If we were playing a word association game and Oprah is the prompt, her best friend Gayle is honestly the first person that would come to mind for me. They have been defining friend goals for my besties and I for years now. It feels really important that a woman as successful and powerful as Oprah can acknowledge the significance of female friendship. What I often overlook as equally inspiring is her relationship with longtime boyfriend Stedman Graham. In a recent interview for this year’s September issue of Vogue, the billionaire media mogul talked briefly about that relationship. What she had to say about marriage at the age of 63 is truly inspirational to me, a 29-year-old; it also leaves me conflicted and scared about my own outlook on partnership.
Oprah told the magazine that marriage has never been on the table for her and Stedman. In fact, she says that the answer to a question she once asked Stedman — “What would have happened if we had actually gotten married?” — is that they wouldn’t be together at all. For her, “marriage requires a different way of being in this world” and to put it simply, Oprah wasn’t willing to ‘be’ that way. “[Stedman’s] interpretation of what it means to be a husband and what it would mean for me to be a wife would have been pretty traditional, and I would not have been able to fit into that,” she explained further.
As a young woman who is everything but traditional — queer, polyamorous, fat, et cetera — and has never prioritized marriage as a life goal, I felt a renewed wave of energy that I would be ok reading Oprah’s take on the issue. While many of my peers are clamoring to get a ring on their finger because of our close proximity to age 30, I’m still hell-bent on simply going with the flow. And if that current doesn’t lead me down someone’s aisle, I’m ok with that. Happily ever after for me looks a lot like me and bae occasionally swapping "Do you like me? Check YES or NO" notes, and staying together until one of us checks 'NO.' Obviously, I have some non-negotiables that include personal responsibility, independence, over-communication, and a lot of laughter. But an end goal that includes me being someone’s wife has never been on the list.
I used to insist that I was completely against the institution of marriage, but that’s not true, either. It means different things to different people, and I respect that. I'm happy when people in my life who want to get married make it happen. As quiet as I've kept, I love weddings even if I can't see myself paying for one. Oprah recognized what marriage meant to Stedman and knew that it was a model of partnership that wouldn’t work for her.
And this is what terrifies me. I’m not naive enough to think that compromise isn’t an integral part of any healthy relationship. But there are some things I simply can’t budge on. And just as strongly as I feel about those things, my partner might feel just as strongly about getting married. Checked ‘YES’ boxed be damned.
Oprah’s solution to this dilemma, according to the interview, is to “Live life on your own terms.” But isn’t that the very antithesis of partnership? That you learn to live life on collective terms with another human being? With this in mind, what Oprah and Stedman have sounds a lot like luck. She just so happened to find someone who let her be who she is. He just so happened to find someone worth a little flexibility. If I’m lucky, the only trick between them is a love strong enough to figure the shit out. It’s the only hope I have.