Interview with Jennifer and Andrew Dashwood-Begg [transcribed from audio recording]
I love a good love story. Especially one that is realistic and shows the highs and the lows. And this one certainly is that. And it comes with a whole lot of spectacular advice for couples. As someone recently engaged, this conversation with Jennifer and Andrew was very special to me. They are a lovely couple. They’re funny and kind and radiate warmth. I hope that you get as much out of this as I did. Jennifer and Andy live in England and have a daughter, Sofia. Here is their experience with COVID-19, being in a pandemic with your partner while raising a young daughter, and what they have to say to couples starting relationships.
How was your experience with COVID-19 and the pandemic while being with your significant other?
Jennifer: It feels weird to call it “our COVID story,” but that’s really what it was. I work at an international school so we have students flying in and out all the time, so I ended up getting COVID in February. At the time they were just calling it an outbreak and we didn’t realize it was going to be a pandemic. I went to the doctor a couple of times, my chest was getting infected and I wasn’t getting better. It was very early so they weren’t doing testing at that time. I was sick for about a month. Andy also got it and did okay the first time. It lasted for a very long time though. It was very up and down for a long time. And then in November our parents got COVID, we started feeling ill, and we got tested, and we had COVID again. We are still recovering. I’m using my inhaler a lot and we have been feeling very tired.
Andy: It’s miserable like a flu when you have it, but afterwards, people don’t realize it, but you’re still exhausted. It’s like going uphill all the time with no energy at all.
Jennifer: Yeah, it’s like if you do anything you get tired and out of breath.
Andy: It’s been interesting. Over here in the UK there’s been a few national lockdowns. We leave the house as little as possible. We are housebound pretty much. We are both lucky that we can work from home so we didn’t have to go in, but it was interesting. Sophia’s schooling was hard. It was closed for a while so we had her here full time while also working full time. They very briefly went back for a little bit but then they closed again because it was spreading like wildfire. So it’s been the three of us in our apartment for most of the last year. It’s a mixed bag and there have been some good aspects. Normally I have to commute back and forth for work. I’m a lawyer and I have to commute and I often leave the house before Sophia’s up and I get back just before she goes to bed so in one sense it’s been quite nice to actually see them more than I would normally. But it does mean that you are fully on top of one another. It’s tough to juggle that sense of having work and also home schooling.
Jennifer: Yean I feel that having a sense of what is going on around the world and how it’s been for other people, I have felt very lucky all things considered. I can’t imagine what it’s been like for people who have been going through this alone. I’m pretty introverted and I like being by myself, I’m comfortable being alone, but even as an introvert I can imagine that it would be hard. People aren’t built to be by themselves for lots of reasons. People need other people. I think it could really wear on a person. They have the saying that you are supposed to have like twelve hugs a day. Being held by somebody releases endorphins and having that contact is good for people. Us not being alone was a very lucky thing. I read a story about a woman in New York whose husband died like twelve days before the lockdown started and so she was going through it both without him and also grieving him and without the support of the people who would have been there for her. I am aware of how it could be and I have empathy for others. I feel lucky. I absolutely love Andy and he’s my best friend. We’ve been blessed with the most incredible daughter. So yeah, I think it’s actually been–I feel bad saying it because it’s been a pandemic and people have died, so without meaning to undermine or be disrespectful of that–it has in many ways been really wonderful.
Andy: It’s interesting since we’ve also been really sick for long periods of time with this thing. One of the symptoms is exhaustion so between us we have just been really tired and having to sleep for lots of days and it comes and goes. Some days you have more energy but then other days it catches up to you. Our daughter is a bundle of energy. She does karate and gymnastics and she’s all go all the time. If it had just been one person it would have been different, but we’ve been able to tag-team. It’s even like we’re in different time zones. One of us takes the morning shift and then ends up crashing out and the other one sleeps in and then takes the evening shift.
Well it sounds like you are a good team and, I mean, that’s also part of the point of marriage is being able to lift each other up and lean on each other and enjoy each other’s company even in the simplest of moments when you can’t necessarily do a lot.
How did you meet? What is your love story? Where did you grow up?
Jennifer: Well our individual backstories are that my mother is Guatemalan and she came to the UK working as an au pair and met my dad and then they got married and lived in the UK. We lived in Guatemala for a few years as well. Andy’s parents were actually missionaries.
Andy: I was born in India! We kind of detoured to Australia and then back to England. My dad is a New Zealander and my mom is English. I have grown up most of my life here. And then Jennifer and I met at university. I was studying law and she was studying physiotherapy and we met at the university fencing club. A friend of ours who was in one of the flats above us had become president of the fencing club and was trying to draft us all in to join the club. So I joined that way, I didn’t know fencing at all. But then I ended up being the club treasurer the second year and Jen joined my third year and so I got to help teach people. And when Jen came she didn’t seem interested in fencing at all, but she was very good at the social aspect. She became the unofficial social secretary. It kind of just grew from there.
Jennifer: Yeah, I tried fencing and ended up making some of the most important friendships of my life and in fact the most important friendship of my life really. Andy and I were friends within the group and then we became best friends. And then one night I realized I had kind of a crush on him. I had then gone to Guatemala in the summer for my grandma’s birthday and every minute I had free I had gone to see if Andy was on MSN Messenger and we would just chat. Every minute we would be chatting. When I got back from Guatemala and I went back to university we’d spend every minute we could together. And at the end of it he asked me if he could kiss me.
Andy: Yes, it was a slow burn. We had been friends for a long time first.
Jennifer: Which is a really great basis for a relationship.
Andy: We were friends for almost a year. So it was a long time. After a while it becomes a big deal to take the next step. I definitely recommend that, to have that basis.
Jennifer: You also have to really like the person. I think liking the person you love is wonderful and also like we really knew each other so when I realized I loved him I really knew who I loved. I think making sure that friendship is part of your love for a person, that it’s not just romantic, but you also enjoy each other’s company and you can invest in your friendship even when it’s romantic. Just be friends with the person you love, as well. So after university we both were going to head home to our families. We were both Christian, I was Catholic. We both felt we wanted to be married before moving in together. We both headed back to our families and knew that within the next two years we’d want to figure out the logistics. Andy lived further up north and I lived further south. We got engaged. My grandma gave my mom her engagement ring for Andy and I to use when we got engaged.
Andy: And it’s been almost exactly thirteen years.
Jennifer: Yeah, on Tuesday it will be thirteen years. Andy came to Guatemala to meet the family. We went to Antigua and we were planning to get married in the summer and one of the evenings he just sort of said “look, my annual leave turns over at the end of the year, why don’t we just get married as soon as we can?” So we planned our wedding for February. I regularly feel that I couldn’t have known then how much I would end up loving him. It’s been an absolute joy knowing him and loving him. I love him more now than I did thirteen years ago. And I am just so glad to have him.
If you had to give any advice to couples starting a relationship, what would you tell them is important?
Andy: I think one thing that we’ve talked about throughout the years is that love isn’t something passive. You don’t just fall in love and it’s done, there you go. It’s a choice.
Jennifer: It’s not happy ever after and then a switch turns on and it goes.
Andy: It’s a commitment. It’s constantly choosing to put your partner first and to work as the two of you rather than just one person. That’s not just if you’re lucky- like if you’re lucky you’ll find someone and it will be easy or hard. There’s always hard moments that you go through. It’s really a choice and a commitment that the two of you make and that makes it amazing. I’ve had thirteen years of it, of a lot of memories, and it’s something that you create as you spend time together.
Jennifer: A lot of people talk about how much fun the beginning can be but then becoming bored or missing those butterflies and things like that, but…I don’t know how many people realize what you get after the years. There’s literally moments where we are together and we will literally be humming the same song. You have all these inside jokes and knowledge and understanding of each other.
Andy: Like a shared language almost.
Jennifer: Yeah, there’s an English band called Keen that I love and we both really enjoy their music and one time I was on this old review of one of their albums and the person reviewing it was being really mean about them and I was scrolling down through the comments and I found a comment that was standing up for them and saying that it was a harsh review, and it was Andy! It was him! I don’t know, you have this beautiful shared history because they’ve known you all this time and it’s really lovely. So I think holding onto what you are building is important, that fact that you’re building something really precious with each other. I suppose in terms of advice, I would say, be gentle with each other and the way you are feeling at any given moment, whether you are in a good mood or you are feeling irritable, remember that it can be influenced by so many things. Your attitude can be influenced by things going on outside, maybe you’re tired, work is stressful, or hormones even. So many things can influence how you’re feeling and even if you’re feeling annoyed because they’ve done something or you’re having a discussion, try and keep it gentle and try to always make sure it’s productive. If you’re going to have a disagreement or a conversation, try not to have it be an argument. People say the first year of marriage can be the hardest and I think yeah, there were fundamental lessons we learned. You know, you gotta think that, look, we’re not going to get divorced as a result of this argument so lets navigate it and by the end of this conversation, we aren’t worse than we were before and we’re not going to lash out because we’re feeling angry. Always hold on to the fact that you are talking to someone that you love and make sure that’s clear. Be gentle. If you feel like you are going to lash out, try to calm that down. Like I always tell Sophia, you can say anything nicely. In preparation for marriage they talk about not using “always,” like not saying “you always do this.”
Andy: Yeah never say “you always do this” or “you never do this.”
Jennifer: It’s this sweeping statement rather than saying “I would really appreciate it if you do this.” And also notice the good things too. Make a point of saying “when you do that, it makes me feel really loved.” So you are highlighlighting the things you notice in the other person’s thoughtfulness. Instead of saying “could you close the blinds?” or “please remember to close the blinds” and when he does, just thinking well it’s good that he did, say “thank you for closing them.” Give them credit.
That’s really huge. I think a lot of people don’t do that. A lot of people don’t realize that positive reinforcement is just as important. Saying “when this happens it makes me feel this way,” regardless if it’s a positive or a negative.
Jennifer: Yes and then if it’s all just negative that’s all the person hears, like “you didn’t do this” or “you forgot this.” Because all the good stuff you just think well good instead of saying something. It’s better to be appreciative.
How did you learn to communicate as a couple and be patient?
Andy: If you’re in it for the long haul then having secrets from one another or trying to pretend that you don’t feel what you’re feeling isn’t good, you’re just going to struggle every time. So just speak the truth.
Jennifer: Yeah, don’t play games.
Andy: Just be open and clear and don’t play the game of not saying anything because you think the other person should notice or saying something even though it’s not what you feel. Just actually talk to one another. It sounds easy when saying it, it can be hard. But actually just making that choice of being open. It’s easy to do that if you know the other person is going to take it well. It’s good to be calm when having these conversations.
Jennifer: And to give the other person a safe place to be vulnerable too. Don’t make fun of them. Really hear what they are saying and really listen. I was in confession once and I remember the priest saying that men don’t often talk about their feelings so if your husband is telling you he feels something, he’s probably feeling it really strongly so really try and hear that. Like Andy’s always spoken so kindly to me and I can be quite fiery at times. And I remember one time he told me “I would never talk to you like this.” And I kind of thought yeah, he really wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t allow it if he did, I wouldn’t be okay with that. But for some reason I think it’s okay to talk to him like this. Another thing that’s really good for us is trying not to be proud. There are moments where I am standing by something and as i’m doing it I feel like maybe i’m wrong here, and it can be really hard to back down because you feel like you are defending your point and that you want to be right and it can feel like this huge thing. So what I like to do whether it’s in the moment or after I will say I’m sorry, I think you’re right. Or I’ll leave and then come back and say I’m not happy with how I handled that. I think I was really quite aggressive or I don’t think I really listened to you and I’m sorry. If you try to do that, it’s beneficial. The minute you feel like maybe they have a point, just try and deescalate the situation and take it down a notch. Just take a breath and try to do it more productively.
Andy: The one thing we’ve been told since we were young is to remember that different things mean different amounts to different people and people hear and receive love in different ways. And so don’t assume that if something doesn’t mean a lot to you it doesn’t mean a lot to them too. And vice versa. Always be willing to bear in mind how important these things are. Don’t spend a lot of time arguing about something that doesn’t mean a lot to either of you. You’re never going to agree on everything, you’re two people. Just measure how important these things are. And if it does mean a lot to you or to them, make sure to show why it matters and communicate that it matters.
Jennifer: State clearly “this is important to me” instead of thinking well, he must know and just doesn’t care. Maybe he really doesn’t and you haven’t expressed it properly. And there’s the whole thing about not going to sleep angry, but I reckon that staying up when you’re exhausted and irritable and lashing out isn’t that helpful either. One of the things we say to each other is how even when we’re not okay, we’re okay. Like, we’re solid. This isn’t going anywhere. We’re going to keep nurturing it. If you have that security of knowing that we are going to be alright, then figure it out and find each other again if you’ve lost each other in an argument. Just think that you are okay and you don’t have to finish the argument then. Just pause and be okay for a bit. Hug and deescalate, even if it’s a physical deescalation. Say I’m here and I love you and we’re going to get through this together.
Anything else you want to share with couples?
Jennifer: Just after we got married our shower wasn’t working and I would go to the gym to shower and there was a guy there who noticed I was married and he asked “what’s being married like?” and I said “oh, it’s wonderful!” And he said “well, that’s really nice to hear because most people say it’s awful.” And I was just thinking about how sad that was to hear. Honestly, being married is wonderful. There’s nothing like loving and being loved. More people should know that.