‘It was smart to marry the competition’: meet the ‘power couples’ who work together

<span>‘Rarely do we need to say anything. We’ve got our own rhythm’: partners at home and in the operating theatre, Lucy Khan and Chris Cartlidge.</span><span>Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Observer</span>
‘Rarely do we need to say anything. We’ve got our own rhythm’: partners at home and in the operating theatre, Lucy Khan and Chris Cartlidge.Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Observer

The surgeons

Chris Cartlidge and Lucy Khan

Chris I’m a consultant oncoplastic breast surgeon, working in the NHS with my colleague Lucy, who happens to be my wife. Individually, we both operate to remove cancers, and on reconstructions. We join forces together on particularly complex cases where two pairs of hands are needed, or on bilateral operations: as a team, we can reconstruct a breast each concurrently, rapidly increasing the speed by which our patients can undergo treatment. After a mastectomy, there can often be years-long waits for reconstruction referrals. When possible, we combine both. For patients, the benefits are massive.

We’ve been married for 16 years, although we’ve known each other since high school in Glasgow. We both wanted to study medicine, but had no plan to do so together. Lucy got an offer from Oxford, on condition she deferred a year. I had an offer from Cambridge, but didn’t get the grades. We both ended up studying medicine in Edinburgh, and both landed on breast surgery.

You can teach most people to be a surgeon, save a small percentage who don’t have the dexterity. But there’s only a tiny group who are naturally gifted. That’s Lucy. One of my early mentors said to me once: “It was smart, Chris, to marry the competition.”

We started as consultants here in Scotland five years ago. As trainees, you rarely cross paths. It’s only now that we have the chance to work together. Lots of surgeons work collaboratively, but being husband and wife is unique. Medicine is hierarchical. Even if you disagree, between consultants, there’s a required deference. With Lucy and I, however, there’s no ego management, tiptoeing or courtesy. Lucy won’t let me do something she’s unhappy with. We’re civil and professional, but entirely upfront, which pays dividends. Plus, husband and wife humour seeps through, letting colleagues see that as senior doctors, we’re approachable. For the NHS to thrive, people at every level need to feel comfortable speaking up and asking questions. You’re a little less scary when your spouse is present cracking jokes.

Lucy There’s a real proximity to our relationship now, but it hasn’t always been that way. As soon as we got married, at the start of our surgical training, Chris was shipped off to work on Stornoway. I barely saw him. Then I was in my late 20s when we had our first son, another soon after. Chris looked after them in Edinburgh while I was in Surrey, doing a fellowship, then working as a consultant. We developed a deep trust for each other. I had to know he could look after the kids and house, alongside his work. Later, he worked in Sheffield for a year; it was my turn to take up those responsibilities. Many couples have rigidly defined roles. We’ve always been far more fluid. It set us up perfectly to now work closely together.

Some parts of operating are easy and fun to do – we fight it out for those. Mid-surgery, we look out for each other and step in to give the other a break when needed. We’re so attuned we can often predict when we’ll need the other. Rarely do we need to say anything – we’ve got our own rhythm.

We did a complex reconstruction together recently; our patient had been waiting years. When she came to see me in the clinic afterwards – she’s doing amazingly – Chris, in the office next door, popped in. Those moments are special to share.

We each accept the demands of the job. A few months ago, as we were sitting down in a restaurant, my phone rang. I wasn’t on call, but my patient needed to go back to surgery. I headed into theatre immediately. For some colleagues, that could cause major domestic problems. Not us. There’s an implicit understanding. If Chris has had a bad day, he doesn’t need to explain. And vice versa. We rarely discuss the mechanics of our day at home. There’s so much else to get on with.

The athletes

Malte and Anastasiya Winkel

Malte For most of our sporting careers, men and women in our sailing class competed separately. Then it was announced that after the 2021 Tokyo [Summer Olympic] games, our event would be mixed gender. Anastasiya was committed to us becoming a duo. I was, at first, not convinced. It felt a risk. Professional sport can be tense, stressful and high-pressure. I was afraid of ruining our relationship.

We talked a lot. Then, while Anastasiya was preparing for Tokyo (I missed out on qualifying), her partner was unavailable for a few days. I went out with her on the water temporarily. It became apparent immediately that we had something as a team. We agreed to compete together.

Knowing each other so well is a huge advantage. Since 2021, other sailors have had to find new teammates and develop fresh relationships. We had a massive head start, skipping that inefficiency. In sailing, communication is key. There’s so much to do, decisions need making instantaneously. Every manoeuvre requires shared commitment and understanding. As husband and wife, this has developed rapidly. There are downsides, too; emotions escalate far quicker. Don’t like something? It’s in the open immediately.

Separating sailing from our life on shore has proved impossible. Still, we set times to talk shop, immediately before and after being on the water. It’s a chance to check in on how we each feel, before transitioning to the other environment.

We came fifth in the last world championships, securing a spot for Germany [in the 2024 Paris Olympics]. But which German boat makes it? Over the last few months, we’ve competed in our national trials; only one German boat will compete in Paris this summer. What all this means for our marriage remains unknown. After an intense period of sailing our dynamic changes. It deepens our connection. This is the pinnacle of both of our careers and if we make it to Paris we’ll be in the exact same boat all through it.

Anastasiya As soon as I learned Malte and I could soon compete as a team, I knew I wanted to do so. When sailing with different partners, we’d regularly complain about their respective lack of dedication and commitment, about issues with our partner’s dynamics. What we were each missing in our sporting partners, I believed, we could find in each other much more.

After Tokyo, we sat down to talk: our thoughts, plans and ideas. What was our future? Malte was disappointed not to make the 2021 games. I was disappointed to miss a medal. Each of us felt we had one more Olympic campaign in us. Either we could sail in different crews – this would mean competing against each other. The idea of fighting ferociously to beat Malte didn’t feel comfortable for me. Or, we could sail together and win or lose as a team. To me, that seemed perfect.

I’ve come to know a different side of Malte. I didn’t know him beyond the confines of our relationship – that’s been challenging. If he reacted or spoke to me differently on the water – often he would be less sweet and gentle – I had to learn to not get upset or take it personally.

In daily life, stressful situations may arise a few times a day. If someone gets emotional, or conflict comes up, you slowly find a solution – and can have space from the other. During one sailing race, there can be 50 intense moments, back to back. In improving my mental strength as a sailor, my capacity to be a good romantic partner also improved. We’re far more empathic with each other.

We’ve discussed a lot what happens if we make it through to Paris. The strain that might put on us. Now is the time to deliver. Already, we’ve achieved something – we’re ranked in the top five sailing teams globally. We’re competing at a super high level, and we’re as prepared as we can be.

The authors

Nicci Gerard and Sean French

Nicci We were both journalists before coming to books. We have distinct writing styles, different areas of interest. Sean wrote a book about The Terminator. Me, about dementia. You’d not presume from reading our individual work we were destined to collaborate. My books are emotional: I have to reign in my sentimentality, and love long, adjective-filled sentences. Sean’s is a far more acerbic, detached and pared back style.

As an experiment, decades ago, we decided to see what might happen if we tried to jointly write a work of fiction. It was fascinating. Somehow, while writing together, we found a whole new voice: a single, fused imagination. We landed on the pen name Nicci French, and have written 26 psychological thrillers to date. The best part of writing is when it runs away with you and pours out to the page. Startlingly, this happens with Nicci French.

Each of our books has a different source. Take our third book, Killing Me Softly. One day, while driving to see my mother in hospital, Sean and I were talking about how we met. I was recently separated with two tiny children, not looking for anyone. Then Sean appeared. We fell in love and quickly moved in, got pregnant, then married. Our families were aghast at the speed. Afterwards, we looked back and realised how mad it was to absolutely trust a total stranger. In the car we talked about how, really, falling in love is an act of madness. We thought: what if you never did return to sanity? It became a book.

Writing is full of failure and mistakes. We allow the other to see our flaws; share the secret inner workings of our imaginations. It relies on mutual courtesy and respect. We have to give up our egos and vanity. During disagreements, neither one of us can just get our own way. We must arrive at a joint decision, or the book is junked.

There are many parallels between collaboration in writing and in life, I find: respect the other, communicate clearly and don’t be offended by critique; there must be total equality. If only we lived by it. You mustn’t think we’re terribly grown up and never argue. We bicker like any other couple. And outside writing, we have very separate lives. To be only Nicci French would be unbearable.

Sean So much of what we write comes out of our relationship. We search for stories in what makes us anxious, depressed or excited. It’s also how we settle disagreements. Rarely do we start with plot points for a thriller. Instead, what makes us jealous? What is it to grieve? It’s how we explore the world together.

Every September, we take a long walking holiday, during which we conceive and clarify a premise. As the idea develops, we continue everything as a team. We discuss plot, themes and characters for hours. If research is needed – or a location requires visiting – we do it together, rather than divvy up tasks.

When it comes to writing, though, we work with total separation. One will go off and write the first chapter, before emailing it to the other. Email is key – there’s separation between our two writing minds. Once sent, the other person is then free to add, edit, cut with no limits. Even to erase and rewrite a whole section entirely. This person then also writes the next chapter, and sends everything back via email, and so on.

This is the heart of our process – chapters emerge from the both of us. It’s impossible to tell who produced a particular passage. Some co-authors write together, but for us, writing requires the loss of all self-consciousness. In the same room, we find ourselves inhibited.

There’s a psychological term, folie à deux. Usually, it applies to criminals – a shared madness that emerges when two people spur each other on beyond their limits. I see this in our joint writing. When I’m writing alone, I’m writing for Nicci. I want to know how she’s going to deal with the dark themes, scenes or characters I’ve conjured. We both push ourselves, daring the other to go closer to the edge.

All this involves spending vast amounts of time together. From inception to final manuscript, a book takes us a year. Many relationships depend on some separation that our setup can’t abide. I adore our closeness. We married towards the end of 1990. We started our first book in 1995. For nearly 30 years, this has been our relationship. If Nicci wanted to write with someone else? It would feel like we were opening up our relationship.

Has Anyone Seen Charlotte Salter? by Nicci French (Simon & Schuster UK, £18.99) is out now. Buy it for £16.71 from guardianbookshop.com

The scientists

Kathleen Martin and John Hwa

Kathleen I run a cardiovascular research lab at Yale. My husband, John, runs a lab nextdoor, but we’ve intertwined them. We met at graduate school. I was working alone in the lab one day, when a chemical cabinet spontaneously combusted nearby. We evacuated the building. While outside, another student introduced us. With the labs closed, we spent a whole afternoon together. Our relationship grew from there.

Through the early years of our careers, we were in different labs, before starting our own labs at Dartmouth. There, we went out of our ways to forge separate identities and careers. I’d met other women scientists with partners in the same field. As a woman in science it was unfortunately easy to be defined as being someone’s wife, as if riding your husband’s coattails. We wanted to avoid that. We were determined to be seen as professionals at work, avoiding public displays of affection, or anything too personal.

Mid-career, we were offered dual packages in a new research centre at Yale with offices and labs adjacent. Saying yes meant working and living together, connected 24 hours a day. That was daunting. We weren’t sure at first, with two young children. Fifteen years later, we’re still here and loving it. It’s important to think about your work styles; not everyone can handle constant contact.

At Yale, one of my trainees came to us, upset. His wife – another scientist – was stuck. Her adviser was leaving and – eight months pregnant – she couldn’t find a new position. We’re cardiovascular biologists and she was a microbiologist. They’re distinctively different. Still, John suggested he hire her. The results were fascinating. Having them both in our labs improved their work, I’m in no doubt. Today, they both are thriving.

John Over the years since, whenever we’ve hired a person, we’ve always asked: “So, what does your spouse do?” If also a scientist (and often they are), we’ve offered positions to both. At one stage, we had five husband and wife teams.

Respective weaknesses and strengths, we find, are balanced out between spouses. Take Kathy and me. We have different personality traits. I’m more of a risk taker and I’m creative. I like out-of-the-box ideas. Kathy is traditional, practical and logical. It’s evident in our approach to science. Together, we’re a great combination.

Take making cakes, which Kathy and I like to do. The baking needs methodical precision; that’s her domain. Out of the oven, decoration is far less prescriptive, so I mostly take over. The results are far better than what we’d create individually. The same is true in our science.

We’ve quite a few spouse teams in our research labs today. I see how their skills and traits complement each other in their work – it’s synergistic. Couples working together elevates their respective results. And you can ask and expect more of each other. It’s hard to say to a colleague: I need you to look at this tonight or to ensure you’re getting unfiltered feedback. With a spouse? It’s less delicate. You can be their best cheerleader and worst (constructive) critic. That relationship proves invaluable.

If you can work in the kitchen without killing each other, you can work in a lab together. If you can’t, best steer clear. Key to it all is an opt-out. We don’t want relationships crumbling on our watch. If it doesn’t work, we promise each of the partners we’ll find another position here should need arise. Never once has that been required.

Certainly, Kathy and I will disagree in lab meetings. Sometimes, very strongly. It can become apparent. I think of it like parenting: you can disagree, but that’s natural. You work things through. And we keep it respectful.