How we stay together: ‘The secret is just not leaving’

Lifestyle

According to Greg and Tina Chinery, staying together is a reward in itself. “The longer it goes on, the easier it becomes,” Tina explains. “I remember there was a point in my life where I think I loved him more than when we got married.” After coming through the all-consuming ups and downs of kids and family life, there was a turning point “suddenly … you re-engage, and then I thought, ‘Oh, I love you more’.”

Greg also had that realisation: “It’s a bit exciting, because you think, ‘How lucky am I, that I’ve found someone that I can actually really love more?’”

The couple have been together for more than 30 years. They met in Port Hedland, Western Australia in 1988, when she was a student nurse and he was a graduate teacher. The mining town was a different world and one Sunday night, the two ended up at ‘the Nard’ aka the historic Esplanade hotel. Greg remembers that it was Greasy Pole night – “they stuck a $50 note at the top of the flagpole and whoever could get up the greasy pole got it,” he explains. He jokes that it was when an inebriated fellow patron started pummelling him that he caught Tina’s eye. “She realised that I was the kind of bloke that needed someone else to look after him,” he laughs now.

They bumped into each other around town a few times. One night he asked her over to his apartment for dinner. He made her gazpacho. “It was a hot night, so it was cold soup, and that was a win,” he says. “Two cans of cold tomatoes, celery, onion, some chilli, and I was like ‘What a legend’.” The apartment had a “Japanese thing” going with a futon and a table without legs, and as they sat down to eat, Tina remembers being intrigued. “That wouldn’t be done in my family, so maybe some of the attraction was the difference,” she says.

When they were together, the conversation flowed easily, they had similar values and, Tina says, Greg was also great fun to be around. “He was always the centre of the party,” she says. “Any party, even not a party … I find it easier being around people who are upbeat and optimistic.”

Greg was struck by her kindness and generosity. “When I first met her, she was going to see an old chap that lived in one of the nursing homes. She would pop in and see him, just because she wanted to help him out. I’d never done that. It’s like ‘She’s going out of her way, in her own time, to be nice to this guy that’s only got a couple of years left to live’ – and I thought that was pretty amazing.” It’s something he still marvels at: “What you see is what you get. That authenticity is something that I value so much.”

Things got serious not long after that. Tina moved away for a few months to finish her nursing degree but soon returned. They were engaged in 1989 and married in 1990.

Their dynamic changed when the first of their two children arrived. Greg remembers it being a difficult adjustment. “That was tough for both of us, but certainly for me. [I remember thinking] ‘I’m no longer the main act in Tina’s town. She’s got this other person that wants her constant attention’.”

When they had their second child in 1997, they decided Greg would be the primary caregiver. He approached the WA education department for paternity leave but was told that, as a man, he wasn’t entitled to it, and all they could offer was a year off without pay. So he got the union involved. “[We asked] how come a woman can get three years off maternity leave but I can’t?” Eventually, he became one of the first in that industry to get paternity leave.

As a couple, Tina and Greg eschew gender role stereotypes. “Our kids have seen our sharing of duties, it doesn’t matter who cooks [or mows],” says Tina. “We’ve definitely had shared duties, they haven’t been defined.” Greg says he’d been determined to take on feminist values since his university days. “That was really important to me to look at things from an equality point of view – because it just made sense.” It helped their relationship, says Tina. “People have different talents, and therefore he’s better at cooking than me and I’m better at painting. You work out what you’re good at. But we do do a lot together, so if there’s work to be done it’s a very shared environment.” Greg adds: “We don’t keep a balance sheet.”

They’ve also set goals for themselves that go beyond the family and they work together to accomplish them. For example when Greg left teaching, he decided to do winemaking and the family moved to Manjimup, where they set up a vineyard. Then Tina got a job opportunity in the Pilbara so the family moved there together. “As much as I love the kids more than anything, we’ve always had shared life plans that aren’t just about children,” says Tina. “We’re always discussing next plans or things. We leave our options open,” she says.

A couple of years ago, she was offered a job in Queensland, a high-profile position as the head of Cairns and Hinterland hospital and health service. It was a big move away from their lives and families in WA. “But again, we talked about it. We weighed it up and made the jump.”

Both their children have left home now and although they both found it difficult at first, having independent lives helped. “We always had something else plus the kids, because the kids were always going to grow up and want to be independent. So they weren’t the centre of our universe. We had a bigger universe. Of course, they’re everything to us, but you would want them to be independent adults, so part of your life is letting them go.”

Their most challenging time as a couple came when their son was suffering from an undiagnosed illness. His symptoms had a huge impact on the family, and while both were worried, they often disagreed on how to look after him. Eventually he was diagnosed with systemic mastocytosis, a disorder that results in an excess of mast cells in the body. The diagnosis was a relief. “The thing that impacted us most is we both felt depressed. We’re pretty optimistic people [and] it impacted us emotionally,” says Tina. “But funnily enough, now that we know and he knows, it’s much easier. But during the unknown time, I think that mental health and wellbeing were probably the biggest thing that we’ve had to manage.”

They were determined to stick it out, though. “I come from a long line of divorced family members,” Greg says, “[and] when we got married, I decided, despite what happens, I’m just not going to leave – because I think the secret is just not leaving.”

For the last decade years or so, the couple have spent time hiking and exploring wilderness areas across Australia and overseas together. So far they’ve ticked off the South Coast Track and the Western Arthur Ranges in Tasmania, the Larapinta Trail in the NT, the Great Ocean Road Track, the Cape to Cape Track and the Kumano Kodo Trail in Japan. Relying on each other in the wilderness is bonding, says Greg. “You turn off your phones and you shut away from the world, and it really is a good way to connect not only with something primordial, but also with each other.” And, says Tina, “we cope because we know when each other’s probably not coping so well.”

Pushing themselves and doing new things are crucial for the pair. “We don’t go to easy places at our age,” says Tina. “And doing challenging things together seems to invigorate the interest in each other as well. Because some of the things we do are pretty entertaining and hard. I think that helps strengthen the bond, because you do it with that person. Your shared memory of that is, ‘Oh, that was hard. How did we survive that?’”

Greg agrees this attitude keeps their relationship fresh: “Discover new things together. Whether it’s a new country, a new trek, new walking gear – just be prepared to reinvent yourself and take the person along with you.”