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How we stay together: 'Looking after each other, everything else would fall into place'

Names: Harry and Margaret Burkett
Years together: 36
Occupations: Retired

Like introverts everywhere, Harry Burkett isn’t really struggling with the coronavirus-induced lockdown. “If somebody said to me, ‘You’ve got to stay at home with the person in the world that you really care about for the next 12 months, [that would be] OK’.” He and his wife, Margaret, are happily self-isolating in their Canberra home: “I’m perfectly happy not to go round and be with people. I’m quite happy to spin and knit and read books and do crossword puzzles and go for walks with the dog.”

Both retired and with two adult children, Harry and Margaret have been together for almost 37 years. They met in 1983 as student nurses studying in Canberra. He was 20 and, as a second year nursing student, he was sent to meet the incoming first year students. He caught sight of the then 21-year-old Margaret. “I can remember thinking, ‘Oh, hello, I like the look of you.’”

They quickly became close friends, frequently spending time together. One night, she invited him along to a friend’s dinner party, purportedly to make up the numbers. Harry remembers the night vividly: “It was cold and it was dark and I can remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to marry this girl’.” He says he just knew: “It just felt so comfortable that I knew this would be the person I’d spend the rest of my life with. Margaret agrees: “[It was like] putting the key in the lock and it fits and you turn the key and your life was on the other side of the door.”

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Harry and Margaret Burkett after their engagement 1983

Harry and Margaret were engaged eight days after their first official date. Photograph: Harry and Margaret Burkett

That night, they shared their first kiss – and eight days later, they got engaged. “I was taking Margaret to the bus in the city and she said to me, ‘If someone were to ask me to marry them right now, I would say yes.’ So I did. I said, ‘Will you marry me?’ And she said, ‘Yes’.”

They were married a year later. “When we look back on it, we were mad,” says Margaret, “and everyone else said we were mad, but back then we thought we were king and queen.” They find it difficult to articulate how they knew that they were well suited, particularly as they were from different backgrounds. But they do share similar values and interests. “Just simple things,” says Margaret, “but if you pare your life back to what’s important, I think that’s where we have a lot of similarities [like] the way we communicate with each other. We don’t always agree but we have this open pathway for being able to thrash things out if something’s bothering us.”

As nurses, they both did shift work. When their children came along a few years into the marriage, they had to work opposite shifts to share the child caring duties. They became, in Margaret’s words, like ships passing in the night.

So they borrowed an idea from the hospital: they had a communication book to help them parent. Just as nurses write notes about patients for those who come after them, Harry and Margaret would write notes in the book for each other. Small things like whether the kids had been fed or whether there was washing to be hung out. There were love notes too. “Every so often, you’d have your sandwich and there’d be a little note there from Margaret saying, ‘Miss you. Hope you have a good day’,” says Harry.

There was an equal division of the domestic chores and so, in some ways, it was almost like they were single parents. “It’s sort of weird to say that,” says Margaret, “but we didn’t have regular time off together, so the one that was not working that particular day would do all the chores and get the kids organised and then the other one would do the same on their days off.” There was a curious side-effect to the arrangement: “It was like absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

Harry and Margaret Burkett in 1994

Harry and Margaret Burkett in 1994. Photograph: Harry and Margaret Burkett

Because they were doing the same job, they each understood what the other was going through, particularly in more traumatic situations. “I remember once very clearly resuscitating an eight-week-old baby,” says Harry. “It was a cot death, and I can remember doing that when I was working in emergency when our son was eight weeks old. So I didn’t sleep terribly well after that for quite a few weeks. Margaret got that. She understood the time it takes to work through that, so we were able to give each other the space instead of [saying], ‘Oh, I don’t understand why you’re still going on about that’.”

Margaret also remembers when she was suffering from traumatic stress but didn’t recognise it – although Harry did. After a few months, he suggested that she should get help. “That was a wake-up call. At that point, I said, ‘Oh, what have I been like? What do you think is going on?’ And we’d start a conversation based on a gentle alert, I suppose, that things aren’t quite right.”

Situations like that helped to remind them that they had to work through things in their own way, as individuals. “There’s no one way of doing things … we’re gentle with each other, we are respectful of each other’s needs, we are constantly reevaluating who we are and where we are,” says Harry. “And just because we’ve been together that length of time, we have changed so much … but allowed each other to change.”

There have been strained times too. After Harry had a severe injury and then retrained to be a teacher, Margaret carried the load financially and domestically. It wasn’t easy: “Sometimes I’d mutter under my breath as I was cleaning the shower, ‘Oh dear, I just can’t keep doing this,’” she says.

But they navigated it by putting one foot in front of the other and at times seeking outside help through counselling. “We’ve always been alive to what opportunities there are for maintaining good physical, mental and emotional health,” says Margaret. “[Some] people say, ‘Well, this is who I am, take it or leave it.’ I think a lot of people can feel like that: ‘I don’t want to self-reflect so if you don’t like it, bugger off’. We’ve never been like that, we’ve always been open to what it is about ourselves that needs attention.”

In the tough times, it helped to remind themselves of their commitment to each other, says Harry. “We knew that there was nobody else, there was just us. And right at the beginning when we decided to get married, we thought that we’re in it for the long haul.” It was what they wanted. “Anything that you really want, you have to work for, and so we just worked hard. Our first priority was to each other. It wasn’t to the job and it wasn’t even to the kids because we recognised that looking after each other, everything else would fall into place.” They’ve maintained this throughout their marriage: “I’d come home from work, Margaret had been home with the kids, and we’d go to time out. We’d say to the kids, ‘We’re in time out. We just need 15 to 20 minutes.’”

Harry and Margaret Burkett in 2014

Harry and Margaret Burkett in 2014. Photograph: Harry and Margaret Burkett

Over the years, their expectations of each other and their relationship have shifted. They’ve become more patient and forgiving. They’ve also learned what happiness means to them. “It’s not that heady rush of excitement and the anticipation of something good is going to happen,” says Margaret. “Yes that’s part of it, but it’s really more about that deep-seated contentment. You don’t have to be sitting at 10 all the time to be happy.”

Caring for each other has always been part of the success of their relationship but the greatest lesson they’ve learned is a simple one. “To talk,” says Harry. “Check in with each other every day. [Ask] are you all right? Anything I can do? Would you like a cup of tea?”

When asked what commitment means to them, Harry paraphrases the Apache Wedding Prayer. “[It’s] basically, now that you’re married, you will need no shelter because you’ll be a shelter to each other; you’ll need no warmth because you’ll be warmth for each other,” he says. “It’s that concept of being there unconditionally for the other person all the time. I’m not religious but I made a promise to Margaret that I would give myself wholly to her and I think that’s what I’ve done and that’s what she’s done to me as well. That’s the thing that certainly sustained me in good times and in rough times – that you’re always my shelter, you’re always there, and it’s a safe place to be.”

Margaret agrees before adding, with a wry laugh: “I can’t be bothered to train anybody else. I don’t have the energy for that.”

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