How we stay together: "From a pragmatic point of view, we’ve got to make it work'
Names: Sarah and Mark Stewart
Years together: 39
Occupations: Public servants
Years together: 39
Occupations: Public servants
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly isn’t usually considered a romantic film, but for Sarah and husband Mark Stewart, it worked a treat. It’s also a handy analogy for the many ups and downs they’ve faced in their almost 40 years together, and yet they’re still going strong.
The British-born couple met in Salisbury when they were both 18 years old and Sarah was a student nurse. One night, she and her friends met a group of “likely lads”, including Mark, at the pub. “I fancied him like mad, he was yummy,” she says. Mark was out with the boys, “smashed” and somewhat oblivious, but Sarah was smitten.
Every night for the next fortnight she dragged her friends around all the local pubs in the hope of running into Mark. One night she bumped into him. He was out with friends and they all ended up back at someone’s house to watch that fateful Clint Eastwood western. “And he gave me this really lovely kiss and that was it, I had my hooks into him,” she says today with a laugh.
The two were soon spending much of their time together. Sarah was madly in love with Mark, who was her first real boyfriend, although she had “a bit of a meltdown” at one point. She’d been brought up in a strict Christian family where sex before marriage, especially with someone who wasn’t religious, was frowned upon.
They split up for about a fortnight but were soon reunited. Sarah remembers wondering whether she could live with him and any of his annoying habits. “It comes back to that [question] if I feel like I need to change him, then he’s not the right one for me. I never felt that.” It still holds true, she says. “All the usual stuff like leaving the loo seat up or the wet towels on the floor … but he’s got way more stuff that I love about him.”
For Mark, it was simpler. “I never ever thought ‘what is love’, ‘am I in love?’ I think it was about enjoying being together ... and with Sarah we were always doing things,” he says. “It was always about us and our friendship and enjoying life.”
But it wasn’t an easy start. The two are from very different backgrounds: Mark was a kid from a council estate with working-class parents and Sarah’s middle-class Christian parents did not approve. When Mark asked her parents if he could marry Sarah, they resisted. What should have been a happy day didn’t end well, but it did help Sarah make a decision.“I had this epiphany that if I wanted to be happy with Mark – and Mark was who I wanted to be with – we’d just have to forge our own path.”
They moved in together instead, and a few years later got married at a local registry office. Although both sets of parents came along, it was only when the couple’s first child arrived that the family reconciled.
In 1996, the couple moved to New Zealand with their two children, then aged six and eight. It was a “huge” decision, which they didn’t realise until they arrived. They settled in Gisborne, an isolated town in the North Island, planning to stay for a few years and see how things worked out. Then the New Zealand currency crashed and their savings halved, meaning a return to the UK was unlikely.
Things became more difficult when they decided to move to Dunedin. While they tried to sell their Gisborne home, they rented in Dunedin. Mark was at his wits’ end. “It was like we were burning money in the garden and in the end we were living off the credit card. The credit card was getting more and more near to maxing out and we just didn’t have anything,” he says.
“At one time I remember that I said I’m going to move back to England. If I had enough money on the credit card, I would’ve gone back to England but we didn’t. It was like, what do we do? I could’ve asked my mother for money but they couldn’t have afforded it, it would’ve been deserting Sarah and the kids. [It was] like you’re on the roof of your house and your house is on fire, what do you do?”
He ended up juggling three part-time jobs to make ends meet. Eventually they sold their Gisborne home and completed their move to Dunedin. They stuck together during those tough times, says Sarah, sometimes for quite practical reasons.
“People say to us ‘how do you stay together?’ and I make a joke of it and say we can’t afford to get divorced. When you sit down and look at finances – this isn’t very romantic – but the reality is we couldn’t afford it,” she says. “From a pragmatic point of view, we’ve got to make it work.”
Family stability was also important to them. “One of the things that kept us together was providing a home for the children,” says Sarah of the times in Dunedin. “One of the things I’ve been very conscious of, all their friends were split up and their families were split up. You’d hear these terrible stories of the kids staying with one parent one day and another the next. I know in some circumstances that is the best thing but we always wanted to provide a good home and be role models for our kids.”
Although they have their differences, their principles are the same. “We were very opposite in all sorts of things, politics, religion, we had some very different values and even now we have different opinions,” says Sarah. “But the shared values around working hard, being authentic, being true to ourselves, providing a stable home for our kids, saving up and owning our own home, those things were core to us.”
They’ve figured out how to deal with their differences. “We’ve got to the point where we either know [not to] talk about it because we’ll have a row or we’ve moved … We haven’t ever tried to change each other but we’ve moved together as we’ve become more similar and have similar ideas and thoughts.”
The couple were tested again in 2012 when Sarah was made redundant and then headhunted for a job in Canberra. Mark was renovating their Dunedin home and reluctant to move again without the security of a job to go to. For two years, they commuted back and forth, with Sarah eventually weighing up the difference between quitting her much loved job and splitting up with Mark. Fortunately Mark found a job in 2014 and joined the family in Canberra.
Although the couple have been through plenty, they consider themselves fortunate. Their commitment to each other has kept them together. Sarah hates the cliche of being the other half of one another, but they’ve been together for so long it’s almost true. However, it does make her worry about the future. “When you’ve lived together for that long and then that one person dies, it’s scary.”
For now, they’re enjoying their lives together in Canberra. Their children are adults – although both have recently moved back into their parents’ small apartment for the interim. “They’re boomerang kids,” they both say with a laugh, with Sarah adding “which is one of the reasons why we’ve just gone away for a week”
When it comes to staying together, sometimes the cliches are true. “It’s humour, Mark makes me laugh all the time. Having separate interests so we still do our own thing but also do things together,” says Sarah. “And we’re best mates, that’s really important.”