How we stay together: ‘Sometimes it was just the four of us against the world’

Alexandra Spring
·8 min read

Names: Jane and Jim Burnett
Years together: 42
Occupations: administrator and geologist

In 2017, Jane and Jim Burnett spent most of the year on opposite sides of the planet. He was in Malaysia while she was in New Zealand, both with busy jobs. Yet the distance didn’t stop them from speaking twice a day. “People would say, ‘What do you talk about?’” says Jane. “And I’d say, ‘All the stuff that’s going on every day.’ We’ve never run out of things to talk about.” Now both in their 60s and settled in Waikato in New Zealand, the couple have been together for more than 40 years and one of their greatest pleasures is still chatting to each other.

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They met in 1986 when they were part of a fencing club at the University of Natal in South Africa. She was 17, he was 20, and both vividly remember the moment they locked eyes. “He had long, dark, curly hair … and I immediately thought, ‘Ah, quite a cool guy,’” says Jane. Jim is more straightforward: “I thought she was hot.”

They became friends within the group, going to intervarsity competitions and having parties together. But Jim was a few years ahead of Jane so when he finished his degree, he left. Yet there was still something between them. After a few months apart, they started writing to each other and catching up when they could. Finally, Jim returned to university for further studies and moved in with Jane. “We shared a house with some other students and it was a lovely year. And at the end [of] that we thought we want to stay together.”

The couple share a similar social and political worldview and have always agreed on things like family and money. “The other thing is that neither of us is overly ambitious. So it wasn’t like one of us had to get ahead. We always did everything together,” Jane says. While they didn’t have set life goals, they did have similar aspirations: “We wanted to live an interesting life,” Jane explains.

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Things got serious after they finished university, when Jim was offered a geology job far from home. “The conditions of his employment were that if he was single, he would be in the hostel, but if he was married, he’d get a house,” Jane says. “So we got married and we got a house. A very nice house.” They were young and in love and marriage was a good option. “I didn’t see any great harm in getting married,” Jim deadpans.

They were in no rush to have children, particularly as Jane was finishing her master’s degree. When they moved to the regional town, she became a teacher, which confirmed her decision. “Because I taught teenagers, I was very wary of them. So I used to love it when it got to 3 o’clock and they were their parent’s responsibility and not mine. And I thought, ‘Oh, I could never imagine having that responsibility myself.’ ” And they wanted to enjoy their time together, Jim says. “Once you have a family, that time is shared. And that’s fine, but there’s a new responsibility now. And so having that time together was pretty cool.”

The first of their two daughters was born eight years after they were married. The much-anticipated arrival changed everything. Jim swapped a senior managerial position with long hours for a more junior role so he could spend more time with his family. And for Jane, even though she loved being a mum, it meant she didn’t pursue a career after that. She doesn’t regret it though: “I was a university student in the 70s at the height of the women’s movement and I absolutely subscribe to [it], that women’s place is in the world and they can do anything. I can honestly say I’ve never earned my own living, and I’ve always done jobs that fitted in with what everyone else was doing,” she says. “We decided once we were going to have children, that they were very important and that we’d give them the best kind of childhood that we could.”

But she points out her daughters are both very independent. “Well educated, have good jobs and are completely independent. They both have partners, but they are completely independent. So they are what I should have been. I still often think, I haven’t really improved my situation from my grandmother or mother, but that’s not true either because I did go to university. And I have had a choice of jobs, even though they’ve been part-time.” Instead she’s made a trade off: “ I think my replacement for a career is to do things that have some value. So I’ve always tried to do work that is important in the community in some way.”

The pair were very aligned in their parenting and over the years, the family did everything together. They moved internationally a few times because of Jim’s job, which drew them closer together. “Sometimes it was just the four of us against the world,” Jane says. When Jim was offered a job in China, they decided the family would have a base in New Zealand, while he commuted. It wasn’t an easy time, particularly as the children were young and Jim was travelling frequently. “We got through just by gritting our teeth really,” Jane says.

But the decision was a pragmatic one, Jim explains. “We knew it was not forever ... I’ll have this hardship of working in China and you’ll have this hardship of living by yourself with the girls. It’s a kind of shared hardship … But if any of that ever became too difficult for either partner, the hardship became too difficult, we’d just back out of it straight away and revert to something else.”

Once that contract finished, he was based in New Zealand for the rest of the girls’ schooling. Family is paramount, says Jane. “It’s the most important thing. More important than jobs or position or money. And as I said, neither of us is overly ambitious which is probably just as well.”

After the girls finished their schooling and went to university, Jim was posted to Malaysia in 2018. Initially Jane went along, but when she was offered a full-time job in New Zealand, they decided she should take it. Despite those twice-daily calls, it was a challenge to be apart. They would meet every six weeks, either in Auckland, Kuala Lumpur or somewhere in between. “We had an agreement that said, we’re not going to meet unless you’ve got the next one planned too,” Jim says. Jane adds: “So that when you say goodbye, you know the next time you’re going to see each other.”

Although they both appreciate the opportunities that Jim’s work has brought them, both have had to compromise. Says Jim: “Jane would be concerned about me in a new position and I might be concerned about Jane having to adapt to a new city, country, whatever it is … But [often] it’s a time/cost thing. So Jane will say, ‘I can look after the home area, and you can go earn for a while.’ So it’s … a support thing together saying, ‘You might be better at doing that and I might be better doing this, and that’ll work for the relationship’.”

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Yet being together has never been difficult for them. “[People say] marriage is hard work, I always say, ‘No, it’s not’,” says Jane. “It sounds smug, and I don’t mean to be smug, I think we’re just incredibly lucky … It’s not that we don’t disagree about stuff – we do – but it’s never been an issue.”

For Jim, it’s easy spending time with his wife: “It’s never a case of trying to find something to talk about. It doesn’t mean we’re garrulous people, we’re not just talking about rubbish. There were times for example in Malaysia, I had to travel quite a lot and Jane would come with me, and there’s two to three hours in the car together during a work day that were fantastic, because we could talk about all sorts of things.”

Jane smiles: “The thing is we just love to be together. We enjoy each other’s company. There’s never anybody that I’d rather spend time with.”

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