‘He lives upstairs and I live downstairs’
Helen and Michael, who live in Joburg, had been dating for eight years when they decided to make it official.
‘It’s the second time around for both of us,’ says Helen. ‘We had each been divorced for at least 10 years when we met and were very aware of the fact that if we were going to commit to each other, as we did, then it would have to be in a neutral space that both of us contributed to.’
Helen’s two daughters also had to be taken into consideration.
‘I have twin daughters and Michael doesn’t have children, so he didn’t want to feel as if he was invading my and the girls’ space,’ explains Helen. ‘One day he said, “Why don’t we build up?” So I said, “Yes, that’s a fantastic idea!” I really like my house; it just didn’t have enough room.’ Michael sold his house and they set about renovating Helen’s.
‘We configured it differently, but other than that it’s the same size on top as it is on the bottom.’
The downstairs section has three bedrooms, a lounge, a kitchen and a bathroom, and upstairs there’s a big office, a small lounge, a bedroom, a bathroom and a deck. The top area is Michael’s domain, the bottom Helen’s.
‘I don’t want it to sound like I’m the lodger in the attic,’ says Michael with a laugh. ‘I’ve got quite a lot of furniture that I didn’t want to lose or put into storage, and I would have been bringing it into a chock-a-block house. So this gave me an opportunity to keep some really nice pieces. Most importantly, I have space for my books and CDs.’
‘We have very different tastes in music,’ adds Helen. ‘He likes Pink Floyd and I like Abba. So he can play his music upstairs and I can play mine downstairs. He also listens to the radio all day – talk radio – which would drive me insane.’
Michael also owns a cat called Boy George, which Helen is allergic to.
‘That’s the main reason I don’t sleep upstairs – his cat literally sleeps right next to his face.
‘We don’t have to share cupboards – and we don’t share bathrooms either. And the best part is that I have my own dressing room,’ says Helen. ‘I don’t like people being around when I’m getting ready – that’s just an idiosyncrasy of mine.
‘Around the same time that we tied the knot, quite a few of my friends were getting married and moving in with men for the first time,’ says Helen. ‘And whenever that happened, the woman’s décor style dominated and the guy’s stuff got chucked out. A friend of ours always jokes that he had one chair left. I didn’t want that to happen with Michael.’
When it came to their taste in décor, Michael and Helen found themselves at odds.
‘There were a lot of arguments about that because we’re both very attached to our stuff,’ says Helen. The second storey now reflects Michael’s style, and the bottom level is to Helen’s taste.
‘I’ve got a lot of “antique-y” type stuff,’ says Michael, ‘which wouldn’t fit in with Helen’s more modern décor.’
‘A friend gave me a very good tip: get a good decorator in who can embrace the two styles,’ says Helen. ‘Upstairs is very different to downstairs but we have colour themes that run through the two that anchor them together,’ Michael says. ‘The upstairs really reflects me and the downstairs really reflects Helen.’
‘It’s important for people, especially the second time around, to create circumstances that work for them,’ says Helen. ‘Michael and I are both very independent and like having our own space. If we argue, he goes upstairs and I stay downstairs, and we give each other some space to cool off.’ Helen says they ‘top and tail’ the day together. ‘Generally the dogs bark at about 5am and one of us will let them in – he usually does. Then we have tea and coffee in bed, then go upstairs and meditate on the deck and watch the sun come up. After that, he’ll go to gym and I’ll go running.’
‘I work from home so I’m upstairs for most of the day,’ says Michael. ‘But when Helen gets home after work we spend time together – and that’s a special part of the day. So it gives us both enough space.’
‘We walk the dogs at about 5.30pm when I’m back from work and then have drinks on the deck at about six,’ says Helen. ‘We always eat together, and we take turns to cook. He probably does about 60 to 70% of the cooking because he likes it more.’
When they have friends over, they host together. ‘Unless I have book club or something, then he stays upstairs. Or the other way around: if he has some
friends over, I’ll do my own thing downstairs.’ The two also have very different sleeping habits. ‘I want to be in bed at about 9pm,’ says Helen. ‘And I sleep like a log. I close my eyes and I sleep for seven or eight hours. Michael doesn’t. He’s a restless sleeper. So sometimes in the morning both beds will have been used, but we might not wake up in the same one. I stay in my bed, but he moves around.’
While they’re happy with their arrangement, other people find it hard to comprehend, says Helen.
‘People’s reactions have been so interesting. They are all like, “Why?” and “How can you live like this?” People are stuck with that picture of what a relationship “should” look like, with the two and a half children, a white picket fence, a Golden Retriever and a garden. The only part of that we have is a Golden Retriever. The rest isn't part of the picture.
‘I get questions like: “Do you sleep separately?” and “Do you visit each other?” People are most curious about the sleeping arrangements; they’re puzzled that we don’t sleep in the same bed every night. But with all the sleeping problems people have nowadays, I think it’s going to become more and more common.’ Helen says she’s always done things differently. ‘We didn’t get married in the traditional sense; we had a commitment ceremony. For all intents and purposes it was a wedding – I call him my husband – but it wasn’t a legal thing. We are in each other’s wills and we set up a legal agreement, but it’s not formalised.
‘I generally don’t do things traditionally, and I don’t really worry about what other people think. But I think it’s important for people to share these stories. Women think you have to get married and have to have babies and have to do things a certain way. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy had a relationship but they always lived four doors apart.
‘Women are actually a lot more liberated in their forties because that is when they can create a portfolio life, a life that works for them. It might not work for your neighbour or your friend, but that’s okay.
‘Some of my friends are jealous of our arrangement – especially the older ones. The ones who have just got married and are settling down think it’s weird. But the ones who have been around the block get it.’
Their set-up isn’t as uncommon as you might think, says Helen.
‘I have a friend who lives in the same house as her ex-husband. She has a boyfriend and he has a girlfriend, and they’re bringing up their children like that. They’ve got two boys; one is in matric and the other is a bit younger, and that’s their arrangement until the kids finish school, because they want the boys to grow up with both parents. As long as it works for them, why not?’
‘Domesticity isn’t great for relationships. You get bogged down in the day-to-day admin: who’s taking the rubbish out and who’s paying the cleaning lady... The longer you can keep the magic alive the better.
‘A lot of people, especially ones with small children, are playing out that typical domestic movie. And it’s not a very sexy movie – it doesn’t matter who you’re married to.’ Are there any drawbacks? ‘For me there are only pros,’ says Helen. ‘We have the best of both worlds: we have independence and togetherness.’ Michael agrees wholeheartedly.
‘One gets used to living alone, so obviously there are compromises that need to happen when two people move in together, but we’re both respectful and that’s the key. I had an apartment in Cape Town and I had a full-time live-in domestic so it was like living in a hotel. Giving all of that up and having to consider and consult other people is a change, but I can’t say there’s any downside. It’s worked out better than I thought it would. I think a lot of people are envious!’ The two met in 2010 and hit it off right away.
‘We were introduced by a mutual friend,’ says Helen. ‘I knew almost immediately that this was it; it took him about a year. But then he got on board,’ she says with a laugh. Helen’s daughters were 13 at the time.
‘Introducing a new person into your life with teenagers in the house is not for the faint-hearted. That was also one of the reasons for not living together earlier. I knew we were going into one of the hardest periods – and I have two! I didn’t think we needed to add that unnecessary layer of drama to our lives.
‘My job is to raise those girls, and that isn’t necessarily Michael’s job. He’s very good with them. He never took over – he was always on the sidelines supporting us, but never in their face. They’re very fond of him. They call themselves Team Hook – they inevitably choose his side in arguments.
‘Michael was very aware of the fact that if he messed up his relationship with them then it would be a deal-breaker for me.
‘I basically brought my girls up on my own from when they were three; they’re 21 now. Michael came into our lives when they were 13. But before that, I’d made all the decisions. As a single mom you get used to doing everything yourself – you have to be the strong one and you have to carry everything, and it’s very hard.
‘I have a demanding, hectic career and when I come home and sit on the couch with Mike it’s like my soft landing space. I haven’t had that before. He has strong emotional intelligence and adds huge value in a relationship. He’s an amazing partner.’ The girls are now away at university. ‘They graduate at the end this year; I’m not sure what they’re going to do next year,’ says Helen. ‘They both have British passports so my wish for them is to travel and get some overseas work experience. But they know if they need to move home they’re more than welcome.’ She realises it might change the dynamic in the house, but isn’t too worried.
‘When everyone is in a routine, it all works well. But when they are still in their onesies at one in the afternoon, that doesn’t work so well. So we’ll see.’