Serenity Sunday: First Couple Vibes

“When you realize you’ve married both the person and their shadow— a persona they suppress or take on as a personal or professional phase— this is also a part of the marital deal.”

-Clinnesha Sibley

During slavery, Black couples who managed to marry had to take modified vows, “‘til death or distance do I part,” assuming one might end up being sold and they’d be separated indefinitely.

I am learning that in present times, the grave distance in marriage still exists and can be felt physically, spiritually, emotionally, or psychologically.

I am learning that the person we often present to our partners in the early years of courtship and marriage is not always the only person involved. Sometimes you find these other pieces to the puzzle that have been hidden or missing. Life then for a moment becomes about getting to know, understand, and navigate your concern or frustration with that quiet, loud, arrogant, complacent, insecure, wounded, or withdrawn person lying next to you.

I am learning in love and marriage to leave a little room for the stranger who might show up— for the missing pieces of the puzzle to emerge…

Adam and Eve were one, and yet, they were also complete strangers with major communication barriers. If the very first couple had this deficit, surely we do, too.

I want to throw out a wild card that maybe. Maybe there’s more work involved than we’d like to admit. In the third and final installment of my Black Love focused Serenity Sundays, I am encouraging us to revisit and maybe reprogram our thoughts around what it takes to be in love with our partners.

In The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm, love is examined as a skill to be honed— a deliberate practice rather than a sentiment or something we emotionally fall into. 

Similar to how artists dedicate their lives to mastering their art form, we humans are trying to master what it means to love. We are failing and succeeding, and are both recognizable and mysterious in doing so.

We’re like the subjects of a painting wrapped in a soulful embrace with our eyes sealed tight— our faces weighted down with the years of our trying.

If we are realistic, then we know that all couples go through tough times. If we are optimistic, then we understand that those hard times can create opportunities for positive change if both people are willing to do work. When you realize you’ve married both the person and their shadow— a persona they suppress or take on as a personal or professional phase— this is also a part of the marital deal.

Consider another first couple: Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle. Last year, Michelle Obama opened up about tough times that led her and Barack to marriage counseling.

These therapy sessions started long before they became the first couple of America. They sought professional, objective intervention after becoming parents. For us middle class folks who have kids, we know what a blessing and a strain those beautiful babies can be.

“Marriage is hard and raising a family together is a hard thing. It takes a toll.”

-Michelle Obama

In his memoir, The Promised Land, Barack Obama reflects on being away from home so much that the bulk of the domestic duties fell on to his wife. He explains that this is not how they had envisioned their partnership.

This couple received an excessive social media following from us that they became what we label as “couple goals”. We needed them to be perfect, didn’t we? Remember how much we swooned over these polished professionals? How they dressed, how they vacated and took their reprieves from life, how they supported one another… unaware of the tough times and how they were faring being the proverbial “first (Black) couple”— an ultimate marital strain for the books.

We didn’t know that they weren’t spending a lot of time together, that Michelle was becoming quieter and quieter in their marriage trying to understand the new person her husband had become… who they had to become.

I recently said to my husband that it feels like he and I are living in different time zones since the pandemic has forced him to take care of the kids during the school day and go to work during the evenings and nights. We understand this to be a phase, but also know that it could very easily become a new normal. We recently went away for our anniversary and enjoyed getting to know one another again.

When Barack and Michelle moved on from the first couple phase of life, they too were faced with having to get to know one another all over again. They literally disappeared while America tried to adjust to new leadership. Remember how we wondered where they were and why they weren’t coming to our rescue? I imagine they were rescuing themselves.

When asked what keeps them bonded, the Obamas give credit to being companions, true friends. And so, in these relationships and marriages, it seems we are designed to be friends, lovers, strangers, and circle back to being friends again after getting lost in the grime of life.

Regardless, true love will be there when you are your most scattered self— standing both on the inside and outskirts of vulnerability— with a willingness to get to know you again. He or she will be ready to console you after life offers all its dejections and disappointments, holding on to the promise of not wounding you any further…

That’s real friendship. That’s true, delicate love.

Clinnesha is a wife, mom, daughter/sister/auntie, literary artist, humanities scholar, and social entrepreneur. Her advocacy work is at the intersection of black/feminist thought, arts, culture, and community.

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