Relationship Status: Off the Charts

By Katie Sweeney

What makes a relationship stand the test of time? Unfortunately, that’s probably a trick question with no correct answer. It’s a little like wondering what the meaning of life is, or whether the chicken or the egg came first, or if aliens exist. But while chatting with a trio of Bay Area power duos — Norah and Norman Stone, Ken McNeely and Inder Dhillon, and Mourad Lahlou and Mathilde Froustey — the Nob Hill Gazette discovered several common denominators that allow love to flourish. Trust, understanding, mutual respect and a desire to be together are the building blocks for a long-lasting relationship. Being grateful for your partner is another crucial aspect to a relationship’s endurance.

Perhaps Norah Stone, who has been with her husband for 35 years, explains it best: “The longevity of a relationship? Trusting each other, being honest, having fun together, realizing that we have differences. We probably have as many things that we share as we have differences. We respect each other.” According to Dhillon, “Your relationship is a house, with a foundation of respect, walls of friendship, and a roof of passion. You need all three; nurture all three.”

When pressed for further details, our couples’ conversations flowed freely. They completed each other’s sentences and peppered paramours with terms of endearment, and displays of affection were prominent — proving that love is in the air. In honor of Valentine’s Day, we bring to light the love lives of these unique pairs — and in doing so attempt to answer the age-old question of what makes love stand the test of time.

Norah and Norman Stone

The Stones, photographed in their art-filled home by Peter Prato.

Norah Sharpe canceled her very first date with Norman Stone. “I had to break it and change it to a different day,” Norah admits. When they finally got together, the two walked from her apartment on Russian Hill down to North Beach for dinner. They were set up by a mutual pal who didn’t pro-vide either with very much information. “My friend who introduced us said, ‘He dresses funny,’ and that’s all I knew about him,” Norah says. As for Norman, “I knew she was a corporate lawyer for the biggest employer in California, Pac Bell, the phone company. That’s all I knew. Then I met her and thought, ‘Well, here’s an attractive lady.’”

Their relationship moved quickly; when Norman invited Norah to his house on the lake in Tahoe, she realized that there was something special happening between them. When he started to cry in front of her while watching the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics, Norah realized she was in love.

The couple married two years later and have been collecting art and traveling the world together ever since. “I haven’t always had people around me who I could trust,” Norman says, “but Norah is one hundred percent trustworthy with me.”

From daily hour-long meditation sessions to wearing wacky outfits, Norah lets Norman do his thing, and although he’s an introvert and she’s an extrovert, it works.

“Independence is vital,” Norah says, to which Norman cautions: “[Don’t] be dependent on somebody else for your happiness. If you’re marrying somebody else to be happy, that’s probably not such a great thing.” As a trained psychologist, Norman understands that each relationship’s course is complicated and distinct, but communication, and more importantly, love, are crucial.

“I love Norah. I have for years. I learn new things about her as time goes on,” he says. “I can’t think or imagine of wanting to spend time the rest of my life with anybody else.”

Ken McNeely and Inder Dhillon

The couple in their stunning, minimalist home, photographed by Peter Prato.

Like so many modern couples, McNeely and Dhillon met online. Not on Bumble or Tinder, but Yahoo Personals. Seventeen years ago, it was one of the first and only online dating services. “When I was all ready to post, Yahoo asked me if I wanted to spend an additional $2 for ‘premium placement’ — I suppose it was a guarantee that I would be on the first page of someone’s search,” Dhillon reminisces. “I hesitated, then decided to splurge. The best money I ever spent!” McNeely admits that the extra exposure worked. “I’m not sure my patience would have allowed me to scroll through too many bios,” he says.

The two met for coffee in the Castro and were instantly attracted — “I couldn’t stop looking at his biceps,” Dhillon admits. McNeely recalls, “After our coffee, I met friends, and I remember telling them, ‘I think I found The One.’” While things progressed quickly, six months into the relationship, they wondered if spending so much time together was healthy. After many nights in the same bed, they decided to sleep apart, both going to their respective apartments. “None of us could go to sleep,” Dhillon says. “About two hours later, we called each other and said, ‘This is ridiculous. Let’s forget about this experiment. Come on over.’ That’s when I knew I was in love.”

By the time they married in 2013, the couple knew that they wanted to be fathers. They adopted two children, Kabir, 14, and Meera, 12, and were present when they were born. While kids can sometimes drive a couple apart, having a family has made McNeely and Dhillon more cohesive.

“Situations come up constantly —at warp speed — that require us to take parenting decisions with-out consulting each other,” Dhillon says. “So children have immensely challenged our relationship, and thus made it stronger. You think less of yourself and more of whether this decision is good for the whole family.”

McNeely and Dhillon have strong rituals that helped to cement their partnership. They never discuss anything serious at night, go on regular dates and eat dinner as a family every evening.

While McNeely is messy and Dhillon a neat freak, they don’t try to reform one another. Says McNeely, “We both recognize that we are fully realized human beings with strengths and weaknesses, and we accept them in each of us and love because of or in spite of.”

Mourad Lahlou and Mathilde Froustey

The soon-to-be-married couple captured by Peter Prato.

A mutual friend tried to set the couple up by inviting Froustey to dine at Lahlou’s restaurant, Mourad. Froustey, a native of France and principal ballerina at San Francisco Ballet, showed up 90 minutes late; Lahlou, who hails from Morocco, wasn’t in the kitchen that night. The friend shared an Instagram picture of Froustey in Mourad’s kitchen and tagged them both.

Lahlou contacted the dancer through Instagram messages, and she invited him to see her dance in the ballet’s Unbound festival last spring. Afterward, Lahlou took Froustey to Bar Crenn for a late dinner. While a chef and a ballerina may seem like an odd couple, once you get to know Lahlou and Froustey, you see the chemistry.

“When we first got together and started talking, one of the things that I told her was, ‘This is going to be so strange because our worlds are so different.’ I’m from the food world. She’s in the dance world,” Lahlou says. “We didn’t see any commonality whatsoever in the two worlds. But then as we started dating, it became so clear that these worlds are so similar.”

Running a kitchen and being a professional dancer require an intense amount of skill, dedication and training. “The pressure is the same, the fight for perfection,” Froustey explains. “It’s one person doing something again and again until it’s perfect.” A longtime bachelor, Lahlou told Froustey on their first date that he wasn’t interested in marriage or children. “I want to have kids. I want to be a mother,” Froustey told him later. “I’m afraid if I fall in love with you I won’t have the courage to break up. You don’t want to have kids, and I’ll say I love you enough and I don’t want that. I won’t sacrifice my wish to be a mother for somebody I love.”

His response not only surprised Froustey, it surprised Lahlou.

“That was the first time that I told somebody, ‘I want to have kids with you,’” he reveals. While they became engaged over Thanksgiving, they’re taking their time to wedding-plan and are simply enjoying each other’s company. “I wouldn’t want to fight love,” Lahlou says. “It’s either you love somebody, or you don’t.”

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