below: Sonia & James as 16-year-olds above: with their family today

The First Cut is the Deepest

1st June 2018

Heather Harris listens to enduring stories of love…

Heidi and Ed are an unlikely couple to have grabbed the headlines last Christmas: not politicians, celebrities or criminals – just two newlyweds, who discovered something incredible during an attic clear out.

“We thought we met for the first time when I asked to borrow her tumble dryer at University in 2011,” Ed told the world’s press, from their home in London. “But then my Mum found some holiday snaps in the attic from Turkey in 1997. There I was, aged six, holding hands with a pretty girl I had met on the beach that day – it was Heidi!”

Over a family dinner the coincidence was confirmed. Both mothers recalled their offspring’s holiday romance when, as children, they became inseparable and spent the whole week holding hands.
They married in August, “and everyone kept telling us it was fate, like the plot of a movie!” said Heidi.

Sadly, the couple will find it hard to find a suitable celebrity duo to play out their real-life love story with many famous marriages over before the ink has dried on the ‘pre-nup’.

Question: what do singers Bono, John Bon Jovi and Snoop Dog have in common? Answer, bizarrely: they are the only household names regularly cited as ‘remaining happily married to their childhood sweethearts’. Bill and Hilary Clinton are also often added to this celebrated group, although some would argue over the term ‘happily’ in their case.

Marrying your childhood sweetheart might be a romantic dream – but figures show it more often becomes a nightmare. A new report from the Office of National Statistics also reveals that, of women who were still in their teens when they married, 53% have divorced by their 30th anniversary. Commenting on the figures, lawyer Andrew Newbury says, “Couples who start out with a common goal grow apart as they take on the responsibilities of marriage and adulthood, including children, careers and mortgages.”

Or do they?

“I think the opposite is true in a lot of cases,” Lucy tells me when I meet her and her husband Stuart at their home in Northchurch, Hertfordshire. They have known each other since they were nine and 11 years old and recently renewed their wedding vows in Las Vegas.

“We’ve been together now for 21 years, which is over half our lives!” says Stuart, who feels strongly that sharing each other’s history is a big part of why their relationship has been so successful. Both did have a few other girlfriends/boyfriends (Stuart even went out with Lucy’s best friend) before August 11 1997, when a cinema trip to see Men in Black, followed by something to eat at Burger King, marked the start of their life together.

“We didn’t actually get married until I was 28 as we were saving up, so perhaps this is why we don’t fit in with the statistics!” Lucy explains.

Sitting with their 10-year-old daughter, Cleo who was born with facial palsy, it is clear that their marriage has not been without its challenges, but their long history has helped them thrive. The same is true of childhood sweethearts Lisa and John from Kent, who met at boarding school in Dorset, and went on an illegal trip to the pub to play darts for their first date.

“John was 18 and had left school but he drove two and a half hours from Cobham in his Ford Anglia to sneak me out of school one evening!” He walked her back and they kissed in the porch… and they’ve now been married for 39 years. “John always said we had to wait two years to have a family. Exactly two years later, we had our first daughter, swiftly followed by three more girls,” Lisa tells me, describing her husband as “a fantastic father of daughters.”

Their relationship was tragically tested when their youngest daughter was paralysed in 2011, at the age of 23, after falling from a balcony while on holiday. “This was the greatest challenge of our marriage,” Lisa says… before swiftly moving on to tell me how their daughter had recently got a job, taken up wheelchair tennis and is living independently.

“We are very different personalities but we share the same sense of humour and traditional values and our whole raison d’etre has been our children. We make a good team,” is how John puts it.

Putting family first is certainly something that has kept Charlie and Steve’s 33-year relationship together. After meeting through friends aged 15, Charlie actually moved in with Steve’s family when she was 17, after her own parents split up.

“My mum has been married three times, and it made me determined to give my own children the stability I never had,” says Charlie, admitting that this determination was tested eight years ago. “Our marriage did go through a rough period and I did move out but very quickly I knew we had to make our marriage work as we had two young children.”

Both unstable and stable childhoods can generate a desire to avoid the divorce courts.

Sonia and James, who live in Tring, have based their own long-term marriage on the template established by both sets of parents, who are still together recently celebrating Ruby and Golden Anniversaries. Sonia and James fell in love during a cinema trip to see Ghost at the age of 16, when he impressed her by sheltering her from the rain with his umbrella. Clearly an old romantic, he proposed on their tenth anniversary of dating, when he sent a large bouquet of flowers into the classroom where she was teaching – much to the amusement of the watching seven-year olds. “And I’ve just sent her a Christmas card reminding her it is 27 years since our first kiss,” he tells me proudly.

Their relationship survived across the continents, as James worked in Europe after leaving university, “My mum warned me it was unlikely to last, especially as – before social media – we relied on letters and weekly calls from phone boxes…”

During a recent house move, Sonia found those early letters and her own diary. “I really believe that the early days are the real challenge and once you have made the decision to marry and build a life together it is actually easier,” Sonia says, admitting it’s odd thinking that her own children will soon be at the age she and her husband were when they first met.

So, would these couples encourage their own children to marry their first loves? The response is mixed.

Lucy and Stuart feel that “you only need one true love” and if you happen to find it then you should “go for it”, no matter how old or young you are. Lisa and John agree that they would never advise their daughters when to marry, but that they both believe in the value of having children when you are younger.

Conversely, Charlie admits that, while as parents we cannot say when or with whom our offspring will fall in love, she wants her children to have a fuller life. “I do want them to travel and experience more than we ever did.”

Clearly, when it comes to successful relationships there is no rule book and for every statistic saying one thing, there are real people doing exactly the opposite.

It’s heartening that when it comes to lessons in love there are couples who met in the classroom or on a Turkish beach who are still teaching us all that first loves can still be the best.

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