Traditional ideas about what makes a loving relationship are changing. In the first of a seven-part series, Simon Collins talks to a couple who tried total freedom — but decided they needed to invent their own rules

Part 1 in our 7-part Modern Love series

Dawn was brought up to believe she could do anything - but feels exhausted with trying out all the options that are now open.

Raised in Hawaii by hippie parents, she had a lesbian relationship with an Australian woman in Japan, has just spent a year trying to bring her scattered family together and is now trying to build a more traditional marriage with her Maori husband in Auckland.

Her husband, Bill, ended an eight-year relationship with the Pakeha mother of his son eight years ago, partly because she was not willing to join in his embrace of a Maori heritage that he had lost.

He and Dawn are now consciously trying to create not just a way of relating to each other, but some kind of cultural anchor that can reconnect them to traditions that have been severed.


"It's quite scary when you think about it - there are actually no restrictions," Dawn says. "We had dinner with Persian friends recently and some decisions seem so simple for them - you don't spend your entire 20s thinking, 'am I gay or straight?' or 'do I want to live in New Zealand or Japan or Hawaii or Costa Rica or wherever?'

"I spent my entire 20s trying to make decisions that other people would have had made for them - am I going to have a family, am I going to marry a man, am I going to live in Hawaii or overseas? All those options were open for me and I felt like I needed to try them all out."

In their own way, Dawn and Bill's struggles exemplify the issues that many New Zealand couples are grappling with as our society tries to find new ways to love and care for one another without abuse or violence.

The old patriarchal family roles, where Dad earned the money and controlled things while Mum stayed home with the kids, are being replaced by at least an ideal of gender equality.

Women and men are both trying to stretch relationships to let each person "grow" as an individual, while somehow retaining a tight family unit for mutual support.

In seven interviews with diverse Kiwi couples recruited through the Herald's reader panel and Facebook page to tell their stories over the next week, we have also found a consistent commitment to nurturing each other and children as "good people", with an explicit rejection of materialistic values. This means, for example, valuing family time and couple time over spending too much time in paid work.

It also means - no surprises here - that good communication is at the heart of successful modern relationships. Marriages are no longer primarily economic units as in the agricultural era, when men and women were jointly responsible for basic subsistence, or even as in the industrial era, when men did heavy manual work outside while women did the domestic work. Most women as well as men now work outside the home in less physically demanding work, and relationships have become much more about mutual psychological support than about money.

"We are expecting so much more of our partner now," says University of Auckland psychologist Dr Nickola Overall.

"Now that we have all this freedom, now that we are seeking equality, now that we have all these choices and can be what we want to be, actually it puts so much demand on our relationships that our relationships are not just about providing relatedness, they are about supporting our individual ends and everything we can do."

Dawn's journey

Dawn's parents rejected every inherited convention. Her father came from a "strict German Catholic" family, her mother's family was "Scottish-American Southern Baptist". Dawn's parents escaped to Hawaii.

"Both became very much hippies," she says. "We lived out in the sticks, with no electricity. It was very idealistic. I lived in tents growing up, literally. The house is still on water catchment today. We didn't have piped water, we didn't have a telephone."

Her dad was an artist and largely dispensed with clothes.

"He has one pair of shoes and one pair of pants, because he doesn't have to wear anything on laundry day," Dawn says. "As an artist, he would spend a lot of time sitting down, looking at the beauty of the trees and the sky and occasionally getting very angry for no apparent reason."

Individual self-expression ruled. The family "never sat down to have a meal together".

But somebody had to feed and raise children. As Dawn tells it, her mother was the one who ended up going out to work, as a family therapist, and doing the practical things such as stringing a phone line from the neighbour's place when they finally decided they needed a phone and mending the breaks in the line after every storm.

Dawn, now 35, followed the family pattern of striking out anew. She went to Japan to teach English and hooked up with another English teacher, a woman.

"When I met her, it was unexpected. I had pretty much been straight before that," she says.

But her free-form upbringing meant a same-sex relationship was just "something that people do, it wasn't a big thing". Her new partner was "very Australian, very outspoken".

"We were in that young-and-travel-the-world kind of mode. She was leading a volunteer trip to Papua New Guinea and I joined that, and the next year I took a volunteer trip to India. We went to Thailand twice together. She believes in, 'work hard, make money, spend money'."

They didn't live together in Japan, but set up house in Auckland in 2006. They hardly knew anybody here.

"We picked a country and came here, which was how my parents got to Hawaii in the first place, so for me that was very normal," says Dawn.

But her partner set a frantic pace, working "full-time-plus", volunteering, and organising constant social activities.

"We'd be over to Waiheke one weekend, then we'd be all over the place the next weekend, we'd be driving to Christchurch in four days with her family in a campervan another weekend, so yeah, it was fun but it was exhausting," Dawn says.

Gradually, she realised that it wasn't really what she wanted. "I had got caught up in the excitement of it, but at the same time I wanted to do something a lot more settled, a lot more kind of traditional."

Bill's journey

Bill's parents also escaped from a traditional culture. They moved to the city because of "family politics".

"My father was supposed to forge connections to money, power and land within Maori society," Bill says. "My mother is from a different class of Maori society and he wasn't supposed to marry her."

Bill, now 38, was a spoiled youngest child, much younger than his six siblings, who were more like aunts and uncles. Every so often his parents would drive home for a tangi, and for a couple of days Bill would be immersed in a Maori world, but in the city he grew up in an almost totally mainstream Pakeha society.

He met his first partner on a television production course when he was 21. "She was funny, she had a specific sense of humour. And she was also very centred, down-to-earth."

He moved in with her, at first in a garage behind her parents' house and then in Auckland, where they moved for work. They had a son who is now 10, but Bill found aspects of the relationship increasingly oppressive. His partner was an accountant and controlled the money, allowing each of them just $30 a week for personal spending.

Bill got work in the TV industry and began to learn te reo Maori. He wanted to spend more time visiting his widowed mother, now 83 and far away from Auckland, but his partner felt uncomfortable there and could offer little to support his efforts to reconnect with his heritage. When their son was 2, Bill left.

"It was my decision to leave," he says. "I believed that I had very little control of the situation and that the best thing to do to take control was to separate."

Dawn and Bill

Dawn's first relationship ended more unexpectedly - her partner suddenly found a new girlfriend. While rebuilding her social network, Dawn hunted on Facebook to reconnect with Bill, a "nice guy", she had met a short time before.

Bill was a willing shoulder: "It was clear that Dawn needed some company and I was happy to give it, and I enjoyed her company."

As the friendship gradually developed into a romantic relationship, Dawn found herself quite ready for the switch.

"I don't think I necessarily chose to be with a man, but he appeared at the right time and that's the way things went and I accepted that. I was actually very relieved and very happy to be in that situation because I don't really like to wrestle with the arm of society. Being gay, I felt I had to either hide it or really put it out there and be strong and proud with it. Personally, I didn't feel right doing that. I feel fortunate that I can now just say, 'My husband'."

They found that they both yearned to reconnect with their family traditions. Dawn's grandmothers were both Native American but her family had lost touch with their culture. Instead, she has learned te reo Maori.

She spent last year in mainland America and brought her whole disjointed family together for her father's 75th birthday. But she realised that her family was always going to be scattered, so she felt no anchor there and it became clear that Bill was not willing to move to the States.

"His family has more roots here than I will ever have," she says.

"I think I was the one to finally state the decision that yes, I'm coming back."

They had had an informal wedding before she left and formalised it in a registry office when she came back in March. She took his surname.

"Is it the right path to get married, change your name, have children?" she asks. "I was taught it wasn't, that you never give up your independence for any man. It took me till much later to realise that something I do want is a family. Where I come from it's quite a thing to retain your name, especially if you are known in your profession, and retain your independence and individuality. But I never felt particularly close to my ancestry or my name, and I wanted to be part of a unit. I wanted to have one central point for decision-making rather than, 'you're an individual, I'm an individual'."

Dawn is a kind of professional multiculturalist. She runs workshops about cultural awareness and organises volunteer tutors for new migrants. She is willing to play the traditional female support role when Bill speaks in Maori at public events, networking in advance to feed him the information he needs. "I don't want to be the one to stand up and speak. They say it's my role to support," she says.

At home, she and Bill live in extreme simplicity, rejecting the materialism that both disliked in their previous relationships. They sit on thin couch-seats on bare polished wooden floors. Dawn has grown a vegetable garden and has taught Bill how to look after it, as well as how to cook and clean.

"There were times he was in tears over cooking an omelette because he didn't know how to cook," she says.

Bill is a willing learner, though

"I manage the household chores and Bill does a good share of them."

She manages the money too. They have a joint bank account and Dawn records everything they spend in a spreadsheet, texting Bill at his work to query unexplained items. At first Bill resented it, but now feels "a veil is lifted" and he has learned to save.

He is the tech expert, creates computer games in his spare time and does most of the driving.

"I always like him to drive," Dawn says. "It's partly because I don't like driving and it's partly because I like that leadership thing."

She wants him to lead on big issues such as religion and politics.

"I like deferring to what my husband wants. It gives me a sense of security, that it's not all my decision, to feel that I can trust someone else to make some decisions. It's tiring to be an individual all the time," she says.

"When it's time to vote or something, I ask my husband, 'Who do you think I should vote for?' My mother would think that's disgusting.

"He doesn't impose his opinions on me at all, but I quite like to have one person in charge of making the decisions.

"I say, 'You make the final decision, even though I have been influencing it because I've been talking about this for the last three weeks'."

In this, and in other ways, they are consciously re-creating old customs.

"We do a lot of trying to build traditions without having a lot to build on," says Dawn.

"It's quite nice, if I'm asking a question, we can look up - how was this done by New Zealanders, how was this done in Britain, how was this done by Maori?

"Seven times out of 10 he won't have a clue - and that is something we can learn together."

The series

Part 1 (Today): Dawn and Bill
Part 2: Len and Jenny
Part 3: Mandy and Clair
Part 4: Craig and Kate
Part 5: Andrew and Steven
Part 6: Joseph and Liz
Part 7: Lewis and Clem