How we stay together: 'We dust ourselves off and get on with it, really'

By Alexandra Spring

Names: Danie Tregonning and Mark Perkins
Years together: 18
Occupations: Artist and compliance specialist

If there’s one area of their lives where Danie Tregonning and Mark Perkins have learned to compromise, it’s on the Eurovision song contest.

Both belong to the official Australian fanclub and also co-host a Eurovision podcast where they rate the songs. “We agree on most things in general life but it’s Eurovision where we’re, ‘OK, you can have that and I can have that,’” says Mark. Danie adds: “And Mark has a few Eurovision wives. They get precedence sometimes.”

The Melbourne couple met in 2003 on an online science fiction forum. It was the early days of the internet and both were looking for people beyond their normal pockets of life. Danie had joined a few sci-fi forums but, like many women, quickly became “fed up with the whole male-dominated nerd thing.”

So she and a group of women set up their own space. Men were encouraged to join but remain respectable, so when Mark joined the group, they were thrilled to welcome him. “We were all like, ‘Cool, a nice guy has arrived’. And he wasn’t being weird [or] a bit creepy.” The two were soon messaging each other on MSN almost every day and opening up about their lives. “We told each other secrets and it was just really comfortable from the get-go,” says Danie.

So she asked him to meet her for coffee. Her friends were cautious. “Everyone kept saying to me, ‘Don’t meet this guy, he could be a creeper’.” Danie decided it would be worth it. “I thought … this guy seems really great and it could just be a friendship or it could be something more.”

Danie Tregonning and Mark Perkins
‘We told each other secrets and it was just really comfortable from the get-go,’ says Danie. Photograph: Danie Tregonning and Mark Perkins

Then he was 45 minutes late – something Danie never lets him forget. It was Grand Prix weekend in Melbourne and Mark, who was driving in from the country to meet her at a coffee shop in the city, struggled to find parking. Danie had her doubts: “Because I’d had such a terrible run with men that I thought, ‘Maybe he’s just going to ditch me. That would be my luck’.” Eventually he arrived, apologetic, and the date went swimmingly. Coffee turned into lunch which turned into an early dinner. “I was having a lot of text messages like, ‘Are you OK? Are you alive?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, I’m fine. He’s awesome. Don’t worry about it’.”

They had plenty to talk about: not just shared interests, but a shared sense of humour. “I remember Mark saying to me very early in our relationship that he knew I was the one because I could quote Ghostbusters,” says Danie, with a laugh.

They come from very different backgrounds: Mark had moved from England to Australia as a child and then grown up in country Victoria in a lower middle income family, while Danie was born and raised in Melbourne, an only child who went to a private school and traveled the world with her parents.

Still, theirs was an instant connection. After their first date, all Mark could think about was Danie. They spent every weekend together for the next three years, and then moved in together. After so much time, living together wasn’t much of a transition, although Danie adds, with a smile: “I did have to break [him] in a little bit. The socks on the floor, that was huge.”

But there was something else they had to contend with. About six months after they got together, they woke up one morning to find that Danie couldn’t feel her legs. They spent the day at the hospital while doctors struggled to diagnose the problem. It would take almost 12 years and countless neurologists before Danie was diagnosed with the debilitating functional neurological disorder (FND).

Mark, who also had a sick parent, has supported her throughout and eventually became her carer. Danie doesn’t like depending on him, particularly when her symptoms are bad: “I feel kind of burdensome. But we always make the joke … that he’s earning his $8 a day from Centrelink.”

Danie Tregonning and Mark Perkins
‘He’s seen me at my worst and he’s still here,’ says Danie. Photograph: Danie Tregonning and Mark Perkins

But she rejects the perception that a relationship between someone who is disabled and someone who is able-bodied is problematic. “He’s seen me at my worst and he’s still here,” she says. “The days when I have a stutter or a tic or I fall over, he’s there to scoop me up. And we dust ourselves off and get on with it, really.”

Mark nods: “The whole situation is basically par for the course now,” he says. “I don’t even think about it. [She’ll] walk on crutches outside everywhere. That’s just how it is … I don’t see it as difficult or an obstacle.”

But seeing Danie suffer is tough, he says. “It can get depressing a little bit, to see that. I try to detach myself and not to get too emotional, not just for my own wellbeing but also for Danie’s, so I don’t come across as not capable of looking after [her].” He adds: “What I’ve found is if I stress about it, she’ll pick up on that and I make her worse.”

Danie’s medical issues meant that they decided not to have children. They also decided that marriage wasn’t necessary either. “I never really envisioned getting married,” says Danie. “The way that the law here is in Australia, it’s never really been an issue, we are married in the eyes of the law.” She adds: “I don’t hate weddings, I just don’t want my own.”

These days, they spend much of their time together, sharing friends, interests and working on the podcast. “We work well together,” says Danie “I do a lot of the writing of the scripts and [Mark does] the bulk of the editing. We share the workload of it.”

Danie Tregonning and Mark Perkins
‘We do share a lot, we do do a lot of things together, but we don’t smother each other,’ says Mark. Photograph: Danie Tregonning and Mark Perkins

But they do try to give each other space too. “We don’t smother each other,” says Mark. During lockdown, they would often spend hours on opposite ends of their house. “He has his office and I work in the lounge room, or if I’m working on some art, I’ll be in my studio. And we’ll meet each other in the kitchen and go our separate ways again.”

During their 15 years of living together, they’ve only spent two nights apart. Danie says they try to keep it that way. “Those two nights that he wasn’t here, I did not sleep well at all. I kept tossing and turning and saying, ‘This is weird’,” she says. “He’s had to go interstate a couple of times for work with different jobs, and I’ve hopped on planes with [him].”

They’ve supported each other through some tough times, including the recent deaths of Mark’s parents. “If one of us is depressed, the other one turns into a nurse and makes sure that the other one’s OK,” Mark says. “Danie is the best nurse. If I’m sick, mentally or physically, she looks after me like anything.”

Their commitment to each other is unshakeable. “It’s like an inherent safety of being with each other and knowing that neither of us are going to stray,” says Danie. They rarely disagree but when they do, they are determined to talk things through. “We never go to bed angry,” she says. “If there’s an issue, we will stay up until 3am if that’s what it takes.”

There are plenty of sweet gestures to remind each other of their love, including celebrating their anniversary each month. Says Danie: “It really is like living with your best friend because even though we have our small tiffs, we do have a heck of a lot of laughs.”

Their secret to staying together is just that. “Being there for each other, regardless of what’s going on,” says Danie. “There’s never anything that’s too much.”

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