Oprah Winfrey has shared a whole lot of relationship wisdom over the years—in her generation-defining talk show, in multiple magazine articles and in countless self-help tomes. Like finding your spirit and fad diets, long-lasting love is something Queen O knows quite a bit about: since 1986 she has been in a common-law partnership with Stedman Graham, an educator and businessman who has happily ceded the spotlight to his famous partner. During a recent appearance on The Ellen Degeneres Show, Stedman (who is currently promoting a book on identity and leadership) shared a different take on what makes their partnership so successful.
“I’m dedicated to her happiness,” he said, before explaining how he genuinely “want[s] her to be the best she can possibly be, and she’s done a pretty good job of doing that. So, for me, I’ve been able to find my own happiness and to find my own skills, my own talents, my own abilities, and I’m satisfied with that.” Graham says that when you have that—i.e., two self-actualized individuals in one relationship—“one [plus] one equals about six.”
If not exactly good math, his point is in line with contemporary relationship wisdom. Nicole McCance, a Toronto-based relationship therapist, says people committed to growth both within and outside a relationship will often attract the same. “People who are focused on filling their own cup tend to be better partners, better parents,” she says. “It really shifts the energy in a household.”
Which makes sense. Few of us set out to be unfulfilled, just as few of us want our S.O. to be unhappy. What’s important is the recognition that while we can (and should) look to our partners to support us, we can’t rely on them to complete us. Jerry McGuire be damned!
This is important particularly for women who, generally speaking, have a tendency to prioritize their roles as caregivers over their own needs. “Often you have the woman who has sacrificed so much ‘for the good of the relationship,’” says McCance. But that kind of martyrdom can backfire: “Just the other day, I was counselling a woman who for 20 years had put herself on the back burner, put her husband and her kids first. Then he left and she had nothing.” It’s easy to imagine that woman shaking her fist at the heavens thinking “what more did you want from me?” When in fact, maybe she should have wanted more for herself.
In her 2018 memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama talks about reaching a “pivot moment” after she and Barack entered marriage counseling. She had been feeling a lot of resentment as her husband devoted time to his career, his own needs. “What I learned about myself is that my happiness was up to me,” she writes. “So I started working out more and I started asking for help more. I stopped feeling guilty. It was important for me to take care of myself; that’s not on Barack.” Obama said she shared these arguably personal details because she wanted young people to know that even the most envied marriages take a lot of work.
Now may be a good time to talk about how much relationships have evolved—from essential socioeconomic construct to #relationshipgoals. Today women may look less to our partners to, say, put a roof over our heads, but the list of expectations has, in many ways, become more involved. We want our partners to be our best friend, our passionate lover, our intellectual equal, a sensitive parent, a stoic protector and the person who will sit and watch our favourite TV shows (without looking at his or her phone). “That kind of pressure and expectation can be extremely stifling,” says McCance.
In her 2017 bestseller The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, psychotherapist Esther Perel talks about how unreasonable expectations are driving people to cheat. Perel makes a strong argument for why cheating is less a reflection of a bad relationship and more about personal dissatisfaction. Infidelity, she explains, is often a person’s way of scratching an itch that has nothing to do with their partner. But before you go bonking your office crush, consider that an illicit sexual encounter is just one of many paths to self-actualization.
“People will sometimes confuse being dissatisfied in their relationship with being dissatisfied with themselves,” says McCance. And while it’s maybe not intuitive to think that you can work on your relationship by hanging out with your friends, or joining a book club—“it comes back to this idea of filling your own cup.”
Which is not to say a couple can’t work on filling their cups together. In her new book Marriageology: The Art and Science of Staying Together, Belinda Luscombe writes about how couples can strengthen their relationship by trying new and exciting things together. So, lose the monthly dinner-and-a-movie date and instead try rock climbing, a spontaneous getaway or a concert. Luscombe explains how it’s a bit of psychological fakeout: When we experience growth and satisfaction in the company of our partner, our brains create a positive correlation even if our partner isn’t the source of the growth and satisfaction. But who cares as long as it’s working?
Now I invite you to imagine what experiences could qualify as “new and exciting” for Oprah and Stedman, a couple who probably have more private helicopters and vacation homes and personal rock-climbing gyms than most of us do plastic bags stuffed under our sinks. Maybe when you’re that wealthy and powerful “normal person” activities are the secret success—next week’s date night featuring laundry and lunch packing. Whatever it takes to keep the spark alive.