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How we stay together: ‘We’ve both had our fair share of near-death experiences’ | Relationships

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Names: Sonya and Brad Gellert
Years together: 17
Occupations: Writer and policy manager

“We’re the most indecisive people ever,” says Sonya Gellert. “It’s the only thing we’ve ever been sure of.” She and her husband, Brad, can’t remember discussing commitment in the early days of their relationship – somehow it was just there, right from the start. “It sounds crazy but it was like an understood thing that this was a long-term thing,” Brad remembers. “It sounds very odd. You wouldn’t usually apply that to other elements of your life.”

Even though they are only in their mid-30s, the couple have been together for 17 years, through some of life’s most dramatic highs and lows, but that commitment – fostered when they were teenagers – has never faltered.

They grew up in Brisbane and met in high school when they were 16. They had a few classes together and found themselves seated alphabetically next to each other. They noticed each other but decided they were too different: he was academic and “annoyingly nerdy”; she was gregarious and not very interested in school. “It wasn’t a love-at-first-sight thing,” says Sonya. “Then we got chatting on chatrooms after school and eventually realised we were more similar than we thought.”

They started dating in a very teenage way, dropped off at the movies by their parents or spending hours at each other’s homes, bonding over music. “We used to talk on the phone for hours at a time, I’m not even sure what about now,” says Sonya.

Yet even then they knew they had something special. “We were concerned about getting together too early and messing things up because we wanted to be in it for a long time,” says Sonya.

The couple at a music festival in Byron Bay in their early 20s
The couple at a music festival in Byron Bay in their early 20s. ‘We kind of knew that we were both in it for the long haul, even at the beginning,’ says Sonya. Photograph: Brad and Sonya Gellert

Their families were different but valued similar things, like the importance of family and of putting others first. These were passed to the couple: “There’s never been anything really major in terms of values or politics that we’ve completely disagreed on, that I can remember,” says Sonya. Brad jumps in to remind her of her dalliance with alternative medicine. They both laugh: “After school, Brad was studying pharmacy and I was studying naturopathy, so that was a bit of a clash.”

Both were looking forward to university when their teenage-sweetheart idyll was shattered. Brad had a serious car accident, leaving him with significant physical injuries and a long-term concussion. He deferred university for a year and Sonya spent much of her time with him. “That year became very focused about small things, about recovery,” he says.

“Having experienced something like that so early on as a couple, it accelerated things for us because you’re really tested,” says Brad. “If, as a 17-year-old, you can really care for someone, you can probably care for someone at 45 or later on in life.”

Eventually he recovered and took up his studies again. They moved in together in their early 20s, something that turned out to be a lot of fun, they both say. “It felt like we were playing house and we felt really grown-up,” says Sonya. Neither had grown in gender stereotypical households so they shared the responsibilities of running a home easily together. “We play to our strengths. We might have preferred chores between us but I don’t think we’ve ever really had to discuss it.”

But fate wasn’t done with them. Their decision to get married was prompted by another near-death incident, when one evening Sonya had an anaphylactic reaction to seafood. Brad looks serious as he remembers: “It was very touch and go … After that I was like, ‘We can’t really dilly-dally with these sorts of things.’”

Brad and Sonya Gellert Wedding 2012 reception
Brad and Sonya’s wedding day in 2012. He came to believe ‘we can’t really dilly-dally with these sorts of things’, he says. Photograph: Brad and Sonya Gellert

At the time he was studying to be a pharmacist and had done a first aid course, so as he watched Sonya’s face swell, he knew he had to do something. Sonya remembers him swearing in front of his family, something he never does. On the way to hospital, “he was really driving fast, and I was like, ‘Wow, he’s really taking this seriously.’” Brad looks grim: “The weeks that followed were just like, ‘Oh my God, what happens if I touch a piece of fish and then I touch you?’” He proposed to her not long after that and the two were married on a sunny day in the Byron hinterland.

They spent the next few years travelling, including a stint living in Japan. Sonya had studied Japanese at university, and they agreed it could be a good experience. But it wasn’t what they expected. “We didn’t know anyone. I didn’t speak the language. [Sonya] had basic language skills. It’s a very difficult country to live in if you don’t speak the language.”

Each day was a culture shock and Brad remembers being bothered that he couldn’t do something as simple as call a plumber. It was Sonya’s ability to laugh at things that got them through. She giggles now: “Most of those more stressful things were a bit funny. It was all just different and hilarious.” Brad nods: “I do see that now. It’s good to have someone in the moment to be able to lighten the mood, to find things a bit funnier.”

Brad and Sonya Gellert in London in 2011
The Gellerts in London in 2011. ‘It’s good to have someone in the moment to be able to lighten the mood, to find things a bit funnier,’ says Brad. Photograph: Brad and Sonya Gellert

The couple moved to London but again their plans were interrupted when they found out Brad had a brain tumour. “We sound like there’s something very wrong with us. We’re healthy most of the time!” Sonya jokes. They had to leave London and returned to Sydney, where Brad underwent brain surgery.

This recovery was also tough. “He had to relearn to walk and so many things – it was really full-on,” she says. “We both went into this overdrive mode and made it work, but, in retrospect, it was a lot.”

Far from their Brisbane families, Sonya took on most of the responsibilities. Brad looks at her in admiration: “Sonya is very good at putting other people ahead of herself,” he says, “and you did that probably to your detriment because during that time I definitely relied on you.” At the time, she had a stressful job that she wanted to quit but couldn’t as she had to support both of them. “We’ve always been very good at being able to form a team,” says Brad. “[Knowing] it’s a little blip in the long run,” adds Sonya.

They decided to start their family not long after that. Baby Freda – or Freddie, as she’s known – was born early in 2020. She arrived six weeks early, which was a shock. “The doctors suggested it could have been the bushfire smoke at the start of last year that propelled it, but we don’t know,” says Sonya. Again their coping skills kicked in as they shuttled backwards and forwards to the hospital. “It was quite upsetting having to leave her there and come home and think, ‘We’ve just had a baby but she’s not here,’” says Sonya.

Fortunately, after a few weeks in intensive care, she was home, and although it’s been an adjustment, they’re all doing well. The pandemic turned out to be a blessing, as both parents have been home together. Sonya admits she wondered how a baby would change things: “I was a little bit nervous about the dynamic changing because we have such a good thing and I was a bit worried adding a third person might mess it up a little bit.Watching them as we chat, Freda is passed seamlessly between the two, allowing each their time to talk.

As with any new baby, she takes up most of their time. Even when she’s asleep, she occupies their thoughts. “Sometimes we think, ‘OK, we’ve finally got a moment to ourselves,’ and then we find ourselves looking at photos of Freddie on our phones … Then we think, ‘No, we need to not do that,’” says Sonya.

After everything they’ve been through, the couple don’t have much time for conflict. “We’ve both had our fair share of kind of near-death experiences over our relationship and it’s made us appreciate the being alive bit,” says Sonya.

Brad and Sonya on the road with baby Freda in 2020
Brad and Sonya on the road with baby Freda in 2020. Photograph: Brad and Sonya Gellert

Now they’ve been together for longer than they’ve been apart: “It’s second nature to think of the other person when you think of yourself,” says Sonya. “So neither of us are selfish with time or selfish with anything. When it comes to each other, we’re both generous.”

This is what they ascribe their longevity as a couple to. “Always considering the other person and how they might feel about things, and checking in with each other all the time,” says Sonya.

“You have to be able to put somebody else before you,” Brad adds. “You won’t always do that every time, but you have to have the capacity.” Looking at his wife, he sums it up: “I want for you to be happy, and I’m happy if you’re happy.”

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