Names: John and Marjorie Barrett
Years together: 42
It was July 1978 and they were in a massage class with “hardly any clothes on” but it was John’s kind eyes that Marjorie Barnett noticed. She was 35 with three kids and had escaped a difficult first marriage, while he was 22 and newly arrived in Melbourne from Queensland. “I learned from the first marriage that I know a nice man when I see one,” she says of her now-husband.
Although the attraction wasn’t immediate, John was drawn to her. After a few weeks of training, they decided to practise together between sessions. One night she came over to his place. “It was then that I became aware of a pretty strong attraction,” he says.
Things moved quickly. John remembers an evening about a month later: “It was just the two of us, sitting around after dinner, and I remember feeling, ‘This feels comfortable. This feels good. I think we really may have a future. It’s not just a fling.’” Marjorie moved into John’s share house and, by November 1978, they were committed to each other.
John did not dive in without hesitation. About three months after they met, he remembers thinking, “Do I want to do this?” It was “like taking a deep breath, before taking a plunge. I just needed to feel as if I was ready. It’s obviously a major life turning point, and for us, not a particularly conventional choice,” but, “We had every indication that it would work [and] we enjoyed being with each other.”
Marjorie and John Barrett on a tandem ride around Tasmania in late 1979
Although they came from different backgrounds, they were headed in a similar direction. “We were interested in environmental issues and alternative lifestyles, because this was the late 70s,” Marjorie says. “People were trying out new things and realising that you can’t keep destroying the planet.” They became involved in the No Dams movement and went to rallies together.
They also discovered a shared love of cycling. John had ridden across the US two years earlier and wanted to do something similar down the east coast of Australia. Marjorie was keen. “At first, I wasn’t sure Marj was serious, because she didn’t even have a bike at the time, but she soon got one and proved to be a totally capable rider.”
Then they discovered tandem bikes: “I thought, ‘This is an interesting way to ride,’” John says. “Togetherness –and you can save a bit of energy if you’re doing it right.”
In late 1979 they rode their tandem from Cairns to Melbourne. That time together, cycling by day and sharing a tent each night, solidified things, particularly for Marjorie: “At first I thought this wouldn’t be a lasting relationship …that we’d just have fun doing things together, and then probably go our separate ways, because I was so much older. But then when we did the Cairns-to-Melbourne trip on the tandem, which was about eight weeks, I realised that we could coordinate with each other, that we did work as a team, and we got on very well with each other.”
Both felt they’d found something important in the other. Majorie says her first marriage taught her to appreciate John’s nice qualities. “I noticed John was a kind person, and I met his family and I really like his family,” says Marjorie. “That was an indication of how it’s going to be in the future, they were all nice to each other, good people, and hardworking types.”
Their age difference made no difference to them, although others picked up on it. Marjorie remembers when someone at work remarked on a similar couple. “There was a rather bossy woman, and she said, ‘Now what would a man that age see in a woman that age?,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m in that situation. I’m 13 years older than my husband, and if he doesn’t mind, I don’t mind.’”
John and Marjorie with their first daughter, in December 1981
Their love of tandem bike riding has continued throughout their lives. In the early years they rode together until their first daughter was born in 1981. “There is so much extra you have to do with a baby,” Marjorie says. “We had a little kiddie seat that bolts on to the bike, so we did one trip with her, but after that I just realised it’s too much trouble.”
In 1983 their second daughter was born eight weeks prematurely, and John broke his arm three days after she was born. It was a trying time but they managed, juggling young children and caring for Marjorie’s first three children at times.
In the late 90s, during their toughest times, they went to relationship counselling. “It was just a whole lot of arguments ending in a dead end,” John says. “I don’t remember any particularly lightbulb moment in the course of that but I do remember that somehow afterwards, we seemed to be more willing to adapt to one another. [We] just accepted you can’t have everything that you want in a partner, and even if you can at a particular moment, that’s not going to continue over a long period. You just have to work out what are the things that really matter.”
The couple in February 1986
They were committed to staying together. Both had divorced parents and Marjorie had been through her own divorce, so they were aware of the impact splitting up could have. Says John: “Certainly there was a consciousness that once you’re together for that length of time, you’ve got something worth keeping, and it would be a monumental lose-lose transaction if you were to split up. That’s a bit of a negative motivation, but it’s still a real one. Let’s just realise that we are better off staying together and make the necessary adjustments.” Says Marjorie: “I always know it’s going to be all right in the end.”
When they could, they cycled together. In 1997 they started planning for their most ambitious journey, a 20-week trip across the US in 2003. John was working in the tech industry so they planned to save enough money, and knew their daughters would be old enough to take care of themselves by then.
But in 2001 the dotcom bubble burst and John was out of work. He was deflated but Marjorie helped him through it: “One thing I appreciated about that period is that Marj was so supportive,” he says. “You hear of cases where the man loses his job and his partner is disparaging and undermines him. Marj was as far from that as you can imagine.” They managed to take the trip in 2003, cycling across America on their tandem and celebrating 25 years together along the way.
Over the years they’ve learned to work as a team on the bike, with John mostly in front as captain while Marjorie sits behind as the stoker. Both still enjoy it: “[It’s] lovely being out in the fresh air,” Marjorie says. “Bit of exercise, and it’s a good way to see the country. You’re too slow when you’re walking, and you’re too fast when you’re in a car. So you get to see a lot more when you’re cycling.”
Teamwork and trust is key to their relationship, both on the bike and off. Says John: “You have to be able to trust your partner. You have to be able to be sure that your partner’s not going to take advantage of you.” He adds: “I’ve got a rule of thumb … if I’m thinking of doing something that I would never, ever want Marj to find out, don’t ever do it.”
These days, age is slowing them down a bit. “The kinds of things that come with advanced age are coming to Marj before they’re coming to me,” John says. “I’m still keen to do a few things that take a fair amount of fitness and stamina, so we’re adjusting to that.”
John and Marjorie before a tandem tour from Adelaide to Melbourne via Mount Gambier, Warrnambool, the Great Ocean Road, Geelong and Sorrento
They hope to continue to do as much as they can together. “We don’t know what’s ahead, but let’s face it, we’re both of an age that most of our years are behind us already,” John says, before Marjorie adds quickly: “But we certainly can appreciate things now. You can look back and think, ‘Well, that was fun.’ We really appreciate the things we did together.”
Doing things together has been one of the secrets to their enduring relationship, they say. “Making reasonable accommodation for each other, for our own individual desires,” John adds. “Trusting and being trustworthy.” And, says Marjorie: “We look after each other.”
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