How we stay together: ‘You’ve got to either take space or give space’

·7 min read

Names: Clive Smallman and Mary Haropoulou
Years together: 38
Occupations: academics

Clive Smallman and Mary Harapoulou were polar opposites when they first got together, they say. He was an agnostic Englishman while she was religious and Greek. Now, after almost 40 years together, while many differences remain, some things have shifted. Mary recalls the Greek proverb about adding a drop of water to wine. “It means that you dilute the feelings a little,” she explains. “You don’t harass, [demanding] ‘I want to do this or that’. You find the common ground.”

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They met in 1983 while both studying at Essex University. Mary wanted to learn squash and a mutual friend suggested Clive could coach her. He laughs remembering: “I always say I taught Mary to play squash and she taught me to swear in Greek.”

He was intrigued by the “mysterious brown-haired, brown-eyed woman with a foreign accent”. He says: “I thought what a pretty girl and she was a pretty good squash player as well.”

While Mary’s memory of those early days is rusty, she remembers enjoying his company – even if the fair-haired Clive wasn’t quite her usual type. “My stereotype is the George Clooneys of this world,” she laughs.

Slowly their friendship deepened. Clive took Mary home to meet his parents, and when she introduced him to his future father-in-law, he was immediately welcomed – even though Clive later discovered that Mary’s dad, Costa, had told the rest of the family: “Mary’s met a very nice boy – what a shame he’s not Greek.”

But when Mary finished her degree, she couldn’t get a job in the UK so she returned to Athens. They remained close, visiting when they could and writing letters to each other. Clive looked forward to receiving them each week: “I used to get these wonderful, cultural stories of different things which I’d never experienced.” Mary illustrated her missives, something which Clive still treasures. “I used to get one, sometimes two a week with these lovely drawings, particularly of Asterix and Obelix from the Asterix comics, and other cartoons, pictures and all sorts of caricatures.”

After three years apart, Mary returned to the UK and the couple moved in together. It helped the relationship when Clive learned to speak her language. He says that, since she had to spend all day working in English, “it seemed only fair … that she had someone to chat to in the evening, so I learnt Greek”. He adds: “Occasionally when we have one of our moments, you’ll find Mary telling me off in English and I’ll be answering her in Greek – which is a bit perverse.” Mary laughs: “I can’t have any secrets from him because he understands everything. If I speak Greek on the phone, he will get it. That’s the downside to it.”

After a few years of living together, they decided to get married. It was something they knew Costa would approve of. For Mary it was important they marry before they had children, since that was how she was raised. Despite Clive’s atheism, they had a traditional, big Greek wedding. “It just felt right,” he says now.

The first of their two sons was born four years later. Clive remembers a close friend pulling him aside and offering him some advice at the time: “She said, ‘You have to change your approach. You’re living relatively large, you’ve got to focus in on Mary and the boys’.”

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Mary remembers those early days as a difficult time, as she wrestled with feelings of failure when she struggled to breastfeed. She also missed her career: “Even now, I don’t like not working, not having something to do, so my thinking was, I’ll stay with my children as long as I’m allowed to [and then return to work].” At the time she took six months off and then her baby went to daycare. “Then I was a better mum, because I went back to work, so I wasn’t exhausted from looking after my babies all the time … I wanted to be with them in the evening, I wanted to involve myself. That’s how I raised my children, both my children, working and as a mum.”

They had different approaches to parenting – Mary was more of a disciplinarian while Clive was “a softy”. But as their children grew, they got better at communicating. “If I could give advice to a young couple starting with a family in their lives, I would say as parents you need to have a unanimous voice. Whether it’s wrong or right, when you have young children, and as they grow, the children cannot see their parents, one saying yes and the other saying no,” says Mary. “I think we made that mistake in the beginning, and occasionally through our children growing, so that’s the only regret.” She says it’s crucial that if one parent says yes, the other should support them. “Don’t put the dilemma in front of the children.”

They’ve also gotten better at dealing with their own conflicts. Mary’s often the first to sort things out – she doesn’t like going to bed in a bad mood. “If we have an argument during the day that has not been resolved, I’m the one who will say, ‘Come on. Let’s forget about it. I’ve been wrong, or you’ve been wrong’ and find a middle ground.” She says not much is achieved while trying to have a conversation in the heat of the moment. “Let it lie and a couple of hours later go and say nicely, ‘OK, sorry about that. We made a mistake, that’s it.’”

Clive agrees. “You’ve got to either take space or you’ve got to give space.” He admits it took him years to learn to let go of negative patterns like holding grudges, but he’s evolved. He also likes to remind himself that there are always two sides to the story. While they both confess to “frustrating” habits, they’ve learned to live with them. “It’s just giving each other enough space to really just let [us] be,” he says.

Over the years, they’ve moved from the UK to New Zealand and then to Australia, and they plan to eventually move back to New Zealand. Moving across the globe has brought them closer. “We grew together, we explored together,” says Clive, adding, “we knew we had each other. That’s why we’ve got to look after each other.”

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The greatest challenge to their relationship has been their different attitudes to money. Mary is more conservative, while Clive is more liberal. Their big disagreements have always been about property. Mary often had an emotional attachment to their homes – something she puts down to her Greek heritage – whereas Clive was keen to sell up when new opportunities presented themselves.

They worked through their differences, relying on compromise and on time. “Mary starts off from the emotional position, and I always start from the logical, business-like position,” says Clive. “[But] Mary’s very logical and very organised, and so eventually the logic will work. And I need to compromise and acknowledge what Mary wants too.”

For Clive, his commitment to Mary trumps all. “To me, it’s everything. She has supported me in everything I’ve wanted to do career-wise over the years … She’s raised two fine, young men, and she looks after me.” He remembers a turbulent few weeks when Mary went on a trip to Greece without him. “I might have seemed OK because I can cook but life just didn’t seem to work.”

Mary explains it more simply: “I like being with him. If we do something, I always say, ‘Let’s do it together.’” She has straightforward advice for having an enduring relationship: “Give love unintentionally. Do something that you are not expected to do, like make him a coffee when he doesn’t expect it. Do something because you feel like it, you want to do it, that’s my attitude.”

Clive nods. He says he often observes the breakdown in communication between other couples. “They’re talking at each other, not to each other. You’ve just got to pause and take a breath,” he says. “The other thing is you’ve got to listen … sometimes the things that aren’t being said … are more important than things that are being said.”

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