How we stay together: ‘We cared about the consequences of our own actions’

It was painful at the time, but there was a clear turning point in James and Rebecca Dominguez’s relationship. About 15 years ago, the Melbourne couple were at a social event and James, who has struggled with depression throughout his life, had hit a bad spot. He refers to Rebecca as his “rock”, but on this occasion it became too much for her.

She turned to him and said: “I can’t be your support person right now. There’s a lot of lovely people here who love you. Please go and get support from one of them because I can’t be that person right now.”

That hurt, says James now. “It felt like being slapped. It was horrible. And it was necessary and absolutely the right decision … I’m glad she did it.”

The candour with which James and Rebecca discuss their 26-year relationship is refreshing. They’ve done plenty of work to get there. They don’t shy from talking about their dynamic: while Rebecca gives James stability, he helps her work through her emotions before she makes any big decisions. “That’s all really positive,” says James, “but [in the first 10 years] we did get very co-dependent, and undoing that was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done as a couple.”

Before the moment at the party, James says: “I think I started to think of myself as half of a couple. I forgot that I’m an individual as well, and I think it took Rebecca really putting her foot down to remind me of that.”

They met online in 1993, three years before the word “internet” came into common usage. He was in Wagga Wagga, she was in Bendigo, and they were both on the only Australian MUD (multi-user dimensions) playing a text-based version of World of Warcraft. “People tended to use [games] very much like World of Warcraft these days … as much for socialising as they did for actually playing a game,” says James.

As a woman online, Rebecca was a rarity and she got plenty of attention. James helped her navigate it. They struck up a connection, talking via early text chat programs, on the phone and even writing letters. But Rebecca had a boyfriend, and James was determined to remain honourable, so they remained just good friends.

That is until they met in person. After a few months of chatting, James went to Bendigo to visit Rebecca. “The first three thoughts that went through my head were: ‘Oh my goodness, she has beautiful eyes. Oh my goodness, she’s got a beautiful smile. Oh my goodness, she’s so short,’ ” he says.

But finally meeting in person was strange, says James: “[I was trying to work out] how this actual physical person in the real world relates to this digital person that I’ve known. Where are the common threads? Where are the differences? I’m just trying to find the person that I know in this physical presence.”

They shared a kiss that weekend but went back to their lives, keeping in touch online and on late night phone calls. Then, after a couple of visits back and forth, James asked Rebecca to marry him. “We’d been together in person connecting in physical space for 10 total days. I had no plan. There was no sort of agenda … I just knew. There was a part of me that just went, this is the person I really do want to spend the rest of my life with. And so I just asked.” Rebecca hesitated because of the speed of it all, but agreed.

In 1994 they both moved to Melbourne, and after a few months they moved in together. Later that year they set a date for their wedding and were married in March 1996.

Although they are quite different in many ways – “Rebecca is a very textbook introvert, and [James is] a very textbook extrovert” – the couple share many interests and have similar politics. “There was always a desire to do the right thing and to try to achieve results that were as positive as was possible for everybody,” says James. “And I think that was something that we really shared. We cared about each other, but we cared about people in general, and we cared about the world.”

One of their strengths as a couple is that they are honest with each other in “a constructive and compassionate way”. Says James: “A lot of the time when you meet people and they say that they practise radical honesty, what they mean is they’re arseholes. They just mean that they don’t care about other people’s feelings and they just want to speak their mind and they don’t care what the consequences are. I think one of the things that really drew us together is that we cared about the consequences of our own actions, and we cared about how we impacted on other people, even though we did it in very different ways.”

That honesty has helped them negotiate another part of their relationship: both are bisexual and non-monogamous. They are prominent members of Bisexual Alliance Victoria, and have had other partners at different times in their relationship.

Having other people around has meant there has been more support when things have been difficult. For instance, when Rebecca was diagnosed with breast cancer it helped to have other people to share the load: “Having all that support meant that it was easier for me and easier for James, because James knew that he wasn’t on his own having to deal with this. I don’t think that with my cancer diagnosis, James would have coped if there weren’t other people around giving him the support he needed.”

There is rarely any serious conflict between them because they try to talk about things before they become a real issue. “When we do disagree, we try to find a solution,” says James. “It’s never: “How can I win this?’ It’s always: ‘How can the two of us together make this work?’ And sometimes the compromise will be that somebody will miss out or both of us will get something we’re not 100% happy with.”

Their affection for each other is obvious – James frequently slings his arm around Rebecca and she reaches out to touch him reflexively. This is deliberate, they say. “It’s really important to me that people I’m in a relationship with actually like me touching them,” says Rebecca. “I don’t really see the point of being in relationships with people who don’t like me to touch them … I am happy stroking and massaging and leaning into people.”

Particularly in the early days of their relationship, sex became a way of recharging their batteries, says James. “Touch in general, even not actual sex … It’s like that grounding … I’m here, you’re there, we’re touching each other and we’re together, and fuck the rest of them, basically.”

Their other secret, says Rebecca, is that they enjoy being silly. “Doing that every couple of days, just laugh until you cry, because you walk out with all those endorphins from laughing and happiness. And you can’t think ill of your partner if you’ve just spent together 20 minutes laughing with them.”

The couple works hard on their relationship, and where other couples grow apart, they have been very determined to grow together over their 26 years. “We spend time together and we check in about stuff. We have deep and meaningful conversations about all sorts of topics, just because they’re fun,” says Rebecca. “I like talking to James. He’s fun to talk to. And we talk a lot about stuff that’s important to ourselves. It’s not every single day, and it’s not every single conversation that’s deep and meaningful and serious, but there’s a lot of checking in and a lot of making sure that we’re still good.”

And they are always happy to see each other. When they were both working not far from each other they would have lunch together regularly. James remembers his colleagues asking him about it. “They were like: ‘You live with her and see her every night. Why do you want to go have lunch with her?’ ” And I just looked at them with this puzzled expression on my face, [and said]: “Because I like her. I enjoy her company. Why else would I have married her if I didn’t like her and enjoy her company?”