Six Things I Learned About Marriage From Michelle Obama

Or, What It Actually Takes To Share Your Life With Someone

Did you know that Michelle and Barack Obama went to couples therapy? In her book Becoming Michelle lets us into the story of her marriage and acknowledges that #relationshipgoals don’t just magically happen. I am so grateful to her for her openness and transparency.

The couples we admire have put in work to co-create their relationship. In the Obamas’ case, that work included sessions with a couples therapist. Being a couples therapist myself I am so excited that she chose to share this part of their journey in her book.

Soon after having children, Michelle and Barack started feeling stuck and increasingly emotionally disconnected, so they did something about it. (I have to tell you: If every couple got help before things went from not-so-great to really dire, it would change the world!)

What does it actually take to share your life with someone?

We are relational beings.We naturally seek connection and closeness. The problem is, we often don’t know exactly how to maintain that connection in the long term. Even intelligent, loving, committed, hard working go-getters like the Obamas got tripped up. They needed outside help and expertise to get back on track — and ultimately they came out stronger for it.

Unfortunately, in our society couples who are starting to feel stuck or just need a “tune-up” rarely think to come to counseling. And, sadly, the longer couples wait to seek help the more entrenched and problematic certain patterns become.

If we don’t have intentional and regular ways to repair the inevitable ruptures that happen in our relationships, emotional debris starts to build up. These little problems fester and create disconnection over time. Many of my clients often wait a long time to seek help, and by the time they come into my office they’re in crisis mode, emotionally bleeding out after years without preventative care.

Truth is, most people don’t intuitively know what to do to stay together (and be happy doing it).

Though Michelle Obama’s book was about so much more than her marriage to the forty-fourth president, she offered some powerful insights into what it takes to build and maintain a satisfying long-term relationship.

This is the first in a series of three posts that offer up my six key takeaways about marriage, based on the important truths Michelle shared about her own journey. We’ll begin with the first two:

1) We all come into relationships with our own emotional default settings, but we often don’t realize that we have them.

As Michelle Obama wrote, “we live by the paradigms we know.” As individuals, we just think our way of viewing things or reacting to things is “normal” and we rarely question our autopilot responses. But, when you become aware of your partner’s default settings as well as your own, it can be a game-changer.

In the Obamas’ case, Michelle was brought up with closeness and sameness with everyone showing up and being together. In her world, love and family were done up close at the dinner table each night. Love meant consistency and presence. So, when her husband was away or didn’t come home early enough for dinner she felt extra let down and was more prone to loneliness.

Barack, on the other hand, grew up extremely independent. His mother loved him deeply but lived on a different continent. That was ok with him. In his world, love did not mean being tethered to each other or having dinner together every night. These things were not a big deal to him, but they had the power to trigger so much disconnection in their marriage.

After the Obamas had children, they needed to have an open conversation about what was important to each of them. As Michelle described it, they needed to figure out where the hurt was actually coming from. They needed to make the implicit explicit. They needed to consciously choose how they wanted to do things in their family, in a way that honored them both.

This mutual awareness and sharing is incredibly important for all couples. Without it we make assumptions, or take things personally. Without these conversations, these default settings keep operating in the shadows and hijacking your interactions with your partner.

It can be eye-opening to realize that what seems “normal” to you is actually very different based on the history, past hurts, and the blueprints you and your partner each bring to the relationship.

By addressing the core issue, the Obamas were able to share from a deeper place instead of getting stuck on surface level, having repetitive arguments or power struggles about who is right or wrong.

Once you and your partner can explicitly name the default settings that lie beneath your most challenging interactions, you can build more understanding, and, hopefully more mutual empathy.

Most importantly, you also create the space to choose.

Do I want to keep doing what I’m doing because it’s familiar? Is it serving me to get so instantly angry or shutdown when I feel triggered? Or, do I want to consciously choose a different way of co-creating something new with my partner?

When our default settings are named and brought into the light of shared understanding, change becomes possible.

2) Long-term committed relationships are not “a cakewalk.” They take work.

Relationships take work, and this work is totally worth doing. I want to shout that from the rooftops.

On a recent interview with Oprah, Michelle said, “Marriage is hard, I think we have a responsibility to talk about the journey of having a good strong relationship. If you are lucky to be married 50 years, and 20 of them are horrible, you are doing great! Because 30 of those years are awesome, and what you build together can be awesome. Marriage isn’t a cakewalk, it’s hard.” Clearly, she’s not sugarcoating anything, and I love her honesty.

The happiest long-term couples we look up to or admire from afar have actually worked hard to get there.They have figured out what works for them. They didn’t just stumble into marital bliss.

In our culture we have so much emphasis on finding “the one.” Or at least on finding someone. There are plenty of apps to help you do just that. But, once you are paired up, moved in, or maybe even married- other than lots of resources to help you plan “the day”, the story kind of ends. You’re just supposed to know what to do after that and how to make it all work.

Michelle Obama’s book provides an important reminder that having a good strong relationship is a journey. Sometimes there’s struggle and it nearly always takes work. Having to work at it doesn’t mean you’re with the wrong person.

An essential part of the journey involves working on your relationship with yourself. As you do the work of rediscovering yourself you become more self-aware. Sharing your life with a partner who is likely to push many of your buttons along the way provides a unique opportunity to look inward and notice the things that have the power to trigger you. Many of those things likely pre-date your partner.

You are here to grow and evolve as a couple, and hopefully with a partner who is willing to be on this journey of self and mutual discovery with you. Remember, the challenges are going to happen — it’s an inevitable part of two people coming together to share a life. We can all learn from the couples who have figured out how to face the struggle with curiosity and compassion. (And with outside support when they need it!).

Coming soon in part two: The importance of learning to separate our weapons from our wounds