How we stay together: ‘You can’t just forge down your own path’ | Life and style

Names: Paul and Lisa Thomson
Years together: 36
Occupations: Singing coach and retired banking executive

There’s a moment for many couples when their choice of partner is affirmed – or not.

For Paul and Lisa Thomson, that moment came in the most frightening of situations: when their three-year-old son almost drowned. A fun day out at a family member’s home turned terrifying when little Nicholas was pulled from the pool. He’d been underwater for three minutes and it was touch and go.

Paul remembers Lisa and him holding on to each other at the hospital for support. Then, when their son was out of intensive care, he watched as Lisa sat up all night watching over their child. “I thought, ‘This is the woman I’m glad I married because this is such a steady supporting love,’” he says. “I was very lucky to find someone who just showed so much courage and love.”

Paul and Lisa Thomson in costume for a production of Merry Widow. Photograph: Paul & Lisa Thomson

The Sydney couple had been together for almost 20 years when that happened. They met in Brisbane in 1983 when they were in their 20s and contracted to sing in the Queensland Opera.

Paul’s first marriage had broken down and he was wary about getting involved with someone new, but when he spotted Lisa, he took that chance. At a Sunday afternoon garden party, they got talking. “I must have talked to [her] for probably an hour, because she was beautiful. She still is beautiful,” he says. “And we just talked – Lisa is a fantastic listener and I can be a fantastic talker.”

In many ways, it was an easy match. “The music was there to bind us because we loved singing in the opera,” says Lisa. They performed together in Fidelio, Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci and The Merry Widow. “When you’re in an opera company or a theatre company, you just have so much fun. Even rehearsals … because you really get to know one another.” And while they were in a competitive industry, there was no professional jealousy between them. “When you’re singing, you’ve got different voice types anyway, so it doesn’t matter,” says Lisa. “But for some of the relationships we knew that started right back there, those marriages haven’t lasted.”

For Lisa, there was something else too. He was her first serious boyfriend and she sensed his vulnerability. “He had a good sense of humour, he didn’t take himself too seriously [but] he needed to be looked after. I think that’s something that I wanted too, I wanted to look after somebody. Reflecting back now, I can really see that in myself.”

Over the next six months, their relationship developed and they moved in together in Brisbane. Then Paul was offered a scholarship to study opera in London. Both were keen but there was a catch. Paul’s previous relationship with a performer had been torn apart by rivalry. “I said to Lisa, ‘Look, I don’t know if it’s going to work again for me personally if you want to go there and study, and we go down the same path. [It] didn’t work for me before.’” And immediately, Lisa said, ‘Well, I’ll stop. You follow your goals, your love.’ That’s why we’re still together because she made this enormous sacrifice.”

It wasn’t a difficult decision for Lisa. As much as she enjoyed music, she wasn’t prepared to sacrifice everything for it, and she was happy to work while Paul studied. “It was a big adventure to go to London … I thought, ‘Oh well, I’m happy to go along for the ride.’ And I was happy to be with someone and look after them.”

In London, the couple were young, in love and having a great time, travelling and exploring Europe. But it was lonely at times and money was tight – even though Lisa was working in all sorts of jobs. “I worked in a newsagent, I ran a carpet cleaning company, I sold Elna presses and sewing machines in John Lewis in Oxford Street.” Being far from home meant they relied on each other for friendship and support and drew them even closer together.

Paul & Lisa Thomson on their wedding day in November 1984

Paul and Lisa Thomson on their wedding day in 1984. Photograph: Paul & Lisa Thomson

They decided to get married. Paul remembers a particular moment in a bookshop. “There was a book on the history of opera, a very expensive book. And I said, ‘I wonder should I buy this book when you already have it?’” And she said, ‘I don’t think you’re ever going to need to buy another one darling’ [and] I felt that she really loved me.’”

Lisa felt the same way about him. “I’m interested in lots of different things and [I remember thinking], ‘I just don’t want to be in a boring relationship.’ I wanted someone who had the same values, had integrity and loyalty, who when they said they were going to do something, they would. And Paul is very, very much like that.”

Their November 1984 wedding was a simple affair in a registry office on the corner of their street. Lisa made her own wedding dress on one of those Elna sewing machines. It was a great selling point. “[Customers] would go, ‘Oh, what are you making?’ And I’d say, ‘My wedding dress.’ So it was a good way to flog the product,” she says with a laugh.

After about five years in London, they returned home. “If we were going to have kids, we always wanted to come back to have them in Australia.” Still they wanted to put down their roots first, so they bought their first home and waited until they both had jobs before Lisa could take maternity leave.

Despite their plans, when their two children Phoebe and Nicholas were born, they had to change again. “Paul couldn’t wait to have kids. For him, that was quite a stabilising thing as much as kids drive you crazy but it did mean that Paul ended up sacrificing. [He] was an at-home dad, which enabled me to go back to work and keep supporting the family,” says Lisa. “That was a bit shattering for Paul because it meant he couldn’t sing and work in the opera companies perhaps as much as he wanted to.”

Becoming a stay at home dad and teaching singing part-time wasn’t an easy shift, Paul agrees: “Those seven or eight years, until they were old enough to go to school were very difficult years. I was at home running a small business … I got more and more work [and] opportunities and I was like the part-time mum at home trying to juggle all those things when Lisa went back to work.”

Looking back, they wish they’d taken more time for themselves at the time. “We didn’t have anyone who would offer to look after the kids. So, we never really did that kind of thing. Young parents now do date nights [to] make sure they keep the relationship going.”

The Thomson family

The Thomsons with their children. The early parenting years were a struggle. Photograph: Paul & Lisa Thomson

Although they both avoid confrontation, they’re good at compromise. “You both have to take one another’s needs and wants into consideration. You can’t just forge down your own path, my way or the highway. Not for our relationship, it doesn’t work like that for us,” says Lisa.

And they’re very affectionate with each other, frequently saying ‘I love you’. “I come from quite an affectionate family, we’re very touchy,” says Paul “and Lisa doesn’t. But very quickly I realised that she yearned for the same thing … We show that affection without any problem. We kiss and we hug and we still do it.”

The couple are going through another transition now that Lisa has retired. Having her at home all day was an adjustment for Paul. “I had a nice little sort of fiefdom at home here and I wasn’t too sure how it would work out,” he says with a laugh. “To Lisa’s credit, she’s formed a whole new lifestyle and routine being at home … And I’ve seen her in a new light.”

After all these years, they know each other well enough to understand what makes the other happy. “I know what Lisa needs and so I will choose to do that because I know if you want a successful relationship one can’t be happy, you both need to be happy,” says Paul.

So for him, it means taking Lisa for a drive to the national park on a Sunday afternoon and getting an ice-cream together. “We’ll sit down with the chairs out at Bobbin Head for half an hour and we just watch the water. We enjoy nature, we enjoy the birds, we enjoy being outside.”

For Lisa, it means making him a cup of tea each night. “I teach at night, I teach downstairs and I come up [at 8.30],” says Paul. “And I look over and Lisa’s waiting for me with a cup of tea and my biscuit is there.” He always tells her how much it means to him. “She knows that that simple act, that cup of tea, it’s a simple thing but it’s the sign of your love and devotion.”

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