Names: Michael and Alyce Swinbourne
Years together: 15
Occupations: Retired and researcher
“If you want to test your relationship, ride a tandem bike,” says Michael Swinbourne, remembering a trip he and his wife, Alyce, took to the Clare Valley where they cycled the Riesling trail. “I was steering and she’s there in the back taking selfies and we’re weaving from side to side.” Alyce jumps in: “He’s like: ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘Are you pedalling?’ ‘Yeah, sure.’”
The couple laugh. Most of the time their 28-year age gap makes no difference, but very occasionally it’s noticeable. Yet coordinating a tandem bike is tricky for most couples and, says Michael, their differences are part of what strengthens their relationship. “I made her old and she’s made me young. We do old-person things like go to the wineries and that sort of stuff on the weekends, but we also scuba dive and I now ride a motorbike,” says Michael. “We share those things and so we’ve learnt from each other, and I think that’s important.”
The Adelaide couple have been together for almost 15 years. They met when she was 19 and he was 47. They were both working in retail at a shopping centre in Toowoomba. Their shops were next door to each other and they would chat when things were quiet. Gradually their conversations went from “Do you want a coffee?” to “Want to get a coffee?”.
Michael was taken with her from the start: “I thought she was not only extraordinarily attractive but a really fun person. I enjoyed talking to her. Quite often, when you’re more mature, so to speak, and you talk to someone young, you often see them as vacuous or less worldly. But Alyce was not like that and so we could actually have pleasant conversations.” She was oblivious: “I was just like, ‘This is a friendly guy.’ And my work colleagues would be like, ‘Hmm, he’s always talking to you.’ I’m like, ‘No, no, he’s just friendly. What are you talking about?’”
Things stepped up a notch when he walked her to her car one afternoon and kissed her. Initially he didn’t get the reaction he hoped for. Alyce agrees: “I was going for a kiss on the cheek and he went for a full-on pash, and I was like, ‘Whoa, that was not what I expected.’ Finally it dawned on her. “[I realised] ‘Oh, you want a bit more? OK, well, we’ll pursue this, then.’”
Their connection quickly deepened. “It was very physical at the beginning,” says Alyce. “We were very passionate with each other [but] the more that we spoke, the more that we [realised we] had things in common.” She adds: “I was just in awe of learning from him … he always wanted to talk to me. He had this life before me. He was in the RAAF for 23 years, he was so high up ... I was absolutely mesmerised by this man.”
They had a short fling while they were living in Toowoomba, then Michael moved to Wagga Wagga. Alyce followed. It was “decision time”, says Michael, so they moved in together. About 18 months later they moved to Adelaide.
Then, just before Alyce’s 21st birthday, they decided to get married – in secret. “The marriage was 100% my decision,” she says. “I’m [Mike’s] third wife so he’s done the full wedding days both times and I’d never really wanted to have a wedding day ... I was more inclined to spend that money on saving up for a house or trying for a baby [and] I always think that it’s more important to have a marriage rather than a wedding day.”
Everyone was in Adelaide for Alyce’s birthday so the couple announced it at the party. “Let’s say the reactions were mixed,” Michael says. Eventually everyone came round and now they all get on famously.
They’ve become used to the curiosity about the age difference. “You get looks [walking] down the street,” says Alyce. “At first, we’d kind of play up to it, sometimes we just ignore it. Then when someone does mention it, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I suppose he’s older than me – I completely forgot.’”
Although Michael has a son from a previous marriage, the couple tried for a family after they were married. They tried IVF for five years, to no avail. They got through it together, attending every blood test and appointment together. “When I’d be sitting in the waiting room or in the room with her, I often saw these women there by themselves and I thought to myself, ‘Aren’t you getting the sort of support that you’d need through this?” Michael says. “Because it is very stressful, both physically and emotionally.”
Experience has made him wise to what makes a successful relationship: “I look back on my failed marriages and I think, ‘Yeah, look, I could’ve done better.’ And hopefully I’ve learnt from that and now do things better and maybe that’s just experience ... You’re probably more selfish when you’re younger, and as you get older you start realising that. I think the way to a happy relationship is to put your partner first and put their interests above your own. That way, if they do the same thing, then you’re both going to be really happy.”
After they’d made their peace with not having children, Alyce started studying and now has a PhD in animal science. They share an interest in animals and the environment, and seeing her studying inspired Michael to go back to university – he now has a PhD in environmental biology.
While Alyce was studying for her PhD, she lived in Queensland to do data collection and lab work. For her first year, she did it on her own, which was challenging for the couple. The following year, Michael left his job in the public service and joined her. They lived in a small caravan while they both studied. It was testing at times, living in such close quarters, but also fun. “I’d walk in exhausted, covered in dust and poo and pee, and he’d just hand me a drink and ask me about my day and it was perfect,” Alyce says.
Affection is important to both of them. “Sitting on the couch, watching television, we’re holding hands,” says Alyce. “Just touching each other constantly.”
In the early days of their relationship, their roles were quite traditional, but these days things have flipped, as Alyce has a demanding job as a researcher in animal reproduction while Michael is semi-retired and looks after their home. Some of their happiest moments are when they cook together. “We stand in the kitchen with a glass of wine, cooking dinner together,” Michael says. “I go out to the garden and get some fresh herbs from my own garden, which is one of my favourite things to do. Those sort of bonding things, I think, are absolutely fantastic.”
Their commitment to each other is unwavering. “Every marriage has its ups and downs and it’s during the downs that I’ve learnt that you can’t quit it,” Alyce says. “We’re in this together and I think that has been reinforced over the years. This is a man who has accepted me for who I am and I love him more than anything in this world; just loving him and accepting him wholeheartedly.”
Michael agrees: “You’re going to have days when things don’t go according to plan. It’s how you manage it and deal with it. Rather than turn it into a shouting match and accusing the other of whatever, it’s saying, ‘Look, let’s resolve this.’ I think that’s probably a lesson I have learnt.”
“It’s about keeping things in perspective,” he adds. “Sometimes you’ve got to sit back and think, ‘If I chuck the towel in, will things get better or worse? I love this woman, if things are going bad, what’s tomorrow going to bring and how can we fix the issues rather than causing splits?
“We’re obviously different – non-traditional, if you will – but there’s no reason why those things can’t work if you set your mind to it.”
Michael often looks at younger couples and wishes he could share some of the lessons he’s learnt: “I wish I could say to them, ‘Things will get better if you deal with these issues and don’t let them bother you.’”
He adds: “Sometimes it takes a few to get it right. It’s hard to give advice because you don’t know people’s personal situations. But if you focus on the positives rather than the negatives, I think that’s probably the best advice I would ever give anybody.”
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