Michelle Obama is the most admired woman in the United States, according to the 2020 Gallup Poll, and her husband Barack was the 44th President and first African American President of the United States. They’re an impressive couple, but what can the most admired woman and the former President of the United States teach us about relationships? Using the lens of the Enneagram, it turns out quite a lot.
While we know it is risky to guess the Enneagram type of people who haven’t typed themselves, we’ll talk about how specific behaviors align with Enneagram type.
Michelle Obama as a Type 1
Always looking for improvement and pushing herself to be better, Michelle’s motto is “When they go low, we go high.” If you’ve read her book “Becoming” you’ll see how much she struggles with her inner critic and the relentless self-questioning of “Am I good enough?”
Barack Obama as a Type 9
“No Drama” Barack Obama’s behavior is classic Type 9. He’s mellow, calm, a good listener, and works hard at finding middle ground. In keeping with the Social Type 9 subtype, he’s also interested in the good of his group and willing to engage in healthy conflict to defend the group. Who is his group? The people of the United States.
But how do these two work as a pair? Let’s start with the theory.
When in Balance
Type 1s and Type 9s offer each other a blend of shared and compensating personality traits. Both can be altruistic, working in the service of others, and subjugating their own needs for the greater good.
They can be committed to improvement and growth, albeit with large energetic differences. Type 9s are more mellow and soothing. Type 1s can have a critical edge and an action-oriented drive. Neither partner needs the spotlight, and both can stay focused on the tasks at hand, leaving their ego to the side to focus on concrete goals. With these as their shared traits, this pair also has many balancing differences.
The Type 9 brings an accepting, non-judgemental nature, a steadiness, and a human focus to their interactions. They are kind-hearted, good listeners with a soothing, easy presence. They naturally accommodate multiple viewpoints and perspectives making others feel unconditionally accepted.
Remember when Barack was asked about his college drug use? He admitted not only inhaling marijuana but also snorting cocaine. But he made it clear that was in his distant past. With his relaxed, no-drama delivery he won over almost everyone who has ever experimented with drugs by being relatable, and everyone who is anti-drug by clearly saying he was anti-drug now.
This ease of accommodation is particularly soothing for Michelle, who describes how she beats herself up constantly. Barack gives her more space to be imperfect. He models a kinder, gentler inner voice, very different from her own harsh inner critic.
The Type 1 brings clarity, rational thought, an action-oriented approach, and precise, critical thinking. They are ethical, fair, and driven to improve themselves and their environment.
With these strengths, Michelle makes a fitting First Lady and from intelligent speeches to flawless fashion, she has inspired us. But she stayed relatable too, appearing on Carpool Karaoke and writing candidly in her memoir about IVF treatment, going to marriage counseling, and even her issues around self-worth. She is both inspiring and accessible, a rare combination.
The Forever First Couple nails it. The Type 9 softens the rigidity of the Type 1 and mutes the Type 1’s drive to be right. The Type 1 inspires the Type 9 and helps them achieve more of their full potential. Are they happy? It seems so…
"Obviously I couldn't have done anything that I've done without Michelle ... not only has she been a great first lady, she is just my rock," he told Oprah. "I count on her in so many ways every single day."
But were they always this blissful? No.
And Michelle is candid about it in her book “Becoming.” When their two kids were young, the marriage became rocky, and at Michelle’s insistence, the Obamas went to marriage counseling. Let’s have a closer look at their troubles through the lens of the Enneagram.
The Downward Spiral
Cracks in the relationship begin because of the opposite way the two types behave when under pressure.
The Type 1, already sensitive to imperfection, begins to openly express criticism and contempt. The Type 9, dreading conflict and desperate to maintain harmony begins to stonewall and becomes stubbornly avoidant. This triggers the Type 1, leading to even more openly critical, frustrated, and sharp behavior. Placing blame becomes the top priority for Type 1.
As Michelle recounts "I was one of those wives who thought, 'I'm taking you to marriage counseling so you can be fixed, Barack Obama.' Because I thought, 'I'm perfect.’”
Her complaint list was long. They had two young children and she felt she was carrying the load. From dinner, baths, story time, to bedtime he wasn’t doing enough to support the household. He was constantly running late and absent-minded about practical priorities. He’d call to say he was coming home but then show up hours later because he couldn’t say no to anyone who wanted his time. With the pressure of kids and two high powered careers, the fissures were growing.
The Type 9 strategy of avoiding conflict intensifies the situation. Under pressure, Type 9s become more withdrawn, shut down, and even internally confused. They convince themselves nothing is wrong or it is just a phase the couple is going through.
If their heart connection is lost, this couple can become difficult to be around with barely suppressed rage seething from the Type 1 and unresponsive disengagement from the Type 9.
Breaking the Fixation
Fortunately, this isn’t what happened with the Obamas. If both partners can break their patterned response, there can be real healing, and this is what seemed to happen during marriage counseling. Through the guidance of a neutral third party, both saw their part in the problem.
Barack focused harder on how his behavior was affecting not just his wife but the whole relationship. Michelle learned she needed to take responsibility for her own happiness and not put it on her husband. They met in the middle, found compromise, and righted the ship. Was it easy? No. But was it worth it?
On October 3 2021, the Obamas will celebrate 29 years of marriage. Friendship is at the heart of their relationship, and Michelle says “We went through a tough time, we did some hard things together. But now we’re out on the other end and I can look at him and I still recognize my husband. He’s still the man I fell in love with."
And does Barack feel the same? For her birthday in January 2020, he tweeted to his 112 million followers “In every scene, you are my star ‘Happy birthday, baby!’” It seems the Forever First Couple is not only looking strong, they might be our favorite love story.