so many scarves you can buy one person.

"I love Paul's thirst for knowledge. He is always reading and has a brilliant mind. He loves teaching others and gets so much satisfaction when people move on from us and open their own salons all over the world."

'We support each other and that’s what makes it work'

Andrea Montgomery (51) is artistic director with Terra Nova Theatre Company. She is married to singer/songwriter Anthony Toner (51) and they live in Belfast. Anthony has one daughter, Sian Ciarnes (31), from his first marriage.

If ever there was a true case of love at first sight it is Andrea Montgomery and Anthony Toner. A Canadian, living and working in London, Andrea applied for a job in a theatre in Coleraine, where Anthony was the local newspaper editor at the time.

"I saw a job advertised for the director of the Riverside Theatre Company in Coleraine," explains Andrea, who is now artistic director with Terra Nova Theatre Company.

"I came over and had an interview and got the job. On the day I arrived in the province to take up the post I was met by the chairman of the Theatre Company and he wanted to show me around Coleraine.

The first person we met was Anthony Toner, who was the editor of the Coleraine Chronicle at the time and I was told he would be an important person for me to know."

Little was Andrea to know just how important Anthony was to become in her life. The pair became firm friends and professional acquaintances.

"So Anthony was the first person I was introduced to when I moved over here. We were friends and knew each other on a professional level for about three and a half years," she says. "Anthony's first marriage broke down after that and everyone was rallying around him to make sure he was okay. I was obviously concerned about him.

"About six months later he asked me out for coffee and I said yes and quite quickly we became a couple and were serious about each other and just clicked. We moved in together after about a month and a half. It was just natural and what we both wanted."

According to Andrea, the couple knew from the beginning there was something serious about their relationship and they were meant to be together.

"From the offset I admired his talent and found Anthony an extremely honourable man. He was a wonderful father, which I found an endearing quality and from the start I had a really good relationship with Sian," she says. "She is so like her father it would be impossible for me not to love her."

Prior to the couple meeting Anthony had worked in newspapers for 25 years and had always loved words, but music was another passion. "Anthony always played music, but it was mainly covers. When we met he had just produced his first album, which he said was 'just to get it out of his system'," she says.

With encouragement from Andrea, Anthony started to produce more music and is today a successful singer-songwriter.

"His first album was wonderful and I encouraged Anthony to pursue his dream and work in music, as he was so talente," she says.

The couple got together in 2005 and in 2011 they married in a romantic ceremony in Quebec.

"It was important for me to get married at home among all my family and friends and a lot of our friends from here travelled over for the wedding. Nuala McKeever, one of our best friends, read a poem at the wedding.

"I wanted the ceremony to be in English and French so just as I was walking up the aisle Anthony had to learn to say 'I do' in French. Sian was our best man on the day and we had a day to remember. We got married in a woodland which my family had used and played in for over 50 years and we danced in the trees and then everyone jumped into the river and went for a swim."

According to Andrea the relationship works because she has huge respect for her husband. "He never gives up on anyone or anything. He always tries to see the best in everyone and in every situation. He looks out for me and takes care of me.

"He has a tremendous amount of compassion for people," she adds.

"Sian is a huge part of our lives and it could have been difficult for me coming into her life as her father's new partner, but she was exceptionally welcoming and very kind from the beginning.

"We like to joke that I am her evil stepmother. We are very close. I don't try to take the place of her own mother, but she knows I am there for her and she will come to me for a chat and advice about different things."

The couple have now been together for 12 years and Andrea attributes their success to a number of other factors.

"I think the success of our relationship is down to many things. I still get the wow factor when I see him walking down the street or across a room and think - I am going home with that man, and I love that feeling.

"I trust him completely and I know he has my back, which is so important.

"He respects me and respects my culture and understands and accepts that threads of my heart will always be in Canada. I gave up my family and friends and my life over there to make my life here with him and he completely understands that."

Andrea reveals that her new play deals with true love and is inspired in part by their story.

"My new play, Mi Mundo - My World - is about people marrying immigrants and the fact that the law changed in 2012 and to marry you now need to have £24,600 in your bank account to prove that you can support your spouse and children," she says.

"It tells the true story of what happened to a Northern Irish wife and her Peruvian husband and two children after the changes to the law. Anthony and I were lucky as I have a British grandfather, otherwise he would have had to have that amount of money to prove he could support me.

"The play is about falling in love and is inspired by one man's story and by Anthony and our story. He is so supportive of my work and will bring me hot food the night before a show is due to start a run, as he'll know I won't have eaten.

"He has a new album coming out called Ink which he will be launching at the Lyric Theatre in April. We love and support each other and are there for each other - that's what makes it work."

'At the end of our first date I knew there was going to be something very special between us'

Linzi Rooney (31), owner of Studio Souk, lives in Belfast with her partner Mark Graham (38), owner of Teddy Graham clothing. They have two children Macie (5) and Adeline (seven months).

Persistence was the key when it came to romancing Studio Souk owner Linzi Rooney. The business woman says when she first met her future husband Mark she wasn't exactly impressed.

"Mark and I met nine years ago when he came to ask my advice about doing an art exhibition. At the time he was doing pictures of paint-balled cows with print colours all over them. I politely told him maybe his work needed to be more focused. We had a coffee and that was it."

However, Linzi admits the pair later became friends, something which stood them in good stead over the coming years.

"After that first meeting we became friends and I saw Mark quite a bit. I always told my friends I would never go out with him as he was a bit of a rocket and not for me, but eventually he wore me down and seven years ago we found we were both single at the same time and he asked me to go and play pool in Laverys bar in Belfast.

"At the end of the date we came out and he kissed me outside of Laverys and I just knew there was going to be something special between us."

Linzi adds that the fact that the couple had been friends and knew each beforehand helped as they had a firm foundation and were starting off on a good foot.

"I love so many things about Mark. He is the most positive person I know. He is never grumpy or in a bad mood. He never gets worried or stressed out about things. People don't believe me when I say that about him, but it is true and one of the things that attracted me to him in the first place.

"He always looks for the solution and never focuses on the problem. I love that about him."

And on the busyness of maintaining a relationship with two businesses and a young family she adds: "I am busy with my business and now have 90 exhibitors in the Souk. It has grown so much and Mark is just about to open up a new clothing store so we have a lot going on, especially with two young children.

"This year we have made a promise that we will go away for a few days just to spend some time out and be adults. At home we are swapping over childcare or talking about the girls so much that we never get time to be just us. I love getting dressed up and going out for dinner or going to The Merchant hotel for cocktails. It is nice just to have some time together and I think that is so important to the success of a relationship."

And on the question of marriage she adds: "We aren't married yet, but Mark says if I stick him for 10 years then he will marry me.

"We have talked about it a lot and we would like to be married. We've just been busy with work and having children but it will happen.

"And when it does it will be very low-key not some big over the top affair. We don't need that.

"I think the secret to true love is being with your best friend. Mark and I are there to support each other. We enjoy each other's company and we make each other laugh.

"We are both very creative and understand each other's work."

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