Many admire the marriage of former first couple Barack and Michelle Obama, and with good reason. The couple was and is an openly affectionate and happy couple, routinely seen around town on romantic dates, despite the strains of political life. But recently, Michelle has opened up about the marital struggles they’ve endured in their 26-year marriage, and in doing so, offers an important reminder that even the best of marriages require continual work.
In what has been called a “marriage bombshell” on tour for her just-released memoir, Becoming, Michelle Obama revealed multiple strains on their early years of marriage, starting with their fertility struggles. In an interview with “Good Morning America,” she revealed that she had a miscarriage, something that made her feel “lost and alone.” She added, “I felt like I failed because I didn’t know how common miscarriages were because we don’t talk about them.”
Indeed, it is estimated that 10% to 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, and in most cases, the reasons are often unclear, leaving women to blame themselves. And yet one study found that more of half respondents believe miscarriages are rare. “I would say that after a miscarriage, the vast majority of women look back at the week leading up to the miscarriage and think about what they might have done to cause [it],” noted the study’s author. “The truth is that in the vast majority of cases, there is nothing that the woman did that caused the miscarriage.”
Still, there is no doubt pregnancy loss brings blame and resentment that can strain a marriage. One study found that couples that experienced a miscarriage were 22% more likely to separate; that number jumps to 40% for couples that experience a stillbirth. The Obamas didn’t separate, but they did eventually turn to artificial means to conceive.
And, for their marriage, they turned to marital counseling.
When Michelle revealed that she and the former president underwent couples therapy, the news shattered perceptions of their “perfect” marriage. But it also bolstered perceptions that their marriage is real. Michelle describes an experience that is no doubt familiar to countless spouses across the country—namely, struggling through daily life with a spouse with a demanding job, especially one that requires a lot of travel.
In her book, she writes: “When it came down to it, I felt vulnerable when he was away.” In an interview with Oprah, she elaborated that through therapy, she learned to communicate this isolation with Barack, and to understand that given his own broken home growing up, her husband “didn’t understand distance the same way.” Barack was more accustomed to distance in relationships, but to Michelle, “Love is the dinner table, love is consistency, it is presence.”
While marriage is fundamentally about permanent unity, it is important to remember that it brings together two fundamentally different people. Sorting through those differences takes a lifetime, and outside help is often needed. Michelle Obama does all married couples a great service in helping to lift the stigma that surrounds seeking counseling. So often it is viewed as a last-ditch effort to save a failing marriage. But Michelle paints it as something ordinary to help marriage partners sort through the normal struggles of married life like travel, loneliness, and even loss.
“I know too many young couples who struggle and think that somehow there's something wrong with them,” she told ABC News. “And I want them to know that Michelle and Barack Obama, who have a phenomenal marriage and who love each other, we work on our marriage. And we get help with our marriage when we need it.”
Here’s hoping her witness helps more couples who need it to do the same, and with no shame.
Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies. Her new book is Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017).
*Photo credit: Pete Souza