For those who marveled at Barack Obama's seemingly perfect marriage during his eight years in office, Michelle Obama has a few choice words: "Whoa, people, slow down—marriage is hard!" In a new cover interview with Oprah Winfrey in the December 2018 issue of Elle, the former first lady opens up about the adjustments she had to make—with the help of couples counseling—to her life and her worldview in the early days of her marriage.
One of the major differences between her and Barack, she said, was her reluctance to "swerve" from the carefully constructed path she'd laid out for her life as a young girl and proceeded to follow step by step. Barack, she explained, "was the opposite of a box checker. He was swerving all over the place." That fundamental disparity came to a head when her ambitious husband was spending more time at work than at home with their daughters, Malia and Sasha. "When you get married and have kids, your whole plan, once again, gets upended. Especially if you get married to somebody who has a career that swallows up everything, which is what politics is. Barack Obama taught me how to swerve. But his swerving sort of—you know, I'm flailing in the wind. And now I've got two kids, and I'm trying to hold everything down while he's traveling back and forth from Washington or Springfield," Obama said. "He had this wonderful optimism about time. He thought there was way more of it than there really was. And he would fill it up constantly. He's a plate spinner—plates on sticks, and it's not exciting unless one's about to fall."
She added, "So there was work we had to do as a couple. Counseling we had to do to work through this stuff." Those counseling sessions, she said, were "about me exploring my sense of happiness. What clicked in me was that I need support and I need some from him. But I needed to figure out how to build my life in a way that works for me."
When Winfrey pointed out that Obama being so candid about how vulnerable she felt in her relationship is "amazing" to hear from a "modern woman," let alone a first lady, Obama, who is currently promoting her memoir Becoming, responded, "I feel vulnerable all the time. And I had to learn how to express that to my husband, to tap into those parts of me that missed him—and the sadness that came from that—so that he could understand." She explained, "He didn't understand distance in the same way. You know, he grew up without his mother in his life for most of his years, and he knew his mother loved him dearly, right? I always thought love was up close. Love is the dinner table, love is consistency, it is presence. So I had to share my vulnerability and also learn to love differently. It was an important part of my journey of becoming. Understanding how to become us."
Despite all the adjustments she made to better understand her husband, though, Obama remained her steady self—which came in handy once her family moved into the White House. As she explained to Winfrey, one of her main roles as FLOTUS was "trying to be the calm in his swerve." "You know, when the leaves are blowing and the wind is rough, being a steady trunk in his life. Family dinners. That was one of the things I brought into the White House—that strict code of, 'You gotta catch up with us, dude. This is when we're having dinner. Yes, you're president, but you can bring your butt from the Oval Office and sit down and talk to your children,'" she said. "Because children bring solace. They let you turn your sights off the issues of the day and focus on saving the tigers." (That was one of Malia's primary goals; she advocated throughout his presidency to make sure the tigers were saved.) "And hearing about what happened with what school friend. Immersing yourself in the reality and the beauty of your children and your family."
Related: Michelle Obama's Hair Evolution: Elegant, Presidential, and Always Inimitably Fabulous