It doesn’t take much for two extremely attractive, very famous people to go from individual objects of thirst to a certified Celebrity Couple. Some strategic hand-holding in well-timed paparazzi shots, a few coy quotes and boom, iconic portmanteaus are born (see: Bennifer, Brangelina, KimYe, and, well, Bennifer again). If these celebrity pairs stay together for awhile, or if they wind up — wait for it — getting married, they graduate to the hallowed halls of famous coupledom: the coveted #RelationshipGoals. We’re all familiar with the hashtag. We also know which couples fit the bill: Gabrielle and Dwyane. Will and Jada. Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Couples who have stayed together through it all. Women who have stood by their men. The Ride or Dies. The longer a couple has endured a “perfectly imperfect” union, the more we scream, “GOALS!”
Influencers chase the honour to be revered by single people as the gold standard of partnership while certain celebs seem to fall into the distinction by doing the bare minimum: seeming to treat their romantic partner with love and respect or, you know, just by being hot and there. For Black celebrity couples, “relationship goals” come with added expectation — and adoration. Hollywood marriages are notoriously short-lived. And the stereotype is that Black marriages also don’t last (yes, the divorce rate is slightly higher in Black marriages, but not by much, and Black women are actually getting married less, if at all). Hollywood unions are also great for business. Studios have been coupling up their leads to sell movies since Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. So when Black couples simply stay together, they’re not only beating the imaginary odds, they’re also gaming a system designed for them to fail. And for the “representation matters” set, #RelationshipGoals is another way to see Black people shine in an industry that attempts to dim their light every chance it gets. These Black couples become everything to project hopes, dreams and unrealistic aspirations onto because they are the exceptions, the chosen few representing Black love when seeing two Black people in love is still so rare onscreen.
Those are all the reasons why celebrity couple goals exist. Here’s why they shouldn’t. Not only do #RelationshipGoals, especially when it comes to the three couples mentioned above (Union and Wade, Pinkett Smith and Smith, and the Carters), fetishize an image that’s curated and not real, they also glorify a type of Black love that prioritizes staying together (aka building a brand) over anything else. We shouldn’t set standards for our own lives on the unattainable facade of celebrity ever, but especially not when we’re basing them on couples who have access to endless therapy, money (which is the leading cause of romantic splits), and help with their kids (division of domestic duties is also a thing that causes regular folks to fight).
Not only do #RelationshipGoals fetishize an image that’s curated and not real, they also glorify a type of Black love that prioritizes staying together (aka building a brand) over anything else.
Outlets used to praise celeb couples as #RelationshipGoals for the most rudimentary behaviour like “working out together,” being “inseparable,” and going on “vacations [that] are always epic.” The veneer of these marriages was shiny and perfect, like a Bey and Jay music video, a viral selfie of The Wades or a red carpet moment with the Smiths. Now, the tone has shifted to hail these couples for their candour about their marital strife. Last year, Women’s Health Mag proclaimed Union and Wade as the most “swoon-worthy couple on the planet” in part because “it hasn't always been smooth sailing for the actress and NBA player.”
In her latest memoir, You Got Anything Stronger?, Union details the choppy waters the article is referring to. Dwyane Wade fathered a child while they were “on a break” from their relationship in 2013. It was also while she was experiencing her own heartbreaking fertility issues. "To say I was devastated is to pick a word on a low shelf for convenience," she writes. "There are people — strangers I will never meet — who have been upset that I have not previously talked about that trauma. I have not had words, and even after untold amounts of therapy I am not sure I have them now. But truth matters." The truth, according to Union, is that while “strangers” were envying her relationship, she was “shattered into fine dust scattering in the wind.” But she chose to forgive Wade. And looking back, she’s not sure she would make the same choice. “The advice I would give myself now is to leave,” she continues in her memoir. "The me of today would not have stayed with him, but would I be who I am now without that pain?” I wish relationships for Black women that aren’t painful, period, and softness so we don’t have to be strong.
Union’s transparency is now purposefully and intrinsically linked to her public personae, and it is admirable, albeit gut wrenching. Her being so open about her fertility journey is going to make a lot of women feel less alone. But everything she says in her book just proves that putting celebrity relationships on a pedestal is futile. And I think she would agree with me that she and Wade are not #RelationshipGoals, whatever that means. The truth is that we never really know what’s going on behind the scenes. And even now, when Union has supposedly shared it all (not that she should’ve had to), we’re getting a carefully packaged version of the truth — in a bestselling book on her part and in Wade’s revealing documentary — and one that can be interpreted as a woman sticking by her man through excruciating circumstances. Should that really be the goal?
The fact that Beyoncé and Jay-Z are still held up as “goals” in a post-Lemonade world is a testament to how skilled they are at selling a specific image of their marriage. Before releasing her scorned woman opus where she revealed Jay’s serial cheating ways and defiantly told her husband to remember that he “ain’t married to no average bitch, boy,” and warned, “If you try this shit again/ You gon' lose your wife,” Bey was playing the role of the doting wife. They were Bey and Jay, The Carters, hip-hop royalty, the picture-perfect display of monogamy and domesticity in a genre that stood in stark contrast to both. Beyoncé (by way of Jay’s cheating) burned that public perception to the ground with Lemonade.
But a couple with a brand and networth of a billion dollars can’t just end so easily. Beyoncé ends her album with the reconciliation anthems “Sandcastles,” and “All Night Long,” with a humbled Jay-Z appearing at her feet in the film companion of both tracks. Together, they rebuilt the exact portrait she torched. And after Jay further profited from his cheating scandal by releasing his side of the story on the album 4:44, the two went on another joint tour: On The Run II, released an album, Everything Is Love, as The Carters, and are currently starring in loved-up ads for Tiffany. We’re left with the same story: The brand is strong. They’re Bey and Jay, The Carters, hip-hop royalty, and the couple who represents wealth, excess, stability and overcoming infidelity to achieve something we’re still supposed to aspire to — the difference is that now they admit to being in therapy.
You could argue that it’s healthy that our #RelationshipGoals have evolved from silent suffering partners to couples who are open about their challenges — especially when Black people are destigmatizing therapy — and who are less tied to the rigidity of monogamy (looking at you, Will and Jada), but it can still be misguided to look at celebrity couples as role models, instead of just pretty people who may be going through some shit, but who do so with a lot of privilege.
The Smiths’ version of “goals” is probably the one most rooted in reality, and aimed at being relatable. If Gwyneth Paltrow built her post-acting brand off of “consciously uncoupling” and her specific flavour of white wellness, Pinkett-Smith has constructed hers on the real-talk, no bullshit approach to discussing her marriage. She has admitted to the struggle of keeping up a spicy sex life when you’ve been married since the ‘90s and her husband recently owned up to the longstanding rumours they aren’t monogamous. These two are out here sharing. Still, we can’t forget that their marriage, and their candour surrounding it, is a massive part of their brand.
This is a couple who sat down at the infamous red table (during Pinkett-Smith’s Facebook Watch series, Red Table Talk, which don’t forget, is a family business) to hash out details of her romantic “entanglement” with August Alsina. I don’t know about you, but I’m not aiming for any sort of relationship that includes sleeping with my child’s friend who is decades my junior (we really don’t talk about how predatory and messed up this story is enough). After that admission, the Smiths — during an episode of Red Table Talk — say they got to a "place of unconditional love.” That is really nice for them, but I think I like my love with some conditions. During the episode, Will Smith said that it was “critical” to be able to “make mistakes without the fear of losing your family.” Again, I am happy for them but I think actions should have consequences, and “losing your family” if you f*ck up maybe should be one of them! But I’m not a multi-millionaire whose uber successful talk show is due in part to a marriage that both parties have deemed inescapable so what do I know?
The goal should never be to copy someone else’s love, especially not two people who are bound together through business, as well as romance.
If we can learn anything from the Smiths, it’s that they don’t let anyone else define their relationship. What I do appreciate about them is that they model a Black marriage that seems individual and catered specifically to them — and them only. It’s not a blueprint anyone else can follow. Every time Pinkett Smith or Smith make another admission about the inner workings of their union (keep in mind that each revelation is made in public, and for profit), we should take it as a nice — or weird, you never know with these two — anecdote and keep it moving. The goal should never be to copy someone else’s love, especially not two people who are bound together through business, as well as romance.
And if the prototype is the image of a Black woman standing by her man no matter what I think it’s time we let go of that as an idealized fantasy. Too often Black women in relationships are depicted as the ones sacrificing themselves for the sake of their marriage. We know that historically, Black women have single handedly held together Black communities, with little support, and glorifying that kind of “struggle love” is just romanticizing a burden Black women shouldn’t have to bear. It’s also a burden that these celebrities don’t face in the same way as other people do, so it doesn’t make sense to exalt them as the standard.
The thing is, I am a fan of all of these couples (I am begging Queen Bey to leave her husband at home just once though) and I will continue to incessantly follow everything they do. But the key is to never forget the thing that binds them all: Strategy. And if you don’t trust me when I say we need to divest from celebrity #RelationshipGoals, maybe you’ll listen to Gabrielle Union herself: “My ‘perfect’ relationship isn’t the next person’s,” she told Ebony in 2018. “Stop comparing your life, your love and your marriage… Don’t try to have a relationship for the sake of other people because you’re going to be empty inside.