Names: Julia and Paul Miller
Years together: 29
Occupations: Therapist and engineer
Hearing her future husband sing The Sound of Music’s My Favourite Things sealed the deal for Julia Miller.
The couple were finalising their wedding preparations, a stressful time made worse because Julia’s father was in the final stages of cancer. She was steeling herself for the inevitable, when late one night she got a prank call. After telling the random caller exactly what she thought of him, she was upset and couldn’t get back to sleep. And so Paul sang his favourite song, about whiskers on kittens and raindrops on roses, to soothe her. “That’s the moment that I knew he was the one for me,” she says now.
The Sydney couple will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in November. Yet when they first met, the then-21-year-old Julia wasn’t interested in Paul, who was 23.
She’d just come out of a bad relationship and wasn’t looking for anything serious. A mutual friend decided she needed a fling to cheer her up, so she set the couple up, organising a group date on a yacht. Reluctantly Julia went along.
But Paul was keen: “I thought she was hot when I saw her. I was interested right from the first second.” He was an experienced sailor so he hoped to impress her, even feigning a dangerous moment that he skilfully navigated. Julia remained oblivious. Undeterred, the mutual friend nudged them into a second date. And this time, when just the two of them went to the movies, it was more successful. “That’s when I thought ‘I like what he looked like, but actually I really like him. He’s a nice guy.’”
At the time Paul was living in Newcastle and Julia was in Sydney, but they spent as much time together as they could. They bonded over their similar upbringings and shared values and quickly realised they were right for each other. After six months they moved in together in Sydney. They were keen to get engaged too, but were conscious that others may think they were rushing. “I’ve still got the piece of paper where Paul wrote the plan of when we were going to get engaged, because he’s like that,” says Julia. Paul adds their courtship was “pretty quick” by “2020 standards”… “but I think in the late 80s it wasn’t probably too ridiculous.”
The lead-up to the wedding was stressful. Not only was Julia’s father battling cancer, their priest was unwell with a brain tumour and a close family member died suddenly. Then three days before the wedding, Julia went to pick up her dress only to find her dressmaker was ill and not even close to finishing it, or the bridesmaid dresses. In a mad dash, Julia roped every woman she knew to finish the dresses in time for the wedding day. “I got an ulcer. I definitely got cold sores the day before. But I lost a lot of weight so I was really skinny,” she says with a laugh.
The day itself went smoothly but all the stress taught the couple an important lesson. Julia says they learned “early in the piece how we would go through bad times together.”
Young, happy and in love, the first few years of their marriage was fun. They saved hard and travelled. About four years into their marriage, they had their first daughter. Things got trickier around the arrival of their second child. “When you have just one child it doesn’t affect you so much, but when you have a second one and each of you have to share the load a little bit more, it probably separates you a little bit more than you’re first used to,” remembers Paul.
They made an effort to spend as much time together as possible. It was something Julia had learnt from her own parents. “They’re the sort of people who had to make sure that they had time to themselves so to a certain extent they pushed the kids away,” says Paul. “A lot of that rubbed off on Julia, so she made sure that our kids didn’t get in between us. So I think that’s been a positive in our relationship.”
They were always careful to maintain affection. “My mum and dad were really, really affectionate,” says Julia. “I think when I first met Paul he was affectionate, but he wouldn’t kiss me in public. It took him a little while, and now I find he’s probably worse than me,” she laughs.
Both were determined to make it work. Julia in particular wanted a great marriage, not just a mediocre one. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to just be together because of the kids,’ or, ‘I don’t want to just be flatmates.’ It’s got to be more than that.” She says if it had come to it, she wouldn’t have stuck around. “It’s just too sad. It’s too sad to be living in a loveless marriage.”
One of their biggest challenges came when Paul became very involved with sailing, spending huge amounts of time on it, to the exclusion of everything else. Julia made it clear things had to change. “That was probably our biggest hurdle, that was a couple of years and the girls were young-ish. But I remember one of my daughters saying, ‘All you do is argue’ … I just could not get him to understand how I felt about it.”
It’s something that Paul recognises in himself: “One of my problems is that I focus too much and I have blinkers. I can’t see everything else going on in my life, but that’s where we’re a good couple together because we are very good at adapting … I don’t think either of us are really stubborn, so we tend to be able to adapt to either bring the other back onto the right path or to, when required, stay calm and live with it.”
What saved them was renovating their house, working shoulder to shoulder each weekend. It was another important lesson for the couple. “You’ve got to have projects together,” says Paul.
Over the years, their approach to conflict has evolved. Where Paul usually avoids conflict, Julia prefers to deal with it straight away. “He now is starting to say, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that I was hurting you. Do you need to discuss it?’” And a lot of the time I go, ‘No, I’m fine. Because you validated it.’”
They were never afraid to disagree in front of their two girls. Both had grown up in homes where their parents didn’t appear to argue, so when there was an argument, it would cause undue anxiety. Instead they wanted their children to see them disagree, resolve and move on.
There was something else. For Julia, as a girl growing up surrounded by brothers, she had to learn to speak up for herself. She wanted her girls to learn that too. “I needed my girls to feel they could have a voice. My daughters will still say, ‘Good on you, Mum’s standing up to Dad.’ Not that Dad’s a pushover, but it’s to say, ‘Don’t let a man dominate you.’ For me that was important for the girls to see, that you can say what you think and not have to be pleasing all the time.”
These days both daughters are adults and have moved out of home. Julia and Paul are enjoying their time together, not least because they still have much in common. “We’ve got friends who go, ‘Oh, I love the way you do things together,’ I think, ‘Yeah, because we’ve kind of kept at it,’” says Julia.
“Not so long ago, [Paul] said, ‘I don’t think I’ll leave you. I’m kind of used to you now,’” says Julia. “I’ve told people that and they’ve gone, ‘Oh,’ and I thought, ‘No, it makes me laugh because that’s how I feel.’” She says they’ve settled into a more comfortable rhythm than ever before. “I never wanted to leave but you’re trying to make this perfect relationship … the kids have to be this and we have to have this perfect family. And now it’s just like, ‘Oh, I’m kind of used to you now’ … It’s not because you couldn’t find anyone else… It’s just that this life is easy.”
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