How we stay together: therapy and de-stressing in the garden

For Brad Ngata and Glenn Chaplin, some crucial time with a life coach helped them gain insight into what makes the other tick

Names: Brad Ngata and Glenn Chaplin
Years together: Almost 25
Occupations: Hair stylist and business director

It was a surprise to almost everyone gathered in the Blue Mountains garden, not least Glenn Chaplin when his partner, Brad Ngata, got down on one knee and proposed.

It was Australia Day 2015, more than two years before the marriage equality laws were passed, but for the couple celebrating 20 years together, it was time. “We had all our friends there [and] it was a perfect beautiful day.” Marriage wasn’t something Ngata had been interested in until he went to the “beautiful, intimate, small wedding” of a friend. “I thought, I want to do that. Why can’t I do that? I should be able to do that.”

The couple met at Sydney’s Taxi Club on Australia Day in 1995. Chaplin was on a date with someone else – “It wasn’t really working, obviously,” he says drily – and there was an instant attraction between the two. “We looked across the dance floor and that was it,” says Ngata.

Brad Ngata and Glenn Chaplin at Fair Day in Sydney
The couple at Fair Day in Sydney Photograph: Glenn Chaplin & Brad Ngata

The next day Ngata told friends at the hair salon where he worked that he’d met “the one”, although he also remembers them joking that he said that every week. The couple were soon inseparable, spending hours watching black and white films together. “It just felt right,” Ngata says. “Right from the start.”

For Chaplin, the defining moment came a few years later: “I knew I’d be with him forever when he gave up drinking,” he says. Ngata has been sober for 22 years, something Chaplin is very proud of him for: “He was unreliable before that but when he gave up drinking, he got reliable and mature.”

It had been a long time coming, Ngata says. “I was kind of failing at a lot of things in that time. So it was my rock bottom. It was time to make that decision and I did, and stuck with it.” His life improved dramatically. “I think, too, it was having someone who was on your side, [who] gave you the courage to push forward.”

Not long after that, Ngata quit his job and the pair decided to open their own salon. “We always knew that we wanted to work together,” Chaplin says. Although he kept his job at Amnesty International while they waited for the business to grow, it didn’t take long.

Glenn Chaplin and Brad Ngata at Mardi Gras in their early days together
A Mardi Gras embrace during their early days together Photograph: Glenn Chaplin & Brad Ngata

“It pretty much exploded, in a good way,” Ngata says. “We [were] quite ambitious in that way, so there was a lot of building, and then we doubled the size of the salon, and then [we were] winning awards, we had a lot of PR. Everything was happening.”

That was a heady time in the Australian fashion world, and the couple and their downtown Sydney salon were at the centre of the storm. They were connected to everyone – designers including Ksubi, Sass & Bide and Fleur Wood – and Ngata juggled runway looks with celebrity haircuts while Chaplin ran the business and produced the shows. They travelled the world together and, in 2012, opened a second salon in the city. The pair were together all day every day and there was rarely an escape from work pressures. “There’s been incredible highs and then incredibly challenging times, but I think we couldn’t have gotten through it if we couldn’t rely on each other,” Ngata says.

About 10 years ago, they visited a life coach – a step they recommend to other couples. Ngata says: “[Sometimes] you need that third person, who understands how to get the best result on all different kinds of levels, and to be that third person where you’re in a safe place. You can have relationship hygiene, talk about [things], say it, get it out and then get really good advice and tools to try and fix it somehow.” The coach helped them to get insight into what makes the other tick. They went to her for four years: “That was probably the best thing we did because we didn’t realise how we both grew as individuals from doing that,” Chaplin says.

A few years later they decided to step out of the fashion whirl and downsize to a single, smaller salon in Darlinghurst, just as luxurious but much more relaxed. They also split their time between Sydney and a home in the Blue Mountains. “We moved there to have a quieter life, and get Glenn into a garden because that helps to de-stress him.”

Getting out of the city each week gives them time to reconnect to one another. “[I realise] how important that is to us, to have that downtime, because you jump in the car, you go over the Anzac bridge, and that’s it. Everything, it can all wait until Wednesday. And that’s something that we afford ourselves the luxury of having, even though we work hard to keep it.”

Being away from the hustle of the city has strengthened their bond and the house gives them space to do their own thing. “I always say the ideal for me is to know that Brad’s there, but in the other room,” says Chaplin, with a laugh.

Chaplin and Ngata at their Sydney salon
Chaplin and Ngata at their Sydney salon Photograph: Glenn Chaplin & Brad Ngata

Next year they’ll celebrate 25 years together and they plan to finally tie the knot. The passing of the marriage equality bill in 2017 was significant for them and they want to make things official. “We know how committed we are and, given 25 years, we’re very committed,” Chaplin says, “but I think that just signals it to everyone else.” Ngata jokes: “My straight clients say to me, get married, be miserable!”

So what’s their secret for staying together? “I think you’ve got to get on with it,” says Ngata, “because if you don’t, then there’s no point. [And] you’ve got to communicate. That took a lot of therapy to get to that point: Open your heart was what I’ve been told to do. Face the fear and do it anyway. Just step over that line.”

Through everything, their commitment to each other hasn’t wavered. They’re in it for the long haul, Ngata says. “There’s good times and there’s bad times, as much as a cliche as that sounds. But ... Glenn was there when I was going through a pretty dark period. So I’m there for him when he’s going through a period for him … You’ve got to look at the whole history of your relationship and not just be defined by one moment in it.”

Chaplin agrees: “Never does it cross your mind in a serious way that you’d leave each other. You just bear with whatever you’re going through and you know that, ultimately, it’s going to be fixed and it’ll all come good again, and you trust that.”

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Alexandra Spring

The GuardianTramp

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