How we stay together: 'You have to be best friends as well as spouses'

Alexandra Spring

Names: Elizabeth and Morteza (Morie) Goli
Years together: 40
Occupations: Retired tax specialist lawyer and sales manager

The embassy official in Tehran was unconvinced. It was 1986 and the young Iranian man in front of him was applying for an Australian spousal visa. Morie was explaining that he’d met Liz, an Australian girl, in a pub in London six years earlier, that they had spent almost a year together but he had then had to return to Iran to help his sick father. That they had planned for Morie to move to Australia as soon as possible so he could continue his studies, but then what would be the eight-year Iran-Iraq war began.

Related: Relationships: tell us how you stay together

They had been separated for five years, he explained. He had spent time trying to delay national service but then spent two-and-a-half years in the army. They hadn’t laid eyes on each other in all that time but they had kept in contact with letters, recorded cassette tapes and the occasional expensive phone call.

After all this time, finally, he would be flying to Brisbane to marry her and he was at the embassy to do his visa interview.

Thinking back now, Morie remembers how sceptical the official was: “He said, ‘This is a made up story. You can’t prove all of those things ... I’ll give you one hour. Go and bring some of those tapes and letters you’re talking about.’”

Morie raced through the heavy Tehran traffic, returning with a suitcase bursting with cards, letters and gifts. The postdated envelopes were addressed in Liz’s painstakingly studied Persian script. “He said, ‘Did she write that?’” Morie says. “‘I don’t need to look at the rest. I’ll give you a visa.’”

That embassy official was just one of the many obstacles Liz and Morie have faced but more than 40 years after they met in that London pub – and after 34 years of marriage – they are still together.

One of the biggest hurdles they initially faced was their parents. When Morie told his strict Muslims parents about Liz, his father was vehemently against the idea. He would hang up on Liz whenever she managed to call. They did have one ally. “His mother didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Persian,” Liz says. “I had about five words. I could say, ‘Is Morteza there?’ She would giggle down the phone at me and I’d giggle back, and I felt there was someone there who was supporting us.”

Related: How we stay together: 'It's the sense of trust that we had in each other as friends'

Over on the other side of the world, Liz had the opposite problem: “My father said, ‘It’s your life. You live it.’” However, her mother, a strict Catholic, was angry at her daughter and worried about the cultural differences between the pair. She was right in some ways, Liz says, but there were many more similarities in their values. “Middle-class people around the world have very similar values ... they want the same things out of life. They want relationships, they want to have children, they want security, they want the best for their family, and that’s the same. It’s universal.”

Although both say those five years felt like 50, when Morie got off the plane in Brisbane in October 1986 it was as if no time had passed. “There was no adjustment,” Liz says. “It was just as if we hadn’t been apart, and it was really interesting because he’d never been here. He’d been in London but it was like he was meant to be here.” Morie says that, although he loves living in Australia, there was only one reason he moved here: “I came here because of Liz. If she was in the Amazon, I would have been there now.”

They were married a month later and both sets of parents finally embraced the idea. At last the couple were together, although there were a few cultural differences at first. Liz remembers being horrified when Morie complained that the house was “dirty”.

Liz says: “I took it as, ‘Oh my God, he’s telling me I’m not clean.’ It turns out the Persian word for ‘untidy’ also translated to ‘dirty’ … Part of me worked out something was going on, so I said, ‘What’s the Persian word for dirty?’ and then translated it, and then I said to him, ‘Please don’t say dirty, say untidy.’”

Laughing, she admits she’s made an effort over the years. “That’s what everybody does in a relationship. You are who you are, and you have to be true to yourself, but you do adjust. If you care enough about someone, you will make those changes for them, you know, learn to become tidier.”

Ruefully Morie says he changed everything – except his accent and the colour of his skin. He also learnt to compromise. In Iran, for example, pets were not allowed in the house but after some gentle family pressure, he agreed to a dog that slept beside their bed. “They’re little things,” Liz says, “but they cause friction and friction can build up, so it’s learning to make minor adjustments.”

Related: How we stay together : 'Find a way to love that thing you want to change'

The couple have two children. When their first child arrived, it pulled everyone together. Neither of them are religious, but they managed to navigate the issue when Liz’s mother, who adored her “Persian princess” granddaughter, insisted she be christened in the Catholic church. Morie’s parents, who were visiting at the time, were gracious when asked. “My father, just after thinking for a second, said, ‘They don’t need our permission. She lives here. They are living there. They have more rights on her than we have,’” Morie says. Both his parents attend the church christening.

The early years with the children were a juggle. Liz was the main breadwinner and often travelling, while Morie was still studying. He was a very hands-on father, doing most of the cooking, cleaning and child wrangling. “When they were little, it was OK,” Liz says, “but it’s that middle chunk when you’re driving them here, there and everywhere, that’s when it can be a bit stressful, you know. [I was] building a career, the biggest financial [responsibility] falls on me and you’re time poor.”

They learnt to put up a united front. “Kids tend to play you off against each other, so you’ve got to have each other’s back,” Liz says. “The important thing is getting on the same wavelength as parents about what your expectations and that of kids are, and I think we managed to do that.”

They admit they bicker but rarely have major arguments. “You have to pick your battles, so individually you work out what’s important to you and that’s what you hang on to. There are the things that you’ll compromise but there are things that you won’t, and I think understanding each other’s red lines is important. We’ve learnt over time what they are, and we accommodate each other.”

They are both quick to apologise and, after every argument, Morie tells his wife he loves her. “She says: ‘By telling me you love me, you can’t solve the problem.’ But honestly, in back of my head, I always think of those five years and how much we missed each other. I don’t want to go back to that time for anything. So I quickly say, ‘I love you’, not just to put out the fire, just saying I love you to show you are still there, the love is there, it hasn’t changed.”

At their daughter’s recent wedding, Morie told the newlyweds they should try to be best friends as well as spouses, as this was their secret to a happy marriage: “I didn’t have anyone here when I came here,” Morie says. “I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t have any family. [Liz] wasn’t only a wife for me. She was my girlfriend, she was my friend, she was a family member. She was everything. And that’s the main thing that easily after 10 minutes’ argument I can go back to her and tell her, ‘I love you’.”

The couple are rightly proud of their 40-year relationship. “We’re living proof that love doesn’t understand culture, religion, colour, accent, languages,” Morie says. “It’s no barrier for love.”

• We want to hear your stories about staying together. Tell us about you, your partner and your relationship by filling in the form here