Public figures usually only mention couples therapy when their relationship is in crisis, but the Obamas prove talking before crisis is a great way to maintain a healthy marriage.
Michelle Obama, currently on a media tour for the release of her memoir Becoming, has revealed she and husband President Barack Obama have spent time in couples therapy. But importantly, the sessions weren’t arranged mid-marital crisis. They sought help with communication, specifically about time management. “He’s a plate spinner—plates on sticks, and it’s not exciting unless one’s about to fall,” the former First Lady told Oprah in an interview for Elle. “So there was work we had to do as a couple. Counseling we had to do to work through this stuff.”
Yes, the Obamas, a couple many people (of a certain political persuasion) have long seen as #marriagegoals, both danced at the inaugural ball and sat in front of a therapist. Why? Because the Obamas’ apparent love for each other was never what made them exceptional — their ability to work at their marriage did. That’s how it goes.
Still, the therapy narrative is not the story we hear from most public figures. When the specter of marriage counseling pops up in entertainment media, it’s usually the last grasp at civility and understanding in the midst of drug abuse or infidelity. Couples therapy tends to be a pit stop on the way to Splitsville. That’s how it went for Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe. That’s how it went for Kourtney Kardashian and Scott Disick. That’s how it went for Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner.
But there’s not much said in the media about how couples therapy can make a good marriage better. We’d all prefer to believe that marriage is simply good or bad. We’d like to believe that Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard are simply a pair of loveable goofs that were “made for” each other. We’d rather not hear, as they openly admit, that, like the Obamas, they go to couples therapy to keep things on track.
The fact is that even people who love each other need help managing their relationships. Also, there’s no need to wait for crises to find room for growth. This is a message married couples should hear all the time. They don’t.
So when Michelle Obama admits that the first couple looked to therapy to find a greater sense of vulnerability and deeper communication, it should change our perspective on the eight years of a very public and solidly scandal-free marriage America watched during the Obama presidency. The couple can no longer be reductively understood as #blessed or “soulmates.” The Obamas were proactive and conscientious. That’s what made them good for each other and what made them a good model for American couples.
Will Michelle’s acknowledgment result in more couples going into non-crisis therapy? Maybe. People do follow Michelle’s lead. But just as important is this: Her disclosure will make it easier for married people who are engaged in therapy to feel more normal about the process and maybe even talk about it with their friends.
Perhaps those conversations will poke a hole in the myth of the purely romantic marriage. Perhaps Michelle has paved the way for Donald and Melania Trump to speak openly and honestly about their relationship. Probably not. Still, baby steps are worth celebrating.