How we stay together: 'It’s like we’re one person with two personalities'

Alexandra Spring
·8 min read

Names: Jackie Rees-Kafcaloudes and Phil Kafcaloudes
Years together: 34
Occupations: actor and writer

When they woke up the day after their wedding on the island of Santorini in 1988, Jackie Rees and Phil Kafcaloudes felt great. As one of the first couples to marry on the island, they had spent seven long, difficult weeks shuffling through Greek bureaucracy. The effort was worth it – they had a wonderful day. But something else had shifted. “Something felt really good,” Phil says. Jackie nods. “It felt like the next step ... it was the trust in each other after everything we’d been through.”

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The Victorian couple met in 1986 when they were both working for Ita Buttrose at a Sydney radio station. Jackie was an actor, moonlighting as Buttrose’s assistant, while Phil was a producer. He remembers his male coworkers being awestruck when she appeared in the office. “Suddenly, this woman with this huge blonde hair waltzed through and everybody, all the men in the place were like, ‘Who is this?’”

In fact Phil had seen her before. He’d recently been to see the Sydney production of Me and My Girl and been smitten with the character she played. But when they met, he didn’t recognise her. “I said, ‘Jac, are you in Me and My Girl?’ And [she] went, ‘Yes, I was.’ And I said, ‘Great, what role did you have?’ Which is the last thing you say to someone, especially when they’re one of the leads.”

They chatted and flirted at work, in the lift and over the photocopier. Nothing eventuated until Phil split from his then girlfriend and decided to call Jackie. “We were talking for about an hour – I was too scared to ask her out. I was 26,” he remembers. Eventually she suggested drinks, which he swiftly upgraded to dinner.

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Theirs was more than just a physical attraction: “The first time I saw Phil, I thought, ‘cute bum’,” Jackie laughs. Then she adds: “Phil had such a great sense of humour but felt really steady. I felt like he was like a rock ... It was like a grounding for me.”

For Phil, Jackie was larger than life: “Other people that I went out with, they were similar to me. And Jac was a completely different world” He wasn’t just in awe of her, though: “I like to look after Jac too ... sort of nurture [her], and I think Jac needed it at that time.”

They dated for the next few months – or at least Phil thought they did. “He was my Thursday date,” Jackie laughs. They were often separated while she toured Australia, performing in musicals, but they would write long letters to each other.

After one long stretch apart, they decided Phil should move into her small apartment. When he arrived with an enormous 1950s school bookcase, Jackie remembers pausing for a moment: “I thought ‘this guy is fairly serious.’”

Then he proposed, by leading her into an antique store and presenting her with a Victorian engagement ring. She was thrilled but also anxious. She had gone through a heartbreaking divorce a few years earlier and sworn she would never marry again.

She was also worried about their 13-year age difference. “I didn’t think I could have children and when he asked me to marry him, [I thought] he might get to 40 and think, ‘I want to have a kid’. And I wouldn’t be able to do that. And I said to him, ‘Look, let’s stay as we are, because I really can’t go through another divorce.’ And he said, ‘I’ve no intention of that happening, I’ve no intention of getting a divorce.’”

So they were married in Santorini in June 1988. Then they moved to the Blue Mountains, where they settled in Springwood. It was a special time, Jackie says. “It was the first time I think I’d felt a sense of community and a slower pace. We worked on the house together and I think that was another real bonding of just us being together, with our animals.”

The question of having children was also answered. Jackie had not wanted to have children with her first husband, but things were different with Phil. “I felt that I really wanted to have his child. And for a good six months or so, every time I realised that I wasn’t pregnant, it was upsetting. But we worked it out together that if it happened, it happened. If it didn’t happen, it was OK.”

There was a moment when they thought she might be pregnant. “And then, it didn’t happen,” Phil says. “We looked at each other and we had a cry. And it was only a short cry. And then we went, ‘OK’. And it never bothered us again.”

The couple agree on big things like politics and being vegan. Their biggest challenge has been long separations because of Jackie’s frequent tours, but Phil visited her whenever he could. Indeed their move to Melbourne in 1998 came about because she was on tour with Phantom of the Opera in Victoria and he managed to secure a transfer with the ABC.

Although they sometimes argue, there hasn’t ever been any serious conflict: “In 34 years, I don’t think we’ve ever really been angry or had anything against each other,” Phil says. “There’s been nothing that either of us have done that has made the other one really disappointed.”

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“[It] didn’t matter how strong the fight was,” Jackie says. “By the end of the fight, we were actually in fits of laughter. Hugging each other and going, ‘Sorry’. I think that that made a lot of difference.”

They did promise to be monogamous. Jackie’s first marriage had been open, something that was common in the 1970s. But it was difficult, and she says the relationship broke down because of it. “I don’t think [open relationships] work for the longevity of a relationship,” she reflects, adding: “It was such a different time. And I think it might have messed a few people up.”

When she and Phil first got together, it was something they dealt with. She had got used to having affairs when she was away on tour and, before they were engaged, there was a light flirtation with someone else. Phil was very hurt and pointed out that if it continued, he would do the same. Jackie was horrified: “I went, ‘Oh no, I’m not having that’.” Instead they pledged not to fool around. “That’s where the commitment has helped for me,” Jackie says. “To be completely monogamous has really helped.”

Both shake their heads when asked about the age gap. Then Jackie confesses it has sometimes bothered her a little. While she has never felt older than her husband, she has occasionally wondered if their age difference was apparent to others. “It’s like, ‘Are we going to be incompatible, the way we look together?’”

Phil looks surprised: “Something in me feels older than Jac. It’s really strange. I think it comes down to that nurturing thing too. I have never felt younger than Jac ever.” Then he laughs: “Jac was so happy when I got my first grey hairs.” She grins: “Great, he’s catching up.”

Over the years, they have become more grounded and secure in their careers. “We’ve been together through that whole part of life where you have had ambition and you want to do things, and you’re feeling unfulfilled,” Phil says. “And we’ve been fulfilled, both of us, in what we’ve done.”

Being financially and emotionally settled has meant they can focus on each other. Before the Victorian lockdown, Phil decided to take this year off to finish his PhD and write a play, which Jackie will star in. It has meant they are together constantly, something they are enjoying. “I [had] thought, ‘I wonder what it’s going to be like, him being here all the time’, because I’m used to having my space,” Jackie says. “But we’ve worked it out. We still give each other enough space [and spend] enough time together.”

Their connection still feels effortless. “It’s like we’re one person with two personalities,” Jackie says. “It’s like, we’re really together, for me. And it feels like nothing would actually split us.” Phil agrees: “I don’t think anything would.”

Jackie says mutual respect that has helped them stay together. “I really admire Phil,” she says. “I think he’s so multi-talented. And he’s such a kind person. He’s everything in one person for me. I feel like I’m at home with him. He’s my family.”

Phil agrees: “I couldn’t imagine being without Jac.” When she’s not around, their house feels empty. “When she goes [on tour], ‘I’m going, ‘Great, I’ll do whatever I want.’ And then, it’s ‘Well, what do I want to do? I want to go for a bike ride [but] it’s more fun if Jac’s on a bike ride with me.” Their tips for a long lasting relationship are plenty of laughter and enjoying their time together. Jackie adds: “Everything is more fun together.”

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