How we stay together: 'We both give each other a little bit of time, not too much time'

Names: Ursula Benstead and Simon Thompson
Years together: 30
Occupations: psychologist and company director

It was all Ursula’s dad’s idea. One afternoon in 1990, the then 23-year-old psychology student got a call from her beloved dad. “He said, ‘Oh, Urs, hope you’re not going to be cross with me’,” she remembers. “I said, ‘Why would I be cross with you?’ He said, ‘Well I sort of gave your phone number to this man’.”

Her dad owned a computer monitor and TV repair shop in Melbourne and the then 32-year-old Simon, who worked in IT, was one of his regulars. Her matchmaking dad and his wife thought Simon was so nice that Ursula should meet him too.

At the time, Simon remembers thinking: ‘Really? Do I look that desperate?’ He was recently single and happily contemplating a solo life. He held off on calling Ursula for a few months, but eventually rang and suggested coffee. Ursula, who’d forgotten about her dad’s intervention, impulsively agreed. “I said, ‘Oh no, not coffee, but you can take me out for dinner and bring wine.’”

She wasn’t sure what he’d be like: “I expected him to look a bit like my Dad, a bushy ginger beard and not much style,” she remembers, “but he was very handsome, and I was struck by his beautiful blue eyes.” He was similarly impressed: “She answered the door in a red miniskirt, and that gorgeous face. And that was it,” he says. “I couldn’t believe my luck.”

Ursula Benstead and Simon Thompson on their wedding day

‘She answered the door in a red miniskirt and that gorgeous face, and that was it,’ says Simon. ‘I couldn’t believe my luck.’ Ursula and Simon on their wedding day. Photograph: Ursula Benstead and Simon Thompson

They hit it off immediately. “It was quite a novel experience for me to feel seen and heard,” says Ursula, who was taken with Simon’s kindness. “And to watch a man talk about people, the world and interact with animals and things in a really loving and caring way.”

Simon says it was clear, as a psychologist, Ursula cared about others – and him. “I found somebody that was fun, was her own person, wasn’t dependent on me, wasn’t needy, just let me be who I was,” he says. “I really didn’t know how to live life as such. She taught me how to enjoy myself.”

There was a connection despite their differences: “I’m always a bit more squinchy-eyed when I’m analysing people … seeing perhaps not-so-good motivations, whereas Simon always sees the good in people,” says Ursula. “But I think despite that, we have the same values, and we always did, of honesty, loyalty, integrity, commitment, and caring for one another.” She adds: “And for me, Simon always made me feel, and he still does, adored.”

Things soon started to get serious. About a month in, Ursula got a call from an old flame, inviting her up to Sydney. For a moment she was unsure but decided to tell Simon. Although he understood, he said he wouldn’t wait for her. She realised what she was doing. “[I thought] What am I even comparing here? There’s no choice. There’s no competition. Of course I want to be with Simon and see where this goes. Where there’s all these indications that this is going to be a healthy, equal, respectful relationship.”

Simon remembers the turning point: “When she didn’t go, and she told me why, I thought ‘Well, I’m going to make this go as best I can. Give it as good an effort as I can, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But if it does, it does.’”

But it was about six years before Ursula was ready to marry Simon, and as a psychologist, she spent time in therapy considering whether it was the right decision: “My hesitation was never about thinking that maybe there was someone better, or Simon wasn’t right. It was always about taking marriage vows really literally and trying to project into the future … Can I 100% protect and shield, love and be this person’s partner in life forever?”

She gave the idea of having children the same careful consideration, and a few years later, when they had their son, they threw out stereotypical gender roles. “We decided that as much as possible, we were both going to try to inhabit both worlds, so we didn’t lose the connection and understanding for each other’s reality that we had,” says Ursula.

“And that’s what we did. We both worked part-time and we both were equally involved in raising Max and generating income. That really helped us.” She adds: “[Simon] knew what it was like to spend a day with a screaming baby … a dirty house, and nappies everywhere. And I knew what it was like to feel the pressure of … bringing income, and office politics.” Says Simon: “I don’t think either of us felt we were doing one thing more than the other was doing.”

At work, Ursula specialises in helping those at risk from domestic violence. All day she’s surrounded by horror stories, which she has slowly learned not to bring home. “Sex wasn’t about love for the women that I would speak to … it would be about power and control. It would be a little bit of a mind shift … reminding myself that this man wasn’t like the men that I heard about all day long.”

While Ursula has never tried to therapise her own family life, the fact that Simon was open to seeking outside help when he’s struggled is a big reassurance for her. “I know that it’s mostly the people that really, really need therapy, that don’t actually end up in therapy, because they spend a lot of their life compartmentalising and avoiding,” she says. “I wouldn’t be able to share my life with someone like that … I knew that [Simon] was open to growth.”

Ursula Benstead and Simon Thompson

‘And for me, Simon always made me feel, and he still does, adored,’ says Ursula. Photograph: Ursula Benstead and Simon Thompson

A few years ago, Simon left his corporate IT role and the couple decided to work within Ursula’s psychology practice. “It was one of the biggest challenges for me,” says Simon. He’d gone from a highly paid corporate job to one with almost no salary and he struggled to understand how their disparate skills worked together. Ursula was very hands-on, while Simon had been used to doing his own thing. “At one point, he did say I was the worst boss he’d ever had,” Ursula jokes. “But he has since walked that back [and] I’m not his boss. We’re co-directors.”

Eventually he found his feet: “I really do feel like I’ve got my own business now with Ursula, I’m really part of that.” Having him involved made a huge difference to Ursula: “Once Simon started [travelling] with me, it just felt such a relief that I wasn’t alone in this anymore.”

Over their years together, they’ve gotten better at dealing with conflict. In the early years, Simon says, “I used to be the guy that would brood for days.” Now, he says, his approach is different. “I try and solve it before we go to sleep. Because I’ll feel bruised but it is not relevant. This doesn’t matter. It’s a disagreement. We’ve had a million of these things.” Ursula, who used to be prone to storming off in arguments, agrees. “We both give each other a little bit of time, not too much time.”

They remind themselves that neither would deliberately hurt or upset the other. “What’s important is that you’re both hurting, and you need to come together again. Sometimes all it would take is, he would come in the room and go, ‘So, what are we going to do about this?’ And I might just get up and hug him.”

Ursula Benstead and Simon Thompson

‘We both give each other a little bit of time … And then we make sure that we talk about what happened, what was going on, what might have been underneath it, and how can we approach it better in the future.’ Photograph: Ursula Benstead and Simon Thompson

Their commitment to each other is unwavering. “I don’t like cliches really, but I do feel like we are soulmates,” says Ursula. “What that expression means to me is that we will always look after one another, no matter what. That we will always find ways to be on the same page.” Simon puts it down to trust. “Just not even thinking about whether somebody else is going to do the right thing by you. Assuming that that will be the case.”

They always try to understand where the other person is coming from, says Ursula. Little gestures help – Simon makes a point of bringing Ursula coffee each morning and telling her how he feels about her. “These are small things, but they’re really important to Ursula. And I get a lot out of that, and I know she gets a lot out of that, so I give her a lot of that.”

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