How we stay together: 'A lot of those edges rubbed off and weren't as sharp'

Alexandra Spring
·8-min read

Names: Michael and Michelle Aronson
Years together: 49
Occupations: Co-founders of Grants toothpaste

He was miles from home and hadn’t spoken to his family for weeks, but while he was trekking in the Himalayas, Michael Aronson came to a life-changing realisation.

At the time, he and his wife, Michelle, were working long hours, running three businesses in Melbourne and rarely spending time with their three teenagers. When he got home, they decided together that something had to give.

“It gave me a lot of time to think, on the mountain, and one of the biggest things we realised [was] that we weren’t in our children’s lives,” he says now. “We would go to work and we would provide for them and we would have this wonderful woman basically bringing them up. I said to Michelle, ‘… Why would we have kids that we’re not in their lives?’”

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Michelle agreed wholeheartedly. “[He said] ‘We’ve got to do something, and now’s the time to do it before the kids get any older.’ I was so tired, I just said yes, whatever.”

They decided to focus on a single business – their toothpaste brand Grants – and work from home. It was a tough financial decision but worth it. “It was probably the best thing we ever did for the children and for us,” he says. Michelle nods: “And for us, for our relationship.”

The couple met in the seventies, when Michelle was 18 and Michael 19. One afternoon a mutual friend set Michelle up with her brother, but instead she struck up a conversation with Michael, the brother’s friend. Michael tracked down her phone number and they went to the movies to see Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner on their first date.

Soon they were dating, going on picnics, to films and discos. It was the time of the Vietnam war and they also joined anti-war protests, marching in Melbourne. “Michael was in the citizens’ military reserve army but he wasn’t called up,” says Michelle. “But he looked really cute in the uniform.”

Theirs was a strong connection. “We had a lot in common, I thought,” says Michael. “She laughed at my jokes.” It wasn’t just common interests, says Michelle: “It was also inquiring about things and trying to understand things. We were basically teenagers, so you’re curious and you’re critical. We were asking the same sort of questions ... and I think in a lot of ways we were naive as well. Like, what experience did we have of the world?”

Not everyone approved. “I spent an awful lot of time convincing Michelle’s mother that I was a decent fellow,” Michael explains. Michelle laughs: “I was only 18, so she thought I was a bit young.”

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They were married in 1971, about 18 months after they met. They lived in Melbourne for the next year, Michael working as an electrician and Michelle teaching. Although he was keen to put down a deposit on a house, she wanted to travel, something his mother encouraged. “She said to us, ‘You’ve got nothing to tie you down, you’ve got no mortgage, you’ve got no kids. Now’s the best time in your life. If you want to travel, go now.’”

So they took off on a round-the-world trip, travelling to the US, then the UK, Europe and Israel. That trip helped them to bond. “We learned to trust each other,” says Michelle. “Not just love each other, but trust each other and respect each other.”

Their first year of marriage had been an adjustment for both. “I think we both had rough edges coming into the relationship early on,” says Michelle. “I was so very stressed in our first year of marriage ... I found running my own [tiny little flat] really difficult on top of working. I was very committed to my class and I was very stressed with cooking, cleaning, washing clothes. I think in that first year we had more fights.”

She felt the pressure of juggling everything. “But once we went on that trip, travelling and being together all the time, I think we eased into a very comfortable relationship, and that’s continued. Travelling around the world made a huge difference to our relationship and a lot of those edges rubbed off and weren’t as sharp.”

Once they returned, they got down to work. Michael started by selling toiletries at Melbourne markets. Then he landed a permanent stall at South Melbourne market, and expanded into vitamins and food. Soon they were packaging up their own health foods at home. “The dining room table was then set over for packing in bulk,” remembers Michelle.

At one point, Michael bought a wholesaling business while Michelle took over running the market stall. They worked well together: “Whatever he could do, I could do, and whatever I could do, he could do in the business,” says Michelle. “So if one wasn’t well, the other could take over.”

But it meant long hours and “hard yakka”. As Michelle says: “I remember being really tired a lot. It was basically hand-to-mouth. You’d buy stock and you’d sell it and you’d have enough to money to buy more stock and there was a bit of money left over to pay your mortgage and buy food.”

They kept working hard and taking on more business ventures. But by that time they had three young children, and it was all taking a toll on family life. “We had no idea what they were doing, we had no idea who they were mixing with,” says Michael. “It was the wrong crowd.” And there wasn’t much time for each other, either. “We were both so tired that things just rolled along,” says Michelle.

Their decision to streamline their lives changed everything. Where most of the parenting responsibilities had fallen to Michelle, now Michael became more involved with his children’s lives. There were other changes too. “I took them to the football. They were at the start very disgruntled about that because it wasn’t the right team,” Michael says drily. “They were supporting Melbourne … I supported Collingwood. So I said, ‘You can have a happy life or you can have a miserable life.’ And so they came onboard.”

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Life took on an easier pace and their toothpaste business grew. But there was another adjustment for the couple when the children started to leave home. “It was hard,” says Michael. “I sat there and I looked at Michelle and I’m thinking, ‘What am I going to talk about?’ You struggle to make conversation and I’m sure Michelle had struggled to make conversation because when the kids were there, you talked to the kids and there were things going on.”

Gradually they found a new rhythm “You talked, I listened,” says Michael, looking over at his wife. “We just talked about different things … We just evolved.”

These days, they both work part time at Grants, where their daughter is the general manager. There are no plans for retirement, at least for Michael. “I don’t know what I would do,” he says. “I actually enjoy going to work. I don’t like being there all day ... There are some mornings when I think I really don’t want to go … then when I get to work, I’m very comfortable. And I yell at the staff and they’re very comfortable with me yelling at them,” he jokes.

The couple still spend much of their time together, from the moment they wake up to the time they go to bed. But they do have time for themselves. “I couldn’t have cared less about football – I’m not interested,” says Michelle. “That’s wonderful that Michael goes and is interested in football ... You’ve got to do some things that are separate from each other, so I enjoy my book club and we have a knitting group and I go walking with friends.”

They compromise on the TV shows too. “I like the lifestyle things and Michael likes the footy [and] action movies and I don’t ... When he’s watching footy, I read, but I’m still sitting next to him.”

They’re constantly talking to each other, something they say is key to their relationship. “We bring different perspectives to one situation,” says Michelle. “You’ve got to communicate or else you don’t know how the other one’s feeling,” says Michael. “We go on walks together or around the block for an hour here or there and we talk.”

After all this time, they understand each other well because they’ve grown up together. “We have a confidence in each other and each other’s support,” says Michelle. “So if I am really exhausted or tired or sad, Michael is quite uplifting and supportive, and the same works the other way … I don’t see it as working on our relationship. I don’t see it as work – it’s comfortable and complimentary.”

And often it all comes down to tolerance. “As you get older, you can’t be bothered,” says Michael. “You just go along and everybody’s happy.”

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