MY STORY

‘He lives up­stairs and I live down­stairs’

Fairlady - - CONTENTS -

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.’

As told to Liesl Robertson

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