The Hard-To-Take But Smart Relationship Advice Beyoncé Has Given Us

Photo: Courtesy of HBO
There’s a moment in the WNYC podcast Death, Sex & Money that hasn’t left my mind since I heard it. It’s from a July 2014 episode in which host Anna Sale talks to sex columnist Dan Savage about the prevalence of cheating in long-term relationships. Savage argues that infidelity is a common occurrence that most couples should prepare to face at some point in the lifetime of their relationship. This idea doesn’t sit well with Sale, who is in a committed, monogamous relationship herself. In a brief role reversal, Savage challenges his interviewer to think beyond her fears and consider cheating a likely reality that will affect even her partnership. He urges her to consider: What would she or her partner do if the other were unfaithful? DAN: The research and the data shows that roughly 50% of men and 50% of women in long-term relationships at some point will cheat, and those 50% of men are not [necessarily] married to those 50% of women, so it will touch almost all committed, monogamous relationships. So what’s going to be your reaction if and when that happens to you? ANNA: I know, I mean read you, Dan Savage, and you make me uncomfortable, because intellectually I understand all this. I get desire. I get that it’s not rational and I get that it’s a real thing but it — I don’t know what I would do with the hurt. I have a really difficult time seeing a way outside of it being okay. Or seeing a way for it to be okay. DAN: Here’s the — my advice would be if and when it happens — you know when people always say, you know, when they talk about the people they love most in their lives, “I would take the bullet for this person, I would walk through fire for this person.” That’s hurt. You’re saying I would hurt for this person in a really profound and life-threatening way. I would take a bullet. I would walk through fire. Infidelity, when people believe in monogamy and monogamy is what they want, infidelity is that bullet.

My mind hung on Sale’s admission: “I don’t know what I would do with the hurt.” I don’t know, either. I’m very happy in a committed relationship myself, and considering a future infidelity leaves me not just terrified, but dumbfounded. I can imagine the sting of discovery, and the subsequent rage that, for me, would surely come with ease. And I have some frame of reference for the gut-gnawing sadness, but I don’t know what comes after that. When it comes to infidelity, I have the tools for utter breakdown and even tacit acceptance, but where is the common, fleshed-out social script for moving forward? I considered this last weekend when taking in Beyoncé’s magnum opus, Lemonade. In it, Beyoncé, or some characterisation of her, struggles to survive the transgressions of her husband, Jay-Z (or some characterisation of him). While some believe Lemonade is a reflection of the super-couple’s real-life drama, others see it as a meditation on survival, captured through the lens of infidelity. Either way, it’s an impressive artistic statement that places her real-life marriage at the centre of its visual and musical narratives — a brave move for any old human, let alone the world’s greatest living megastar. Lemonade’s visuals and music were incredible and especially resonant with me as a Black woman, but its emotionality similarly stunned me. Beyoncé grieves her broken marriage in 11 steps reminiscent of the Kübler-Ross model, moving from Intuition to Redemption and experiencing every possibility in between. The early stages are tinged with wrath, and they feel familiar and satisfying. In the section entitled “Denial,” Beyoncé struts down a city sidewalk, resplendent in a marigold evening gown that recalls Oshun, the Yoruba deity of love, and she takes a baseball bat to everything within reach. In the next phase, “Anger,” she armours up, acquiring a squad of other badass women, a plump fur coat, cornrows (a protective hairstyle), and at least a few pounds of gold jewellery. Beyoncé snarls at her beloved, “If you try this shit again / you gon' lose your wife,” before chucking her wedding ring at the viewer.

Lemonade moves beyond the cheating as The Thing, centering its female protagonist in a way not commonly explored in 'wronged woman' narratives.

But a few scenes later, Beyoncé takes us somewhere new. She boards a bus filled with other Black women adorned with delicately applied white body paint, done in the Yoruba tradition. They all leave the city and retreat to to a tranquil stretch of countryside, occupied solely by women healing from a similar heartbreak, or the loss of a loved one through state violence, or the pain of simple existence as a Black woman in America. Beyoncé spends the second half of the film there, examining her wounds in the often unexplored space between stumble and triumph. It’s at this point in Lemonade, as in real life, that the real work is done. Love going awry is often a process of losing oneself, little by little, to accommodate someone who will never care. I remember after one breakup not knowing what kind of music I liked or how I preferred to wear my hair. In an effort to become more palatable, I had exorcised myself of all proclivity and dropped no breadcrumbs to help me figure a way back. I was left with the work of remaking myself. It was slow, difficult work, learning to trust myself again, but every bit worth it. The theme of redefining oneself is present in Lemonade as well. In the “Reformation” scene, Beyoncé leads a group baptism, clearly symbolising a complete renewal. She has just made amends with her father and, for this moment, she’s free of the past and prepared to build the future to her liking. Beyoncé eventually reconciles with Jay-Z, but it quickly becomes clear that resolution was never her focus. She soon returns to the women who helped her save herself, to free them in return. In a chapter entitled “Hope,” we see her feeding her fictive sisters, with both food and her gift of song, urging them to “keep running, ‘cause a winner don’t quit on himself.” It is in this instance that Beyoncé has achieved ultimate salvation: She has repaired herself and is filled with a fierce love that cannot be contained. She is, however, moving forward.

I’m not sure I could ever make the choice to stay in the face of it, but can I see how one would.

By centring Lemonade’s narrative around her own healing and blazing transformation, Beyoncé asserts that romantic love is wonderful and, at times, worth salvaging after disrepair, but it is not your everything — you are. Your community is. Your work is. With Lemonade, Beyoncé presented a spectacular and affirming pop-cultural blueprint for dealing with the hurt. Burn the shit down in glorious anger, sure, but make sure you then look inward, heal yourself as best you can, and keep on running. Not because it’s moral, not because it’ll fix your relationship, or even bring you new love, but because you deserve the peace. Infidelity is complicated and painful and frighteningly common. And I’m not sure I could ever make the choice to stay in the face of it, but can I see how one would. As advice columnist Zahira Kelly put it, “It’s not pretty. But it’s real.” Still, Lemonade moves beyond the cheating as The Thing, centring its female protagonist in a way not commonly explored in “wronged woman” narratives. Beyoncé rejects the never-ending shame of being cheated on and instead shows us something more complex and much closer to real life: a grown-up woman owning her walk, for better or worse. Sure, it’s high pop art, but something about its imperfect resolution assuages my fears and makes me want to love more freely. After all is said and done, I’ll always, always have myself.

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series