Relationships: Love in a fishbowl

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 6, 2009 - 6:01 PM

Hello, White House, goodbye, date nights? Maybe not. The Obamas can't head out for dinner and a movie, so they'll just have to get creative.

In this Jan. 21, 2009, file photo President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

Photo: Matt Rourke, Associated Press - Ap

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The intimate dancing. The knowing smiles. The fist bumps and playful banter. The First Couple are scoring high marks in the court of public opinion when it comes to their clear love for each other. That's no small feat for any long-term marrieds (they were wed in 1992). But guarding that loving feeling in the world's largest fishbowl -- where spontaneous date nights are impossible and stress will be off the charts -- just got harder.

Many rooting for them say they just have to get creative.

"They seem to have a good handle on this," said Carol Bruess, director of family studies and associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of St. Thomas. "No matter their address, they put their marriage and family first." Bruess, who has been "following and reading everything" about the Obamas' marriage, likes what she sees. "There is no one model for a happy marriage," said Bruess, married for 17 years and co-author of "What Happy Couples Do: The Loving Little Rituals of Romance" (Fairview Press, 2008). "But from what we know about them, I do think they appear to be egalitarian. I think that's why they are so happy. When they speak of one another, there is this deeply embedded respect for each other, an adoration."

Her guess is that the Obamas won't give up the essential rituals that make them strong. They'll just reinvent them. "They might say to their staff, 'We would love to have whatever this [favorite] restaurant is serving, at this time, in this White House dining room,' and they're going to dress up and go out within so they can be together. It might be that they will create their own little bowling alley ritual. And in one of his very first interviews, [President Obama] commented that he cannot wait to continue family dinners.

"Couples sustaining happy marriages over time continue to do what the Obamas are doing," Bruess said. "They're simply being intentional."

Sheila Garcia also believes the little things will pay large dividends. "I see what everyone else sees on TV," said Garcia, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (whose Foryourmarriage.org billboards are springing up around the Twin Cities). "It's the private signals they have, the little touches. That's inspiring, frankly, to see."

As the conference developed its campaign, she said, focus groups were asked what they thought made a marriage strong. "They said that people need to look at their marriage and do something every day. It's not a spectator sport. It's the little things that all add up."

Her bet is that the Obamas will carve out family time at home and at Camp David, and will have couple time inside the White House with close friends with whom "they can unwind. That will keep them balanced."

Peaks, valleys and public life

Frank Vascellaro and Amelia Santaniello, the married co-anchors on WCCO-TV, appreciate the challenge of balancing private and public personae.

The parents of three young children, they're often spotted in the community and have learned to put intimate conversations on hold if a fan approaches their restaurant booth. They've also learned to "watch it," as Santaniello said, so an argument doesn't escalate (even though she says it's healthy to argue).

She recalled when speculation on websites abounded shortly after the announcement that Vascellaro was joining her on the air in 2006. "Someone commented, 'I've heard their marriage is a sham anyway,' then someone else wrote, 'That's not true.' I thought, 'Why would anybody write that?'" Santaniello said. "And then I thought, 'Why am I reading this?'" She laughed.

"It was the one and only time in our 13 years together [including 10 years of marriage] that I've heard anything like that. I feel for people who are in the public eye nationally and internationally, with the constant speculation. One wrong look, a little argument and it's, 'Are they going to break up? Is their marriage on the rocks?'''

Still, she and Vascellaro emphasize that they love their work, feel lucky to have it and are, frankly, paid to be public people. Their hope for the Obamas is that people will cut them some slack. "Every single thing they do is going to be scrutinized," Vascellaro said. "With something as complex as a relationship, you have to look at the entirety of it. We live in such a snapshot society. A glare that, to them, could be the funniest thing in the world could be misconstrued as 'Michelle Displeased at Barack's Behavior at Party!' Any motion, any gesture, will be fodder for a lot of judgment.

"I just hope that everyone would pause a little bit and have a little empathy for their life as a couple," he said. "Anyone who's been married for a length of time knows that there are peaks and valleys. To have your valleys exposed in front of everyone is a tough thing."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350

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