Simon Collins is the Herald’s education reporter.

Modern Love: A fresh outlook on love, honour and obey

Surnames, bank accounts and space to be an individual can all be important as modern Kiwi couples 'renegotiate love'. Joseph and Liz share their experiences in part six of a seven-part series

Liz Low and husband Joseph Beckett feel strongly about keeping equality in marriage. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Liz Low and husband Joseph Beckett feel strongly about keeping equality in marriage. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Part 6 in our 7-part Modern Love series

When Liz Low married Joseph Beckett a year ago, Joseph wanted Liz to keep her own surname.

After living together in Sydney for four years, they married in a low-key ceremony with just four guests soon after moving to New Zealand, Joseph's homeland, at the end of 2012.

"We wanted to get married for ourselves alone, to celebrate what our relationship had become despite some difficult times," Liz explains.

She "wasn't fussed either way" about adopting Joseph's surname. But Joseph was against it.

"I was quite adamant that Liz retained her surname so that she was still herself, because taking your name and all the rest of it almost implies ownership by the husband over his wife," he says.

"I feel quite strongly that we are walking side by side together. It's extremely important in a relationship to maintain that equality."

For the same reason, they keep separate bank accounts for monthly allowances of $1400 each, as well as paying the rest of their incomes into a joint account for household expenses.

On both counts, they are still surprisingly unusual. Although there is no New Zealand data, a 2009 survey of wedding notices in the New York Times found the share of brides taking their husbands' names fell from 98 per cent of those where their new surnames were clear in the early 1970s to 61 per cent in the early 1980s, but has stayed at just over 60 per cent ever since.

Only 25 per cent of these US brides, where the information was available, kept their own surnames in the latest years of the survey. The other 14 per cent either kept their maiden name as a middle name, hyphenated their own and their husband's names, or adopted a new name.

A 2006 British survey found 59 per cent of married couples pooled all their money and a further 10 per cent of husbands passed their whole incomes over to their wives. Only 14 per cent pooled their money partially, like Liz and Joseph, 9 per cent kept their money totally separate, and 8 per cent of husbands kept all of their wages except for a housekeeping allowance for their wives.

Standing proud

For both Liz and Joseph, building self-esteem has been a key thread through their lives.

Liz, 32, grew up in Australia, where her parents divorced when she was 11. Liz and her brother were split week-about between their mother and their father, who acquired a new partner and her two children.

"After their divorce, my brother and I needed support and I approached my parents separately twice when I was 13," she says.

"My dad told me to stop whinging. He said, 'You don't have problems, my friend in a wheelchair has problems.'

"So I asked my mum if I could come and live with her, but Mum said, 'No, you can't live with me because I need my personal time now, I need me time.'

"I got through it, but that just taught me that I was not worth helping, my opinion didn't matter, no one would listen to me."

Liz believes her low self-esteem led her into a succession of relationships with men who treated her badly.

"I didn't want a big career or to go travelling, I just wanted to find love," she says. "I know that sounds really sappy and pathetic, and maybe that's because I'm romantic, or perhaps it's stemming from my self-esteem, I just needed to find a person who would love me. Because of that it made me put up with a shitty relationship."

Her first live-in partner left her to do "most of the cooking and the cleaning and I'd even do his ironing".

"He didn't appreciate it, he was just interested in doing his own thing."

A second man "was ignoring me and being really hostile to me, almost like emotionally manipulating me".

A third, whom she married, was unemployed, useless at chores and "clingy". When Liz, a graphic designer, was working at home, he'd say, "Come and sit next to me, I miss you."

When she finally met Joseph, she was relieved to find someone who understood her at a deep level.

"I had quite a difficult childhood upbringing and ended up having quite low self-esteem, and I'm really lucky that Joseph has been through that himself because when I'm feeling a bit depressed, struggling on a particular topic, or if my mum pushes my buttons, I have this person in my life that supports me and knows exactly why I'm upset. I don't have to explain to him."

Joseph, 34, grew up in Lower Hutt. His parents separated when he was 9, and he traces his low self-esteem to his parents being distracted by other things.

"My father put a lot of preference into his social life as opposed to his children," he says. "And my mother was dealing with her problems so, even though I know she loved us and she did try, I guess I grew up not valuing myself because my parents didn't have the time for me."

Joseph moved in with a girlfriend when he was 19 and she became pregnant almost immediately. She also had a toddler from a previous relationship, so Joseph ended up helping to care for two children and doing the majority of the household chores, as well as working fulltime. Then she left him and had a third child with another man.

A year later Joseph moved to Sydney with a new partner "to try and get a bit of time out to myself and rebuild my life".

But his partner became distant and sometimes "blatantly derogatory".

"Because of the previous relationship I was so desperate to hang on to it and make it work, I took a lot of that and didn't stand up for myself," he says.

"Now I know I need to maintain integrity. If I stand up for myself and the relationship is over, then maybe it was not such a good relationship in the first place."

Standing equal

Joseph, an information technology (IT) engineer, met Liz at work. They went out for a while, then Joseph broke it off because he was afraid of being hurt again.

They made up again soon, but Liz had taken it badly: "That was like a really horrible thing to have happened so early on, and it wasn't for a few years that I was able to let go of that. It always made me feel like I could be cast aside at any moment."

Joseph moved in with her much sooner than either had planned because his daughter, who was then 9, had come to live with him in Sydney, and he could no longer share a flat with his father. Liz suddenly acquired a live-in partner and a step-daughter.

It was difficult.

They almost broke up again in 2011 when Liz moved out briefly. But when they reconciled this time, it was for good.

"That's when we did talk about the way we split up the money, the rent and things like that," Liz says.

They had been splitting household costs equally but Liz quietly resented it, feeling Joseph should be paying more because of his daughter. Joseph now pays more because he earns more than Liz and they both put all of their salaries into a joint account apart from their equal personal allowances.

They share the household chores.

"We share the cooking," says Joseph. "We both actually quite like cooking, although one traditional old-school relationship thing that we have kind of developed is the barbecue - I'm the one, I'm manning the barbecue."

Liz: "And I make the salad. We play to our strengths - he's good with curry and meat dishes. I'm good with salad and quiches and baking."

They would like to have children together and, Liz says: "It's really important for me to be a stay-at-home mum for the first couple of years. Plus Joseph earns more, so it makes sense.

"My attitude is, while it's important to make ends meet, giving someone your time has way more value than what you can buy them. I want to always be available to my husband and kids, no matter how preoccupied I am."

Side by side

Joseph and Liz got married as a sign of commitment to each other.

"Of course you don't need to be married to be in a successful, loving, committed relationship, but it is a loving thing to do that should be available to everybody in the world," Liz says.

"When we almost parted ways but decided to stick it out, my attitude towards marriage shifted.

"I had sudden clarity. I realised that I would do anything for this man, was no longer afraid to admit it to anyone, and committed myself completely to him.

"I wanted to be able to introduce myself saying, 'Hi, I'm Liz, Joseph's wife.' For me personally, that statement says, 'I think that Joseph is the best person in the world and I'm proud that he has chosen me to share his life. I'm going to be there for him no matter what happens to us."'

But their marriage carefully leaves space for each partner's sense of who they are as a person.

"We both need to pursue our own hobbies to recharge our batteries," says Liz.

"We maintain our individuality whilst being together," adds Joseph.

"Another important thing is that we discuss everything. Every couple has their arguments, Liz and I are no exception to that, but we do talk things out."

Joseph learned about different personality types when he was an IT manager. While he loves reading and analysing, he sees Liz as "very creative", "a visual person" - "so I guess I have more of a strength with Liz if I can communicate in her language".

"He's very emotionally intelligent and so am I, so communication isn't a problem," Liz says. "It's awesome to not struggle to explain your emotions to the person you share your life with."

She says she and Joseph respect each other's opinions and past experiences, "acknowledging that person may struggle with a particular issue".

"You don't have to understand it, but at least acknowledge it, because people have issues," she says.

"And people are different," adds Joseph. "People process things in different ways. Things that are of no consequence to me matter to her, they are really important.

"And so is really walking together. We are together, but we walk side by side next to each other.

"There is no co-dependence. Don't be with someone just because they are filling a hole in your life," Joseph says.

The series

Part 1: Something old, something new
Part 2: Equal roles in a lifetime shared
Part 3: Love at end of long hard road
Part 4: Better to talk than bottle it up
Part 5: Coming out and staying the distance
Part 6 (today): Joseph and Liz
Part 7: Caring and sharing with baby on way

- NZ Herald

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