“He’s romantic, he doesn’t forget dates or birthdays…He always comes through.” She’s talking about her husband, who also happens to be the President of the United States.
In a media climate rampant with extra-marital affairs, sexually frustrated politicians, and a steady stream of marriages ending as prematurely as they began, the Obamas are a pillar of stability and love. And though you can never be to sure of what’s happening behind closed doors, Michelle Obama is at the top of my list of Women Well Loved.
So what’s her secret?
Respect Yourself First.
The First Lady told Ellen, “the one thing Barack has done…is support me through everything I’ve done. He’s always had my back.”
Which got me thinking. Has he always had her back?
Michelle Obama was not ‘jumping for joy’ over her husband’s presidential campaign. In fact, she wouldn’t fully support him until he agreed to quit smoking (he was using cigarettes to cope with the additional stress). Her number one concern pre-, during, and post-presidency is that her children remain unaffected. And according to their 2005 income tax return, before hitting the campaign trail Michelle Obama earned a higher salary than her husband.
But respect isn’t just about who makes the money. It’s about honoring who you are, at your deepest core, and committing to valuing that above all else.
Quite often one person has to compromise a career opportunity they are passionate about in order to commit to a relationship, support their spouse’s more lucrative career, or raise children. It would be tempting to do any number of even more drastic things to support a husband running for president. Some might argue that the right thing to do is put aside your needs and wants, not only for the good of your husband but for the good of the country.
But the Obamas know that it’s the opposite – maintaining integrity as individuals creates a healthy marriage which makes for a better president.
Michelle Obama respects her husband without losing herself. Regis Philbin sked her if Obama lies in bed at night complaining about the country’s problems. “He knows better than to talk about it in bed,” she answered.
She respects his career by not meddling in it, and he respects their marriage, by not bringing his work to bed with him.
She continued, “…He does a fantastic job of separating. If he brought all of that home, he wouldn’t be the calm president you see. He has a very good way of compartmentalizing. So when he walks through those doors…[to the family wing of the White House] you see it all washing away. And we let it all wash away.”
They let it “all wash away,” and make time to be just married. Unfortunately, I have a hard time letting it all wash away when I’m stressed out about a dinner party I’m having or a friend of mine whose relationship has turned sour and isn’t turning back. But being able to let it go is an essential part to cultivating the love, respect, and intimacy that keeps the relationship growing. It’s about creating routines together. Luckily my boyfriend, like President Obama, is really good at it. He craves time together when we can just be ourselves and is brave enough to ask me if we could postpone our talk about the Palestinian conflict till a later date. He and the Obamas are teaching me to keep our time together every night sacred.
So how does Michelle get her needs met, while being the wife of a president?
Irving Berlin said,
Life is 10% what you make it and 90% how you take it.
There are plenty of downsides to being the president’s wife. But you won’t hear First Lady Obama mention them once. Every word she says about her husband is genuine, full of admiration, and respect.
What’s important isn’t who’s taking the children to school, who has a “successful” career, or who’s paying the bills. Respecting each other’s needs means being able to identify what they are (to yourself) and clearly articulate them to your partner. When Michelle tells her husband to quit smoking and leave the work outside the bedroom, she’s not being an “angry black woman,” she’s being a good wife and strong woman, and receiving love, appreciation, and respect in return.
It doesn’t hurt that they’re beautiful, intelligent, and graceful people. But copious amounts of couples look good on paper but don’t make it through their first year of marriage. President Obama genuinely loves Michelle and is not afraid to show her, even as the whole world looks on. How do I know?
The way he looks at her. The way he smiles when he holds her. How he calls her “the love of his life.” How they laugh together.
These signs may seem trivial but they can make a huge difference. Signs of affection give physical evidence of love to your partner and can be especially affirming when other people are around (never mind the millions watching on television).
But men have it tough. Showing affection and vulnerability for a woman can contradict the respect and validation they crave from the world around them. This may be leftover from some cave-man notion that if you get attached to a “mate” you’re more vulnerable (to attack because there’s more you have to defend) and perpetuated by social constructs.
In reality, being in a strong, committed, and loving relationship is a sign of a stronger man. Married men make more money, are better looking, and have better sex, more often. So Obama sets the tone for a slew of men out there who think that they are doing themselves better by staying “cool” and single: you aren’t.
And it’s these displays of affection, in addition to non-physical intimacy outside of the bedroom, that keep the Obamas (and us) in happy love relationships.
Admit We Aren’t Perfect.
The Obamas are the first to admit it’s hard. Michelle can’t go a sentence without referring to her new “job” as first lady (which is a nice reminder for those of us imaging her as a royalty sitting on her laurels). All the way back in 2004, President Obama talked with Oprah about Michelle’s complaints:
‘This is crazy. He’s never home, the schedule’s terrible, and I’m raising two kids and working.’ Then Michelle pauses and says, ‘That’s why he’s such a grateful man.’
And that’s the truth. It’s hard, it’s draining, it’s boring, it’s stressful. (Just like my life, but bigger.) The Obamas will tell you that life is not easy, and President Obama’s quote of this quote shows that he’s listening, he’s sympathetic, and he knows it’s not all gravy.
But relationships aren’t supposed to be perfect and consistent because people aren’t perfect or consistent. My boyfriend and I fell madly in love and then spent the next series of months unraveling the complexities of who we actually are:
“I feel like Thai food.”
“You told me you never eat Thai food.”
“Well. I do.”
We’re all constantly growing in our beliefs, our goals, we’re changing where we’re going based on our experiences and what we learn from them. If we commit to grow as individuals first and foremost, then our relationship is going to be taken on the wild ride that will be our life as the hero of our journey. But imagine if Michelle said, “this is too hard on me and the kids, I can’t take this presidential campaign.” Who succeeds there? We have to let each other take the risks and become heroes. David Nelson explains,
Unless we get our priorities clear, it is almost inevitable that that [romantic] attachment will quickly become more important to us than our own potential for liberation in this life.
Laugh It Off.
And that’s the last point, which is an obvious one, of course. But it’s important because with so much riding on our love relationships, things can quickly become serious, tense, and stressful when things go “wrong.” President and First Lady Obama are known for laughing it off. Take it from Michelle, “In our house we don’t take ourselves too seriously; and laughter is the best form of unity, I think, in a marriage.”
Preach, First Lady. We’re with you.