"Because we're role models, it's important for us to be honest," the former first lady tells PEOPLE

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall and Sean Neumann
March 12, 2021 10:00 AM
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For this week's PEOPLE cover story, Michelle Obama talks candidly about why she's talked about "the hard parts" of her marriage with husband Barack Obama — and what comes after.

The former first lady says she and the 44th president decided to speak openly about the difficulties of their relationship and how they overcame those in large part to be an example for young people.

"We didn't have role models of the hard times because our parents, their generation were taught you don't talk about marriage and you definitely don't talk about the hard times," Mrs. Obama, 57, tells PEOPLE. "So, when you're young and coming up and raising a family together, no one has prepared you for the fact that there will be times when you will have to devote your energies to other things."

In recent years, the Obamas have not shied away from the truth about the past stresses on their relationship.

• For more on Michelle Obama's life now — what she's learned and what's next for her and her family — subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands now.

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Michelle Obama on the cover of PEOPLE
| Credit: Miller Mobley
U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle
From left: Michelle and Barack Obama in 2019
| Credit: Scott Olson/Getty

In her 2018 memoir Becoming, and during an accompanying book tour, Mrs. Obama revealed that she and President Obama had gone to marriage counseling earlier in their marriage.

"What I learned about myself was that my happiness was up to me and I started working out more, I started asking for help, not just from him but from other people," she said on Good Morning America at the time.

"Marriage counseling, for us, was one of those ways where we learned to talk out our differences," she said.

Speaking with PEOPLE in 2018, she said it was "important for us to be honest and say, 'If you're in a marriage and there are times you want to leave, that's normal' — because I felt that way."

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With his own memoir last year, her husband also wrote openly about the pressure of politics on their marriage.

"There were nights [in the White House] when, lying next to Michelle in the dark, I'd think about those days when everything between us felt lighter, when her smile was more constant and our love less encumbered," the former president, 59, wrote in A Promised Land, released in November. "And my heart would suddenly tighten at the thought that those days might not return."

As he told PEOPLE in the fall, "During the time we were there, Michelle felt this underlying tension. The pressure, stress, of needing to get everything right, to be 'on' at every moment."

"There were times where I think she was frustrated or sad or angry but knew that I had Afghanistan or the financial crisis to worry about," President Obama said, "so she would tamp it down."

Mrs. Obama says in this week's cover story that "fortunately" those days have since returned since their two-term tenure at the White House.

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Andrew Harnik/AP/REX/Shutterstock
| Credit: From left: Michelle and Barack Obama in 2018
Michelle Obama
Former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama arrive to President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20 at the U.S. Capitol
| Credit: Getty

"What I've come to learn is that thankfully we had a strong enough foundation," Mrs. Obama says, adding that she and her husband weren't fully realizing what difficulties their marriage faced in those years.

"You don't have that hindsight," she says. "You don't have that perspective. All you're doing is getting through."

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She continues: "Before the White House, before the kids, before careers, it was just me and Barack together shaping our lives, building a friendship, being one another's everything."

And "that's what we were able to return to once the White House was over and the kids were grown and you knew they were okay," she says.

"We came through the struggle together, which makes our foundation even more solid than it was," the former first lady says. She adds: "I am happy to say that I can now look up from all of that and look over across the room and I still see my friend."