How we stay together : ‘Find a way to love that thing you want to change’ | Life and style
Names: David and Chardi Christian
Years together: 51
Occupations: academic and author
“The first 45 years were the toughest,” says Chardi Christian with a laugh. “After that, there’s a point where it’s easier.”
Late last year the author and artist and her husband, Prof David Christian, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Now based in Sydney, the couple has lived all over the world but celebrated with “an ordinary day” at their favourite holiday cabin not far from Jamberoo – just the two of them. “And it was just perfect”, says Chardi.
It’s a world away from where they met. Chardi was born in the US, David in the UK, but they were both studying drama at Western Ontario university in Canada when they met in 1967. They were cast as the leads in a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, and just as in the play, ended up as a couple.
Chardi remembers David making an instant impression. “[I was] sitting there at this audition and I saw these two guys sitting down. And I saw the back of David and said to someone, ‘That’s the man I’m going to marry.’” He was similarly struck by her. “I was this classic, awkward, socially incompetent English person and [she was] a very outgoing American woman … So it was a pretty unlikely [match] but I think I thought Chardi was absolutely charismatic from the word go.”
Their wedding day, in 1969, was a series of misadventures. Two days before the scheduled date, the registry office asked if they could postpone the wedding because the judge was “moose hunting in Sault Ste Marie”. With overseas guests already en route, they refused and were told they’d have to marry in a church instead. Reluctantly they agreed, hoping to keep the religious aspects to a minimum. But on the day the minister suggested the visiting archbishop marry them. While the couple cringed, Chardi’s father was thrilled. “[He] said, ‘I asked God to do it right. But I didn’t think you’d bring an archbishop.’” To top it off, they’d dissuaded the organist from playing wedding music, but just as they exchanged vows, wedding bells rang out in the church. “We both broke out laughing,” says David. “And had a great party that night.”
Not long after that, the couple moved to the UK so David could get his PhD in Russian history at Oxford University. Struggling financially and knowing only a few people, it wasn’t a happy time. It took a toll on their relationship and they admit they don’t know how they made it through those years. “I think poverty helped, [having] a lack of choices,” says Chardi. “Our relationship was also a friendship – so that helped.”
During that time, they figured out how to live with each other. Both independent souls, they are happiest being in the same house but different rooms. “I enjoy David’s company but he does his thing, I do mine. We may not even talk all day, but there’s a feeling we’re together.” They also learned to appreciate their differences. “Opposites are quite interesting that way because the other person continues to be quite a surprise. David still is fascinating to me.”
During their time at Oxford, the pair had the first of their two children. “Having children was tough but absolutely transformative, I think in all sorts of very good ways,” says David. “[Here were] these two little completely helpless creatures and suddenly, you had to stop thinking about yourself so much.”
When David was offered a position at Macquarie University, the family moved to Sydney. Initially they planned to stay for a few years but quickly became attached to the city.
The move meant that Chardi could return to studying while the children attended kindergarten at the university. It was a chaotic time, but it was worth the juggle for Chardi. “I did find my children fulfilling … but I couldn’t have done it without also doing study. And then I started a theatre and education company, and then I did storytelling in schools. So I was constantly developing my own interests and I think that helped the relationship because I wasn’t the nag. I’m not saying all mothers in their homes are nagging, but I wasn’t someone feeling I had lost out on something.”
However there were times when the couple came close to splitting. They credit marriage counselling for helping them stick together. David remembers the counsellor telling them: “It’s not my job to glue you back together, but … I can help you clear away the habits or things that are poisoning the relationship unnecessarily.”
They both wanted it to work. Chardi remembers seeing many of their friends going through the same thing – and failing. “One of them was willing to work on the relationship and one wasn’t. One was convinced it was all the other’s fault. And they had principles. And that’s just the way it was,” she says. “What was wonderful about David was that when we came to a real crisis in our marriage, he was willing to work. He was willing to go to counselling, he was willing to be open to the possibility that maybe a bit of the problem could have been him, it wasn’t all me, it was mutual.”
Chardi realised that in order to survive, marriages have to change. “Sometimes marriages in the way they were when you were young … have to really die for another way of being together, where you really do celebrate each other’s independence.” And there’s no point in trying to change the other person. “You have to find a way to love that thing you want to change most. This is a little corny, but I think you do. So you find another way of meeting again, with a lot more acceptance.”
Both say they were also fortunate. “We’ve worked. Of course, we’ve struggled. Of course, we’ve gone to counselling, we’ve done all kinds of things, but I also think there’s a degree of luck. That whatever it is between us stays alive. It’s very hard to keep … You can stay together for 100 years, but to keep it alive and keep that flame going, I think, is work and then luck,” says Chardi.
Allowing each other to develop as individuals was crucial. “Because the truth is, you don’t know who the other is when you first marry.”
They even have separate friendship groups. “We agreed that I didn’t have to go to his parties, and he didn’t have to go to mine”, says Chardi. “Once he actually went to one of mine, and didn’t think he would survive, so we agreed, ‘you don’t come to mine, I won’t go to yours’.”
After their two children left home, they went touring around the US together. The trip was a revelation. “You work on your career, there’s friendships, there’s the kids. And this was the first time for a long, long time that it was just the two of us together.” The trip wasn’t smooth sailing, but it was worth it. Says David: “By the end of it, we both decided that with the kids moving out, we enjoyed each other’s company.”
These days the couple spend plenty of time together, even if it is in different rooms. When asked if they do anything special to reaffirm their bond, they come up short. “That was when the marriage was in trouble. Now that it isn’t, we ignore each other,” jokes Chardi. “It just seems to flow now because we’ve been through so much. I would say that our relationship is alive. David is my best friend and I love him. And I enjoy his company.”
Staying together is still an active choice for them and they’re thrilled they’ve lasted the distance. “If your relationship stays alive … there is a tremendous reward when it gets to 45 and 50 plus years, because by this point, David knows more about me than anyone else … We share a kind of history, and a kind of story together and that’s tremendously satisfying and enriching. So there are tremendous rewards that aren’t apparent in the struggling years.”
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