Past relationships and a desire to legally wed taught Mandy and Clair Cordo that equality is the backbone of their life together. They share the hard lessons they have learned on their journeys in this third story on love in the 21st century

Part 3 in our 7-part Modern Love series

When Mandy Cordo gave up her son to the system, she knew she had to turn her life around.

She was abusing alcohol, popping pills and faking migraines to get access to prescription drug Pethidene when reality struck.

"I was drinking too much and I thought I was going to hurt him. He was 2."

Her civil union partner of 2 years, Clair Cordo, was also on a collision course with fate.


Clair was in a lesbian relationship with a woman in an open marriage when the three small children she had come to love as her own were taken away from her, twice. It left her vulnerable to a second relationship with an untrustworthy woman that lasted nine draining years.

When Mandy and Clair met by chance in 2005, they struck up an immediate friendship which later turned to love, but they say it was their failed relationships which taught them - through different lessons - that they must always remain equals.


Mandy, 45, had two bad marriages in Australia before she realised she might be a lesbian.

She knew the first marriage, to a man whose car was the initial attraction, was wrong the day of the 1987 wedding.

By that stage her partner had already cheated on her but the 18-year-old was so desperate to leave home when they met two years earlier that she put aside the indiscretion.

Mandy wanted freedom but instead she got neglected and found herself bored and lonely with a husband who worked in another Australian state five days a week. She felt like a maid with no friends and fell in with the other wives in the area, drinking every day.

"That was to numb the pain."

Mandy's only role models were her parents-in-law, whom she "idolised", after her violent father took her away from her mother at the age of 7.

But their presence wasn't enough to save her marriage after Mandy delivered her son alone in hospital while her husband was away.

"The only reason I stayed after my son was born was because I didn't want him growing up the way I did."

The relationship made her wary and it was eight years before she began dating another man.

It was 1998 and she was living and working in a caravan park. She was still drinking but not as much and was in the process of regaining custody of her son from extended family when the new relationship began.

"He was actually quite dominant, quite brutal mentally. And again [I was] vulnerable, [I] let it happen."

She credits relationship number two for the stability which helped her get her son back on weekends, by now aged 11. But she says her husband became jealous of her son to a point where she would not leave them alone together in case he said something hurtful. Despite that she got on well with the man's 13-year-old daughter and still does today.

To keep the relationship going and at the same time re-establish links with her New Zealand-based family including her mother, Mandy moved the family to Auckland. Eventually, after two stints in the city her husband left for good.

"He started downgrading me in front of people. I was over men. I thought I'm going to live by myself for the rest of my life, I'm going to be an old spinster. I could handle that. As long as I had my son in my life I really didn't care."

Naive love

Clair met and moved in with her first partner in Napier at the age of 23.

"She was working as a nurse in a sexual health clinic and I went in to try to find out about safe sex for women."

The woman was in an open heterosexual marriage with three preschool children and Clair moved to their property after the three adults had a meeting to discuss the rules of the arrangement.

"I was blissfully unaware thinking 'well, as grown-ups this has worked out quite well'."

But after six months the husband made claims that were acted on without evidence.

"So without any social welfare intervention or police coming round or any kind of investigation into those claims, we woke up to a door knock to us getting served with orders and we had to pack our bags and leave the property and the kids were removed from our care.

"It was awful. I was gobsmacked and he was actually sitting in the lounge watching it all unfold and I was just looking at him going I can't believe that someone has just done this."

It took the two women a year to regain full custody of the children.

They were both working fulltime but Clair was the primary caregiver and homemaker, enabling her partner to do the thing she loved most - party.

"We had two rules in our relationship and one was there was to be no physical violence and the other rule was there was to be no sexual infidelity and everything else was up for negotiation, so she pretty much lived her life. She had freedom to do whatever she wanted to do."

Eventually her partner revealed an affair and Clair promptly left, but she lost the children too.

"I really loved her and loved the kids but all I could see was just a relationship of someone cheating on me whenever. I never thought I would need to protect my relationship with the children but when we broke up she took it away."

As a young lesbian in the 1990s Clair says she had "no framework" for what a long-term gay relationship looked like. Her next one would prove long-term at nine years, even including an informal wedding before the Civil Union Bill was passed, but it was not ideal.

"I couldn't rely on her to not keep making executive decisions and keeping me out of the loop.

"I kept thinking 'I've just got to love more, and compromise more, and lose more of myself and change my expectations'. It was all very 'I must find a way to keep being okay with this situation because I'm the one that had the wedding'. I took my vows quite seriously. But in the end it was like throwing love down a vacuum. There just wasn't enough of me to match her level of need."

Auckland University psychologist Dr Nickola Overall says relationships are more about fairness than equality - and those joint efforts are not only restricted to domestic chores.

"Who does all of the work in maintaining the relationship? If one person is always organising the activities they do together and always the one organising the family holiday, then that can become problematic because inherently people feel it's not fair and the effort they're putting in is taken for granted."

The same can occur in emotional disclosure, intimacy, sex and all behaviours relevant to a relationship, she says.

Research shows that stress at work spills over into relationships, says Dr Overall.

"Even when men and women are working the same and devoting the same amount to their career, women are still doing more of managing the home and managing the relationship.

"Gaining equality and career doesn't mean the situation is the same for men and women. Instead women are usually over-burdened."

In Clair's case she says both her partners assumed that male role - a reflection perhaps on the fact Clair did not have a good male role model after her mother remarried, leaving little contact with her father.

Today's hectic pace of life is also placing strain on relationships, Dr Overall says.

"Life is getting really fast. People are working harder, they're working longer. We have higher goals in terms of the incomes we want and what we want out of our careers and that leaves a lot less time and energy to devote to maintaining our relationships with our partner and our family life."

Studies show higher fatigue levels increase conflict in relationships and reduces the degree to which people will constructively resolve those conflicts.

"Relationships aren't easy," Dr Overall says. "We take for granted how important they are. If you ask people what the most important thing in their life is primarily they'll say their love for somebody else ... yet relationships get overlooked a lot."

Relationships are actually vitally important to personal health and wellbeing, and are the foundation of a balanced family and effective parenting, she says.

"If we have bad relationships, if we get divorced, if we lose our partner we are more likely to die earlier, have heart attacks, die in accidents, suffer depression, and commit suicide. Relationships are just so critical to who we are as human beings and how we can thrive psychologically and physically."

But relationships are hard to maintain because they require a lot of effort and people don't recognise that.

"As soon as you enter a relationship your hopes, your dreams, your happiness, what you do every day now becomes intimately tied or dependant on the hopes and dreams of that other person, their decision to maintain commitment to you."

Unbreakable bond

When Mandy had a heart scare it was the turning point in her and Clair's friendship.

"That's when I realised my feelings had changed," Clair says.

The pair had been living and working together after the breakdown of their previous relationships.

"So we really liked each other before we loved each other," says Clair.

Since then they have been through several health scares including breast cancer and a double mastectomy for Mandy, and dealing with a debilitating back injury Clair suffered at the hands of an autistic teenager while working in mental health. It hasn't softened Mandy's commitment to work - the pair spend up to 70 hours each a week running a motor lodge in Greenlane - but it has meant a new outlook on life.

"We laugh so friggin' much," Mandy says. "Even when it's the worst time, like with my double mastectomy we've laughed because life's too short. I don't sweat the small stuff now."

Importantly they maintain their individual interests - Mandy will resume softball and playing the drums when she can lift her arms properly again and Clair is considering joining a book club, and getting a puppy.

Clair says being treated like an equal is vital.

"We make equal decisions in our finances, and where we go on holiday and what our money gets spent on, and what we do with spare cash, and it's all communicating and making decisions together which has been awesome."

On February 21 they will legally marry and have planned a 1920s-themed wedding complete with flappers and gambling tables. It will reinforce the surname they chose to adopt at their last wedding - Cordo - which means "I give you my heart".

It's their dream to one day own some land down south but for now they say communication, trust and respecting each other as equals and individuals has set them up for a life of love.

"Even with the cancer we have an excellent life," Clair says.

"We have a great relationship that is filled with love.

"Even though we live and work together, even when we're doing separate jobs on the property we still text each other and say 'Thinking about you' or 'Love you' and I think keeping up with that, that keeps your love tank full," says Clair. "It keeps your good feelings up."

Mandy says she often leaves little love notes for Clair.

"I think it's more that we've stared death in the face, that if we go out, we want the last thing that we do to mean something," she says.

"So we make sure that we don't get angry. And it still means as much today as it did years ago."

The series

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