Relationship

How we stay together: 'We're on each other's team'


Names: Rikki Hodge-Smith and Ben Smith
Years together: 11
Occupations: Writer and defence

Rikki Hodge-Smith thought she was playing it cool when, on her first date with her now husband, she trotted out that well-worn line: “If it doesn’t work out as a relationship, then we’ll be friends.”

His response surprised and delighted her. “I remember him saying: ‘I’ve got friends so I don’t really need any more. I’m actually here for a relationship.’ From day one, he has been extremely transparent about his feelings, which was the most refreshing thing of all, because there was zero gameplay,” she says.

The couple met in Brisbane in 2009 in the early days of online dating.

Their first meeting was a low-key late afternoon date at the Coffee Club and they clicked. Ben remembers her making him laugh while Rikki remembers him being easy to talk to. After coffee and a sausage roll, they went on to the pub to play trivia.

A few days later, Ben was deployed to Townsville for four weeks as part of his work with the defence force but they kept talking by phone. When he got back to Brisbane, he told Rikki that in about six months he would be deployed to East Timor for most of the following year.

Rikki Hodge-Smith and Ben Smith first photo together
‘I recall the feeling of enjoying someone at home, someone waiting for me, someone caring about the fact that I was over there,’ says Ben. Photograph: Rikki Hodge-Smith and Ben Smith

It was an early test. Ben wasn’t keen to keep dating if they were likely to break up when he left. Instead he wanted them both to give it a go. Rikki agreed: “That has been a running theme in the whole relationship. It just doesn’t occur to me that it [was] a bad idea and it never did.”

They had realised they valued similar things. For instance, Rikki could see how close he was to his family, just as she was to hers. “He had a nice respect for his mum. [I’d] started to wonder if it was normal for people to yell at their mums, which stemmed from coming from a family where that’s not something – my parents never swore at each other,” says Rikki.

When he left for East Timor, they stayed in touch with long conversations on Skype. Ben was busy with work and while he doesn’t remember missing her, her long distance presence felt special to him: “I recall the feeling of enjoying someone at home, someone waiting for me, someone caring about the fact that I was over there.”

When he returned, they moved to Sydney together. That first year was their toughest as they adjusted to living together. Although Rikki admits she’s untidy, Ben is “military tidy”. He was also more self-sufficient and so did – and continues to do – most of the housework. Ben laughs as Rikki tries to defend herself, before wryly adding: “I wouldn’t mind a little more help.”

They’ve got better at dealing with conflict since then. “We were so mismatched for conflict initially, which is why I think that first year was so tough,” Rikki says. While she would withdraw when there were problems, he would respond by being overly cheery, which infuriated her. Eventually they decided they had to break the pattern – and did.

“We’re really good at communicating. If there’s an issue, we’re very good at talking it through, finding the core thing,” she says. “[And] we’re extremely honest with each other too.”

They also agreed to keep their own counsel, never criticising each other to friends or family. “I never thought it was cute or nice when couples would argue, especially in front of other people, or put each other down or talk about each other to other people,” says Rikki.

Rikki Hodge-Smith and Ben Smith Wedding
‘We’re really good at communicating. If there’s an issue, we’re very good at talking it through, finding the core thing,’ says Rikki. The couple on their wedding day. Photograph: Rikki Hodge-Smith and Ben Smith

Because they have had such certainty about each other and their relationship, they are quite relaxed about major life decisions. So it was with minimal hoopla that they decided to get married a few years later. “That’s the only way to get through big stuff. If you think about the crazy things that people decide to do for the rest of their life, you’d never do it,” says Rikki.

The biggest shift in their relationship came when they had their first child. It took time for Rikki to fall pregnant, she was ill throughout the term and then went through 50 hours of intense labour.

Ben was at her side throughout, caring for her particularly during her most vulnerable moments as she recovered from the injuries of labour. “That was a big turning point for me”, she says. “[He was] caring for me in really embarrassing things. That’s probably where you think you love somebody and then they show you something else. I think that’s when people say that they love the person more than they did the day before. It’s probably because of embarrassing things that have happened. It’s not the getting your flowers – it’s the other stuff.”

The early days of raising their newborn son were tough, as Rikki struggled with the lack of sleep. “I remember thinking he didn’t understand how little sleep I was getting because I was so jealous. You become so irrational. But I was so jealous that he got to be in a car by himself to get to work. He didn’t necessarily want to go to work. And he had this really long commute that I was so jealous of. And I remember him leaving in the morning and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got another day.’ And I’d just bawl my eyes out because Griff woke up every two hours and then wouldn’t sleep that much through the day.”

Ben drew on his military training to compartmentalise and push through the difficult days. “It sounds awful, I just viewed it as a period of time to get through,” he says.

Their second child arrived more easily and these days their lives are “chaos management” as they wrangle two small children. Although their overall parenting approach is similar, they have different styles. “My go-to is very stern military dad voice,” says Ben, while Rikki is softer: “We aren’t those parents that had perfection in mind, in terms of our kids. I think we’re probably a bit more relaxed.”

They are good at listening to each other and working together. Both will stand up for the other, even when it comes to their kids. “If Griff’s being rude to me, [Ben will say] ‘Don’t talk to your mum like that.’ I think we’re on each other’s side all the time. And that’s been the same through friends and family.”

Rikki Hodge-Smith and Ben Smith birth of second child
‘We’re on each other’s side all the time and that’s been the same through friends and family.’ Rikki and Ben with their two children. Photograph: Rikki Hodge-Smith and Ben Smith

Teamwork is part of their secret to staying together. “We’re on each other’s team and I think that’s kept us together. We just don’t let anyone really get in between that,” says Rikki. “But then, it’s not hard to stay on [the team] either. It’s not like we’re gripping on to each other. There’s a real ease to it.”

Ben explains that theirs is a steady partnership, where both know they are in it for the long haul. Rikki agrees, saying while they’ve had the big grand romantic gestures, she finds the ordinariness of their life together more impressive. “The gushiness of it is the easy part. But it’s just a little bit different to that, day to day. We’ve had the wedding, we’ve had the romance. But the other part is just [the more interesting].”

And there’s something else too. While their values and approach to life are aligned, they also still really fancy each other. “There is a high school crush-like attraction that just never went away,” says Rikki. “Without it, we’d only be great housemates and co-parents. Even [all] these years later, we still pinch each other’s bum [and] I still think he’s the best looking dad at the beach.”

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