After 26 years of marriage, Michelle Obama has learned a lot about what it means to be someone’s partner, in every sense of the word. As the former First Lady reveals to Oprah Winfrey in ELLE magazine’s December issue, she and Barack Obama never meant to define #RelationshipGoals—at least, not in the way the hashtag has been attributed to their names.
Being married to Barack “taught me how to swerve,” she says. Because even before he was elected President of the United States, the demands of his political career were often at odds with the needs of his family. But he “had this wonderful optimism about time,” she says with a laugh, explaining that his calendar was often overbooked. “He thought there was way more of it than there really was. And he would fill it up constantly. He’s a plate spinner—plates on sticks, and it’s not exciting unless one’s about to fall. So, there was work we had to do as a couple.”
And so, the Obamas decided to see a marriage counselor. “You go because you think the counselor is going to help you make your case against the other person. ‘Would you tell him about himself?’ And lo and behold, counseling wasn’t that at all. It was about me exploring my sense of happiness. What clicked in me was that I need support and I need some from him,” Michelle explains. “But I needed to figure out how to build my life in a way that works for me.”
In her memoir, Becoming, Michelle confessed she “felt vulnerable” when Barack was on the road and away from their family. The revelation was profound, according to Oprah, who tells her, “I thought that was kind of amazing, to hear a modern woman—a First Lady—admit that.”
“I feel vulnerable all the time. And I had to learn how to express that to my husband, to tap into those parts of me that missed him—and the sadness that came from that—so that he could understand. He didn’t understand distance in the same way. You know, he grew up without his mother in his life for most of his years, and he knew his mother loved him dearly, right? I always thought love was up close. Love is the dinner table, love is consistency, it is presence. So I had to share my vulnerability and also learn to love differently. It was an important part of my journey of becoming,” the 54-year-old mother of two says. “Understanding how to become us.”
As Oprah points out, “nothing really changed” regarding Barack’s demanding schedule. “You just changed your perception of what was happening,” she says. “And that made you happier.”
“Yeah. And I share this because I know that people look to me and Barack as the ideal relationship. I know there’s #RelationshipGoals out there. But whoa, people, slow down—marriage is hard!” Michelle says, admitting that she and Barack even argue differently. “I am like a lit match. It’s like, poof! And he wants to rationalize everything. So he had to learn how to give me, like, a couple minutes—or an hour—before he should even come in the room when he’s made me mad. And he has to understand that he can’t convince me out of my anger…”
After they moved into the White House, Michelle set ground rules to ensure Barack managed his time better. For example, family dinners were basically mandatory. “That was one of the things I brought into the White House—that strict code of, ‘You gotta catch up with us, dude. This is when we’re having dinner. Yes, you’re president, but you can bring your butt from the Oval Office and sit down and talk to your children,'” she recalls. “Because children bring solace.”