How we stay together: 'I'm always surprised when people don't talk about sex with their partners'

Alexandra Spring
·9-min read

Names: Laura and Jules Jackel
Years together: 19
Occupations: writer and GP

When she was working as a waitress at Sydney’s Customs House in 2001, Laura Jackel remembers scanning her upcoming shifts with nervous anticipation. “I’d be like, ‘Please let me be working with Jules’.” The 22-year-old backpacker from the UK was almost at the end of her Australian trip but one of the barmen had caught her eye. “He had a cheeky look about him and there was instant chemistry,” she remembers.

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Jules, who was 27 and studying to be a doctor, felt the same way: “Laura stepped out of the lifts, we smiled at each other, and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, like her’,” he says. For the next few weeks, they worked together, keeping drinks and food for the other and having long chats each night. “Laura had a real sense of fun about her. I could feel it as soon as I met her,” says Jules “but then there was a really strong attraction I probably hadn’t felt before.”

Finally, he asked her out and one night, after their shift, they went for a picnic at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair overlooking Sydney Harbour. Things were going well but both knew that Laura was booked to go back to England. “My poor parents,” says Laura, “I remember calling them from a payphone, and being like, ‘Oh I’ve met someone’. They weren’t very happy.”

She left, but they kept things going while they were apart, with a flurry of emails and letters. After a few months, Laura decided she’d return to Australia. “I was young at the time. I wasn’t tied to anything else, and I thought, ‘Well, why not give it another go’.” Jules was studying medicine in Newcastle, so she moved into his share house, and they picked up where they’d left off.

But things weren’t as easy as hoped. Laura knew no one in Newcastle, could only do short temporary work, and Jules was studying most of the time. “That was the first test, but it cemented that we were a tight little couple,” she says. After about six months, they discussed marriage. It would help with the uncertainty of Laura’s visa situation but it would also be a step forward. “It felt like the right thing to do,” says Jules.

There were plenty of bureaucratic hurdles and much to-ing and fro-ing to the UK but eventually Laura was on a fiancee visa and could get a permanent job. It made a big difference. “It felt like ‘OK, I’m no longer just his girlfriend’. He was a medical student with all these really bright doctory types, and I was the babysitter, and it felt very unequal,” she remembers. They were married in Dubbo, Jules’ home town, in 2003.

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The couple agreed to wait until Laura was 30 before they started a family, so she could develop her own career. They also agreed that at some point, they would move to the UK and live there for a while. So in 2010, not long after their first son was born, they moved.

It wasn’t an ideal time: they had a young baby and had to stay with Laura’s family for six months while they searched for their own home. Laura was adapting to motherhood while Jules had a difficult time working as a doctor within the NHS and was struggling with his mental health. He had severe depression, so intense that he decided to return home on his own. “I didn’t really know what was happening, but it hit me pretty hard,” he says.

For about six months, the couple lived apart: “We weren’t separated in the sense that we never really made that decision; it was kind of made for us because [he] was struggling,” says Laura.

Laura and their son returned to Australia and when Jules seemed to have recovered, they decided to try again. They moved back to the UK in 2012, but again things didn’t go well. “We started out OK,” says Laura, “and then his depression resurfaced. It probably hadn’t ever really gone away. And so we just had to make the call to come back.”

They knew that this time it was for good. “I’d say that was definitely the most difficult time in our relationship,” says Jules, “I was pretty unwell, and [Laura was] so keen to stay in the UK. It was that decision, clearly it wasn’t going to work for me, for whatever reason, For her it was such a big decision to say, “Well OK, we’ve got to now both commit to Australia. If I want to stay, we’ve got to stay together.”

On top of that, Laura suffered a miscarriage. It was a very difficult time, and they both had counselling. Yet despite everything, their bond was strong. “I always felt like Laura and I were still strong, and I always had her back, whatever anyone said about the situation, and vice versa,” says Jules.

In 2014, they settled back in Australia and came to terms with their decision. Says Jules: “With depression, I guess the other partner has to step up and take care of everything, which is really hard.” He adds: “I’m pretty appreciative that Laura did it. ... It was a massive thing, and really my life would’ve been completely different had that not happened.”

It hasn’t been plain sailing since then – Laura had two more miscarriages before the birth of their second child, and Jules’ brother and father died. But Laura and Jules feel that some good came out of that challenging time. Says Jules: “One good thing about being so critically unwell is you don’t plan too far ahead, you’re happy just looking at the moment, [living] day by day – and it’s a really nice way to live life.” Laura agrees: “When the shit really hit the fan with Jules, I was able to rise to it ... And that’s been good to know that about myself, that it is possible to deal with some shit, and get through it.”

They’ve learned how to better take care of each other, to give each other space for their own pursuits and also make sure to enjoy things together. Understanding how their different personalities react helps: Laura can tell when her husband is having a bad day and she’ll encourage him to go surfing, to help him calm his thoughts. Jules also notices when Laura isn’t happy: “If I can see Laura’s pissed off about something, I’ll ask her point-blank, like, ‘What’s going on?’ Sometimes it’s not so easy for her to let it out [so then] she will just unload for a little while and then I know that it’ll settle down, and we can talk it round.”

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They navigate the daily hurdles of work, home and raising two young boys by playing to their strengths and dividing up childcare and family responsibilities. They’ve learned to keep resentment at bay and instead communicate about their challenges. “We can probably talk about anything,” says Jules. “Whether that’s good, bad, or otherwise, so there’s nothing that we would really be unwilling to have a chat about.” Laura agrees: “Of all the things that we’ve gone through – the ups and the downs, and the moving countries, and loss, and mental health, it’s just scraped it all back [and] we can talk about anything.”

They also have a very strong physical connection, something that has endured throughout. “Limerence doesn’t last for long,” says Laura “[For us] it probably lasted a little longer than others because we were separated for a while, [and had] a long-distance relationship at the beginning. But we’ve always been able to talk about sex and our likes and dislikes, and just tried to factor it in as an important part of the relationship.” She points to what Caitlin Moran refers to as the weekly “maintenance shag”. Both laugh: “As depressing as that is, I think it’s kind of important,” she says. Jules agrees “We still really fancy each other – that helps, I reckon, and I think that’s nice this far down the track.”

They make time for sex, and over the years, have tried all sorts of things, often having a giggle about it too. “I’m always surprised when I talk to friends over cocktails that they don’t talk about sex with their partners. It’s an important part of your relationship ...that must be very hard if you feel so embarrassed that you can’t talk about it with the person that you’re most intimate with.” Non-sexual connection is just as important, she says.” Sometimes you just talk and hold hands, or have a cuddle on the sofa.” Their kids are appalled of course: “Toby’s like, ‘Oh, it’s disgusting, you’re so embarrassing’,” Laura says with a laugh.

For these two, commitment is about getting through the tough times together. “It’s easy to cruise along together, when you’re a kidadult, having a lovely time, and traveling around the world, and you’ve got no responsibility. One thing I know being a GP is that life genuinely gets trickier as you get older, and it only gets worse when you’re 70 or 80, in the sense that [family and friends are] dying, and your body’s falling apart and so on. So you’ve got to have that expectation that life’s not perfect. And you wring out what you can along the way.”

Most important is enjoying each other’s company: “I just really like Jules. I like him as a person, and he’s good value,” says Laura. “I really just like hanging out with him [and] we do have fun.” Jules smiles: “ We do.”

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  • In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.