Sex & Relationships

6 Marriage Myths Shattered: How Barack and Michelle Shun Fairy Tale Romance

The first couple's imperfect union helps shed light on the reality of marriage.

How much romance did early American farmers expect? After they'd milked the cows and tilled the fields and put the kids to bed, did they hope to exchange a few pleasant words from time to time, have sex once in a while, and occasionally stay up to watch the embers fade to black before falling asleep? Did they expect much more than a colleague with benefits?

Or did they believe, that "Love is a magical journey," and that getting married meant they were "about to embark on a wonderful voyage," as Disney promises on its wedding site.

Did they expect that love would fulfill their every need, that they would never again be lonely, that if they found someone who was compatible that their every dream would come true, effort-free?

I didn't live 200 years ago, but I venture they didn't. And though I can't prove it, I venture most were happier as a result. The cultural machine that pumps out stories about love and relationships, that raises our hopes and expectations beyond what is humanly possible, creates little other than heartbreak.

Love and marriage stories, "true" or not, are largely fiction. But they're so compelling, and so commonplace, and, to quote the X-Files, people "want to believe" that they seem true. Or at least possible.

Reality shows often depict the systematic hunt for the perfect mate who is 100 percent scientifically compatible. Romance novels, which still hold thelargest share of the consumer book market, are pumped full of entertaining but formulaic fantasy – usually about the dopamine-fueled days of falling in love with no mention of what it looks like to drag yourself out of bed when you both have the flu but someone has to feed the kid who is crying.

And magazine and newspaper stories about "real" peoples' "real" love, which tend to be the most-read stories in any issue (like this week in the New York Times), tend to bear a striking resemblance to all other fairy tales with very little resemblance to reality.

First comes love, then comes marriage. And a giant, booming wedding industry exists to sell the perfect wedding, one that all but offers a lifetime guarantee.

Go figure that there will be an estimated 2,326,485 weddings this year, at an average costof $30,860, (which is up despite the recession) with a total market value of $71,795,327.

There are almost half as many divorces, meaning the divorce rate is between 40 percent and 49percent  (maybe a higher than average rate when you're taken to your wedding in Cinderella's carriage and Mickey Mouse marries you. But I digress).

These stories are powerful. I'm taken in by them myself, despite my best efforts at critical thinking. Although I know they're pumped full of hype and lies and silicone, and I put my best filters on, I can't help but absorb tiny morsels of mistruth from "true" love stories about "real" people. I find myself comparing my own relationship to the fiction, mulling over the differences and similarities.

So even though I'm sure the profile of the first marriage in this weekend's NYT Magazine"The Obamas' Marriage" is PR-spun, prepped, practiced and signed-off on, it's as fictional as any other celebrity love story -- be it the Jolie-Pitt's or the Bushes' -- I found myself devouring the whole thing and feeling a little less bloated by the junk-food feeling than usual.

I don't know how much of it is an unfiltered view into the living room of another couple's (white) house, and it's still an example of a now idealized relationship that's already become part of the story, but this portrait is more flawed than the usual tale.

I know it's a savvy move to portray their marriage like this since it reinforces their brand as being based on honesty and transparence (the image of the Bush marriage, in contrast, namely that they were seamlessly happy, was as much a blatant lie as others told by the administration).

As for why they agreed to sit for hours of interviews about their marriage at all, Michelle Obama says, "If my ups and downs, our ups and downs in our marriage can help young couples sort of realize that good marriages take work ..." The image of a flawless relationship is "the last thing that we want to project," she said. "It's unfair to the institution of marriage, and it's unfair for young people who are trying to build something, to project this perfection that doesn't exist."

And PR-spun and brand-enhancing though it may be, it still throws a wrench in some of the biggest wheels of the monstrous love machine.

Here are six myths about love and marriage debunked by the Obamas' marriage profile.

1. If you're in love, your dreams will all come true.

Michelle Obama clearly had one idea about what her marriage would be: that she would fall in love, have kids and raise them with her partner. But she talks in the piece about how things did not go according to those plans, and how she struggled with that but came to terms with it.

"After she became a mother in 1998, she was tempted to stay home, but like many political spouses, she felt financial pressure to work [because Barack's career didn't pay much]. "Michelle would say, 'Well, you're gone all the time, and we're broke?' the president recalled when I spoke to the two of them. " 'How is that a good deal?' "

She and Barack, in fact, lived in different cities. And when she went to interview for a job at the University of Chicago Medical Center, her baby sitter canceled at the last moment, so she showed up with Sasha in a stroller.

" 'She was in a lot of ways a single mom, and that was not her plan,' recalls Susan Sher, who became her boss at the hospital and is now her chief of staff."

2. If you're truly compatible, you agree on everything.

The NYT writer asked how any couple can have a truly equal partnership when one member is president. The president responded:

" 'My staff worries a lot more about what the first lady thinks than they worry about what I think,' he finally said, to laughter around the room."

Then Michelle contradicts him: " 'Clearly, Barack's career decisions are leading us. They're not mine; that's obvious. I'm married to the president of the United States. I don't have another job, and it would be problematic in this role. So that -- you can't even measure that.' "

It's my favourite moment in the piece, because she doesn't let him get away with glossing over things, even when that might be expected. Kate Harding from Jezebel wrote, "Can I just tell you how much I love that Michelle doesn't let him get away with turning it all into a joke? (Especially a hoary old, "Oh, really, my wife's the one with all the power!" joke. For fuck's sake, you're the president of the United States. That joke is annoying when regular guys make it to avoid directly addressing the actual inequality in their marriages, and off-the-charts annoying when you do it.)

3. When you are married, you become one person.

Remember in Anna Karenina, when Levin says of his wife, Kitty, that there's no point getting mad at your wife because it's like getting mad at yourself, since you're like one person? In psychobabble, that's called "co-dependence," and it's bad news for mental and relationship health, but somehow it is sometimes synonymous with true love.

(A psychologist friend told me what we're supposed to aim for is "interdependence," which is when each person has an independent life, but shares some parts of their life.) But sometimes, not even that is possible, and you kind of have to suck it up for a while and be totally independent, which isn't as much fun, in order to get to be interdependent again.

When Barack Obama "retreated" to Bali to write the manuscript for Dreams From My Father, then remained preoccupied with it after his return, Michelle was quite unhappy.

"A friend told her, 'Barack doesn't belong to you.' "

So Michelle basically developed a totally independent life. They haven't actually lived together consistently since their first daughter was a toddler, and she didn't like that, but they made it work.

4. To have a good relationship, you should always be supportive of your spouse's plans, especially in public.

When Barack told Michelle that he wanted to run for a Senate seat, when they lived in Chicago and had young kids, she wasn't pleased. They had friends and colleagues over at their house, and though he wanted her support, it was clear everyone was gung-ho except her.

" 'I married you because you're cute, and you're smart,' Michelle later said she told her husband, 'but this is the dumbest thing you could have ever asked me to do.' "

And she didn't keep quiet about her frustration. "Unlike the wife who smiles tightly and insists everything is fine, Michelle sent a clear series of distress signals not only to her husband but to everyone around her.

" 'Barack and I, we're doing a lot of talking,' she would say when asked how she was holding up, according to the Rev. Alison Boden, a former colleague at the University of Chicago … more than a few Chicagoans knew that Michelle once openly resented what her husband's political career had cost her."

5. All you need is love … and each other.

There's lots of talk about how raising a kid takes a village, but somehow there's the idea that if you're in love, you just need each other. It's total crap.

Michelle Obama talks about how she'd accepted she wasn't going to have a conventional marriage, but it was still hard to deal with the fact that her husband was away most of the time. In order to get through it, she said she had to realized that their lives would never fit that "certain type of model." But that she couldn't do everything alone with him away.

"I just needed the support. It didn't have to be Barack," she said. She saw friends a lot, socially. And as for raising the kids, "Michelle's mother, Marian Robinson, offered crucial help, often picking up Malia and Sasha after school. The Obamas' closest friends -- doctors, lawyers, MBA types -- also faced the strains of two-full-time-careers-plus-kids marriage. Now they banded into a kind of intergenerational urban kibbutz, a collective that shared meals and carpools and weekend activities."

6. When you find true love, you sail off into the sunset in clear waters.

Guess what? True love and compatibility are nice and everything, but they don't mean everything will be easy. "The bumps happen to everybody all the time, and they are continuous," the first lady said, discussing the "lowest point in her marriage."

" 'Marriage is hard,' the first lady said with a little laugh. 'But going into it, no one ever tells you that. They just tell you, 'Do you love him?' 'What's the dress look like?' "

It seems most true love stories leave a few details out.

Tyee Contributing Editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media. She is also the former managing editor of the Tyee.
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