*This article first appeared on Psychology Today
We do not require our presidents to model exemplary marriages for us. But for the past eight years, Barack and Michelle Obama did exactly that. The generosity with which they shared their relationship with America and the whole world, is a rare and valuable form of leadership that we benefitted from on a daily basis, and will be sorely missed. However, even now, we can look back on what they showed us, and apply some of their practices to our own lives.
No matter what you think of the former president’s politics, I can’t imagine any parent who wouldn’t want their daughter or son to find a life partnership with the palpable love, chemistry, respect, affection, mutuality, playfulness, and stability, of the Obamas.
Whether posing for the camera or caught candidly; dancing, kissing, teasing, or bumping hands; addressing the nation formally or informally; hosting events or being part of the crowd; Barack and Michelle consistently transmitted evocative signals to their public about the value of good and effective relationships.
Below are three of the major tenets I observed in the Obama’s partnership over the years. I suggest you consider them this Valentine’s Day, as you reflect on all the significant relationships in your own life, not only the romantic ones.
1) Identification: We’ve all seen that look of obvious attraction in the eyes of a romantic pair, but the Obamas reveal something deeper: identification with each other. They don’t just seem to see an amorous object in the other, but a subject, a whole person with whom they can empathize, and in whom they can see themselves. This manifests not only in the ways they look at and treat each other, but also in the ways they consistently talk about each other.
Take for example this deeply moving moment during President Obama’s farewell speech when he addressed the First Lady.
“For the past 25 years you have not only been my wife, and the mother of my children, you have been my best friend. You took on a role you didn’t ask for, and you made it your own, with grace and with grit and with style and with humor.“
These are the words of a person recognizing and appreciating another person, in whose shoes he can imagine walking himself. As opposed to a “man” simply giving a nod to his “wife.”
Likewise, in her 2012 DNC speech, FLOTUS said of her husband that even though on the surface he always seemed very different from her in that he was a guy who picked her up for dates “in a car that was so rusted out,” and who had political ambitions that were somewhat incongruent with her own life goals, it was her identification with his experience of family that connected her to him inextricably.
“[W]hen Barack started telling me about his family—that’s when I knew I had found a kindred spirit, someone whose values and upbringing were so much like mine.”
If you similarly challenge yourself to seek identification with your partner, your friends, family, and acquaintances, no matter how different from you they may seem on the surface, the rewards will inevitably be great.
2) Equality: It’s only fitting that Marriage Equality became a reality during Obama’s administration, as he himself is in a marriage of equals. Barack and Michelle coexist as two highly independent people, (who also clearly love and like each other, a lot). The palpable equity in their union is something to aspire to for any two individuals, no matter their genders or sexual orientations. From their distinct senses of style and humor, to their points of view, and public platforms. Each of them is uniquely self possessed and empowered, and extremely respectful and enamored of the other for standing in their own light.
As Michelle has said on this point, “You don’t want to be with a boy who’s too stupid to appreciate a smart young lady.”
And in Barack’s words: “It’s not as if Michelle is thinking in terms of, ‘How do I cater to my husband?’ I think it’s much more, ‘We’re a team, and how do I make sure that this guy is together enough that he’s paying attention to his girls…’”
A crucial function of equality in a relationship is that it allows for a necessary separateness between even the most intimate and loving of people. As Michelle has put it: “I also had to admit that I needed space and I needed time. And the more time that I could get to myself, the less stress I felt. So it was a growth process for me individually and for us as a couple, too.”
One of the great ironies of any effective relationship is that the capacity to be separate allows for a greater, deeper, and more meaningful connection than can be achieved by trying to subsume oneself into your partner’s life. And holding the concept of equality in mind allows such separateness to exist.
In fact, if we commit to approaching all of our relationships on equal terms, and with the willingness to survive and respect each other’s differences (when they are not blatantly harmful to us), we could resolve a great deal of our country’s current divisiveness. On the personal, local, national, and also international levels.
3) Generosity: The generous attention the Obamas offer each other–in affectionate looks and gestures, kisses and embraces, as well in their sweeping speeches—extends beyond the two of them. The love, empathy, and supportiveness they practice together is clearly shared with their children, with their peers and staff, and with the whole country.
In his final speech as president, Barack said to Michelle, “You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody. When the new generation sets its sights higher it’s because it has you as a role model.”
And as Michelle has said of him, “I love that for Barack, there is no such thing as “us” and “them”—he doesn’t care whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or none of the above…he knows that we all love our country…and he’s always ready to listen to good ideas…he’s always looking for the very best in everyone he meets.”
When you practice openness—of spirit, warmth, and ideas—at home, you’ll prepare yourself to extend that generosity to every contact you have in the world. Approaching other people in this way can only lead to a life with more connection, generativity, and creative possibility than will be available to you by hoarding your loving feelings in private. The more love we offer to other people, the more we have for ourselves, and vice versa.
Thank you Obamas for these great gifts. We were lucky to have world leaders like you to model inspiring and effective relationship behaviors for us on a daily basis. Who knows if or when we’ll be granted this favor again.