After spending the better part of a decade under the weight of the presidency while raising their young family, Barack Obama said leaving the White House in 2017 “was like a big exhale” for him and former First Lady Michelle Obama.
“There was never a time where we didn't recognize what an extraordinary privilege it was to be there,” President Obama, 59, tells PEOPLE for this week’s cover story. “But," he continues, "during the time we were there, Michelle felt this underlying tension.”
In an hour-long conversation about his new memoir A Promised Land and his life in and after the White House, Obama opened up about "the truth" of the strain being president put on his marriage as well as how he and his wife had grown back together while relishing the life they built.
"Michelle very much believed in the work I did but was less optimistic about what I could get done. … She's more skeptical about politics and more mindful of the sacrifices to the family," President Obama says. (“You know I hate politics,” the former first lady said in her speech at the Democratic National Convention this past August.)
“She wouldn't go at me for having to stay up until two or three in the morning working and reading briefing papers,” he recalls. “But, I think once it was done, there was the possibility of her opening up about how she felt. More importantly, I think, just her being able to let out a breath.”
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The former first lady "has been more relaxed and more joyful since we left office," he says. "And that allowed us then to not just enjoy the deep love that comes with a marriage this long, and as eventful as it's been — but also to be friends again."
"Most importantly, our children emerged intact and they are wonderful, kind, thoughtful, creative — and not entitled — young women," the former president says. "So that's a big sigh of relief."
"We are finding each other again," Mrs. Obama, 56, told PEOPLE in 2018. "We have dinners alone and chunks of time where it’s just us — what we were when we started this thing: no kids, no publicity, no nothing. Just us and our dreams."
At the time, she also talked about how they had navigated earlier rough patches in their marriage, before Washington, D.C., including by going to counseling: “Because we’re role models, it’s important for us to be honest and say, 'If you’re in a marriage and there are times you want to leave, that’s normal,' because I felt that way.”
In their post-White House years, the Obamas have also been traveling around the world — sometimes separately, for work, as well as together. In 2019, they bought a waterfront estate on Martha's Vineyard, where they have spent much of the summer.
For one anniversary celebration, they went to Joshua Tree National Park in California. A photo from that trip, which the couple shared with PEOPLE, shows them laughing as they pose while pushing against a large boulder.
"In our relationship, you know the old adage 'if mom's happy, everybody's happy?' " President Obama says now, laughing. "It very much applies in our household."
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"Some of that comes probably also from the kids getting older, frankly," he says. "In the same way that she worried about wanting to be a great first lady, which she was, she wanted to be a really excellent mom, which she also was. But, when the girls were younger, she was worrying about it a lot more. And now that they've turned out pretty good, I think that also is a burden lifted from her and allows her to be a little more relaxed, and we laugh and goof off and have more time with each other."
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