Inspiration

Why Oprah's 32-Year Love Affair with Her Partner Stedman Works

Plus the real reason the Queen of Talk won't marry him.
IMAGE BILL EBBESEN/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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People often dream of finding The One: that mythical individual who will complete one’s life through incomparable romance and often, eventual marriage.

For Oprah Winfrey, however, the one with that label is the man she decided not to marry: her partner of 32 years, Stedman Graham.

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Talk show host Oprah Winfrey stands with her boyfriend Stedman Graham at the sixty-seventh Academy Awards March 27, 1995

The couple met in Chicago in 1986, at a charity event for athletes. After nearly five years of steady dating—and a quickly debunked cheating scandal—they quietly got engaged in 1992. But plans to marry in 1993 fell through, with no clear reason given to the public at the time.

Recently, Oprah explained to Vogue that they had both come to realize that had they gotten married, it would never have lasted: “We would not have stayed together because marriage requires a different way of being in this world. His 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.”

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Author, businessman, and ex-athlete Stedman Graham hugs his girlfriend, talk show host Oprah Winfrey at Radio City Music Hall.

A History of Brokenness

A look at some of Oprah’s past relationships would explain why Oprah believes she wouldn’t have fit into the matrimonial mold, as they reveal a history of emotional and physical abuse. And as with many women living with abuse, she developed an unhealthy dependence on the men in her life.

"I'd had a relationship with a man for four years. I wasn't living with him. I'd never lived with anyone—and I thought I was worthless without him,” she had once said in an interview. “The more he rejected me, the more I wanted him. I felt depleted, powerless. At the end, I was down on the floor on my knees groveling and pleading with him."

In another scenario, she elaborated on the lengths to which she would go to cling to a toxic relationship: “I’ve done some really embarrassing, ridiculous, crazy-ass things over the years, like holding on to the bumper of a Datsun Z like I could actually keep him from pulling off.”

One particularly harmful relationship even saw her developing a crack cocaine habit because of that dependence: “I always felt that the drug itself is not the problem but that I was addicted to the man. I can't think of anything I wouldn't have done for that man."

All this stemmed from a childhood steeped in abuse. Oprah was raped by a cousin at the age of nine, and was sexually assaulted by her mother’s lover. She was often punished physically, which took a toll on her self-esteem. “The lesson of a whipping, the lesson of being heavily disciplined with violence is that you’re not worthy. That you’re not good enough. And so it takes a long time to get a sense of self-worth and self-value. And so, I was in my 20s, doing what everybody in their 20s does, and looking for love in all the wrong places, and looking to be validated by somebody else’s view of who I was and wanting them to say, ‘I’m okay, I’m okay.’ ‘Yes, you’re okay. You’re okay.’”

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“I needed everyone to like me, because I didn't like myself much,” she would explain in her biography. “So I'd end up with these cruel self-absorbed guys who'd tell me how selfish I was, and I'd say 'Oh thank you, you're so right' and be grateful to them. Because I had no sense that I deserved anything else. Which is also why I gained so much weight later on. It was the perfect way of cushioning myself against the world's disapproval.”

With Stedman’s Support

In Stedman, Oprah found a man who understood that the only way she could be her best self was to simply allow her to be herself, an individual empowered to pursue her hopes and dreams without pain, or love, or social prejudices holding her back. Throughout the 32 years they’ve been together, Stedman has been a constant presence in her life, often sighted at awards shows, quietly supporting her as she receives accolade after accolade. On the rare occasions that he stepped into the spotlight, as he did in the farewell special for the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011, he spoke nothing but words of admiration and encouragement:

"You are so special. I'm so proud of you,” he said. “It really amazes me that I got to be around a woman who changes people's lives every day and who also takes her own lunch to work. I can't believe that a colored girl from the backwoods of Mississippi has done all that you have done. But what is really amazing is that you have done this [he motioned around him] through God's amazing grace. I love you for making the difference in my life."

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The couple walking their dog July 14, 1999 at a park near Winfrey's home in downtown Chicago.

In this 1987 interview, Oprah shared how supportive Stedman had been in their relationship, even offering at the time to run her presidential campaign, should she choose to run: “He's a very special man in that he's not the least bit intimidated by me or what I do. He says to me all the time, 'Look, I want you to be president... you want to be president? Run for president, I'll work the campaign.' So, I'm very grateful to have somebody like that, who doesn't want to be in the limelight with me, isn't trying—when you walk into the room, isn't looking for all the cameras. And, so, I don't know what will happen."

It’s safe to say that, without Stedman being the shoulder she could lean on, we might not have seen her become the woman she is today.

Her Own Woman

This isn’t to say, however, that Stedman saved Oprah. Instead, he did exactly what she needed him to do: Step back, and allow her to save herself. He understood her need for independence, to rise above the pain of her past through her own strength, and to know that no matter what happens, he will be there whenever she needs him.

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The couple at the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards, January 7, 2018

This sentiment is perhaps best reflected in the powerful words of her stirring acceptance speech at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards:

“I've interviewed and portrayed people who've withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights. So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘me too’ again.”

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Oprah and Stedman’s relationship, by all accounts, isn’t a traditional one. As much as many people would like for it to end the way all fairy tales do, the degree of mutual respect and understanding between the couple makes that unlikely, and that is perfectly fine. They’re more interested in allowing each other to write their own stories, together.

 

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Marco Sumayao
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