The Kind of Love That Black Women Make: Female Capital & Cost

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Each March, for Women’s History Month, Vanessa and I pair to analyze a selected piece of literature or film, offering insight on the kind of love that Black women make. Our first piece revisited The Color Purple and last year we covered The Women of Brewster Place. In those articles, we wrote about sisterly love, female independence, mother-daughter relationships, and the historical plights of Black Americans to help explain what we experience. This year, we highlight the female capital and cost among Black women in their comings and goings with Black men in our analysis of Terry McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale” (1995).

 


 

Conditioned to provide nurture, care, and support (specifically to Black men–whether they are appreciative, respectful, or protective of it or not), we tend to operate as if our men are naturally “good for it.” While that has its damage, the crippling debt accrues when Black women become the living sacrifice to their own caring and supportive nature. This metamorphosis from female nurturer to living sacrifice usually occurs when we fail to count the cost or respond wisely considering them. Make no doubt about it–we must pay to play, like anyone else; however, getting in the game without assessing costs, be it blissful or willful ignorance usually guarantees too much loss. It would be unreasonable, unrealistic even, to expect zero cost in this relationship (or marriage and family) business, yet likewise, it is equally imprudent to transact without wisdom and coverage. In our nature, we organically believe: if I do for him, he’ll do for me. So, we go first, believing he’ll return or reciprocate when the day comes with no assurance save our own hopes and prayers. Meanwhile, days and years pass by with so much opportunity (among other assets) lost.

 

 

As male-female relationships form, men become protective of their money (even money they do not possess or have yet to earn) and women become protective of their time (even time they do not have or have yet to spend). Men operate on financial clocks while women function on biological clocks. With the passage of time, men stand the option to gain while women wrestle with how to manage loss. This notion places both parties in a position to choose favorably and negotiate certain terms before they join together in the ways that men and women do. Because Black women are predisposed toward both nurture and endurance with an affinity toward Black men, we have a unique response—some twisted fusion of love and suffering that can serve to our disadvantage. As nurturers, we give a lot upfront. As endurers, we persevere in faith that it’ll all be worth it. As Black women, we love amidst our suffering–that loss we feel real-time in relating to men–and many times respond with more love hoping it will cover the distance we feel and the damage we experience. Come to find out—relationship math does not work that way—and we painfully realize that female struggle love hardly covers a multitude of male sins. 

 

Stories like McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale are often telling and revealing, as they should be. However, movies usually entertain, not educate, so we may gain cautionary tales but hardly receive the necessary guidance to course correct its content that causes us harm or brings us shame. I dare not propose that this single article can offer said guidance in the most effective way either but I believe in the power of me and Vanessa’s pen enough to lead you with instruction. If you’re a Black woman reading, we invite you to notice the cost paid by Bernadine, Robin, Savannah, and Gloria as we unpack each story and contemplate their decisions and ways they could have better navigated, saving themselves from so much (unnecessary) headache, grief, and loss. 

Twenty-eight minutes into this classic film, Bernadine confesses,

“I always thought if I gave him [her soon to be ex-husband] what he needed, he’d give me what I needed.”

I asked myself: Haven’t most Black women held this thought at one point or another? Bernadine was wrong. Her husband fell short on paying his respects or gratitude for her care; neither did he give her what she needed in a way that covered her costs—and she had failed to consider them in advance. She is not the only woman in this film to pay for such an oversight–they all did. Perhaps, as a group, Black women, we all have as well. Because sometimes, that’s the kind of love that Black women make too. 

 

Vanessa, in all her maternal glory, shares perspective on the characters of Robin and Gloria, and closes this article. She does not simply count the cost of spending time with a man but also explores some possible burdens of children who are born in circumstances where their father is barely present as their mother runs low on his unreturned love. Unfortunately, women are not the only ones who pay the high cost of spending too much time and care on unavailable, undeveloped men or from failure of securing their own protection plan. I add my two cents on the characters of Bernadine and Savannah to offer female insight but I pepper some mother-daughter characteristics too. As a practitioner, I coach Savannah/Robin-types often; but in my personal womanhood journey, I relate more to the Bernadine-type. The Bernadines, Robins, Savannahs, and Glorias of the Black female community are real and their portrayals are accurate, so we are not penalizing these characters but simply using their stories as a teaching tool to see more deeply than a movie screen can offer.

 

Bernadine 

 

Viewers are introduced to the characters’ thoughts before we meet them. Bernadine thinks: No matter what John says, this year, I’m starting my catering business. Before her story unfolds, we track some of her loss, and gain the sense that her husband has served as a barrier to her business launch. Next, she narrates a list of tasks for herself that only include serving her husband. I am not opposed to wives serving their husbands, but I am not a fan of it constantly being at their expense. In the vanity scene, not only does John disclose his affair and uninvites her to his ceremony, he places his mistress above his wife in one of the most unforgivable ways. Further, Mr. Harris adds insult to injury by announcing that he is leaving Bernie for his bookkeeper-turned-mistress. Immediately, she mentally counts her costs as she processes perhaps the greatest blow of her adult life. John counters by stating the coverage he is willing to front–offering their marital home and declaring his allegiance to their children, as if he knew she deserved assets for her time. Bernie fiercely snaps with her stakes in their marriage–her time. “I give you eleven f*ckin’ years of my life and you’re telling me you’re leaving me for a white woman?” Just when we think this conversation cannot get any worse, we learn he has fallen for a blue-eyed Becky. Ouch. 

 

Pin on Bosom Mood Board
📷 Cred: Pinterest.com

Bernie wakes the next morning soaked in pain and disbelief but manages to hold what pieces of her still remain to see her children off to school. When you’re a mother you do not have the pleasure of becoming completely undone. A man can deliver the most painful, life-shattering news on a Sunday evening and mothers are still expected to have their children up on Monday morning for school on time. As soon as the children are off, Bernie’s rage explodes. She is furious for many reasons, but best believe she is clocking her lost time. In her narrative fury, her lines point to the pain attached to what now is her sum total loss.

 

“I was your white woman for eleven years.”

 

“Couldn’t have started that company without me.”

 

“I worked my ass off…I got a master’s degree in business, and there I was his secretary and office manager and his computer.”

 

“No, Bernadine, you cannot start your catering business this year. Why don’t you wait a few years, huh?”

 

“I need you to wait one, two, three years. I need you to be the f*ckin’ background to my foreground.”

 

 

Any human being, not just a woman, would be livid to learn that all their time, energy, effort, and sacrifice dedicated to a project, a company, a deal, or a person would not amount to what they understood. For this same circumstance, nations have warred, companies have feuded, and families have divided. Of course, if a woman wants to help her husband build his business or status or reputation for him to move up proverbial ladders, all is well. But, what would it cost her, and is she comfortable with the price? I encourage you to consider what could be and will be lost when you say yes to a man (even your husband) and by default say no to yourself. What can be secured for the tradeoff? How can you be compensated for your costs? More so, what can you establish upfront? 

 

To be clear, I am not speaking of the gestures and sacrifices you make out of the goodness of your heart or an act of love for your man. Marriage (and even some relationships) are a combination of love and business. Be wise enough to make love decisions in the name of love and business decisions in the name business. Too many women make this mistake, believing that love can cover the differing transactions made in romance and marriage. And when you think about love, remember to love yourself too. Personally, I love my husband enough to care for him every day of his life while I love me enough to not lose myself just to do it.  As a woman, I prefer to negotiate than to fight. Rather than fight a man for what I believe I am due after the fact, I find it more peaceful and less expensive to state what I need at the time he asks me to make sacrifices. But, in the coming scenes, Bernie fights.

 

Bernie not only failed to count her cost in marriage but also in burning John’s belongings. It would have made sense to reconcile the cash before torching his car because, of course, his retaliating move is to empty their bank account. Did she miss the Black mother-daughter lesson to stash her runaway money? She interrupts John’s business meeting, slaps blue-eyed Becky, and confronts him about the missing funds. “What am I supposed to do for money?” May you never have to ask a man this question–ever. He reacts like he has the upper hand until she gives him a reason to be shooketh.

 

 

In true male nature, he moves to protect his wealth. Shaken, he offers $300,000 cash to settle their affairs then and there. Insulted, she declines. On one side, he too, wants to enjoy the fruit of his labor; and on the other, he knows a certain amount of money is required to keep the lifestyle that wooed his white woman. He cannot afford to exit their marriage as the broke one, and neither can she; so, their fight escalates. Bernie meets with her lawyer and learns that John’s purchases over the past decade have only been in his name, including the business she helped to build. So much for teamwork, huh? I can appreciate Bernie’s sentiment about not looking to get rich but to have enough to live and maintain her children’s lifestyle, especially their education. Even still, her lawyer confirms their intense fight ahead. In the aftermath, Bernie says, “This is how women get screwed. Too lazy to look out for yourself, so you put all your trust in your husband.” Ladies, we can look out for ourselves while loving a man, and one does not—should not—cost you the other. 

 

In the hotel bar scene with Mr. Wheeler, Bernadine admits that she did not have a Plan B because her marriage was supposed to last. This is what she’s really upset about. Yes, Mr. Harris is guilty of much but she is mostly disappointed in herself for not taking care of herself. She hates that she has to fight for her survival when it should have come with the package. I appreciate this moment, though, because it restores Bernie’s faith in men and gives viewers something to finally smile about in her story. 

 

 

 

By the time the characters meet together again, Bernadine seeps in her pain, declaring, “That asshole–he messed up my life.” It is obvious that she is playing back scenes in her mind trying to calculate what went wrong and when and how she could have done better. Her blame waffles between John and blue-eyed Becky, unsure of who to pin her pain on. Sometimes, it is easier to blame another woman. Even though that white woman is not innocent, she is not the one under marital covenant and contract. This is on John. But when two women want the same man, or some piece of him, it changes the name of the game. Suddenly, it becomes woman v. woman instead of two versus one–and the rage ensues. 

 

What exactly is 11 years of wifely duty worth when the marriage is dissolving from in-your-face infidelity? Bernie is awarded one and half million dollars, ownership of the marital home, a second home, $500,000 in stocks and bonds, and a Mercedes station wagon. What a long way from the original offer by her ex. With those earnings, she has enough to keep her home, provide for her children, and restart her life with enough room to close the earnings gaps and opportunity loss in the workforce or marketplace. After the judge summarizes her earnings, Bernie approaches John. Her now ex-husband extends his hand in retreat gesturing a truce. He gives her a slight closed-mouth smile and opens the gate to send her on her way. It’s almost as if he knows she is worth what she has won. This scene is warm and satisfying but it leaves a slight twinge of irritation. If John knew already that she was worth what she received, why put her through hell and high water just to get it? In the future, I hope she teaches her daughter how to navigate with a man without having to fight him for her survival. 

 

Robin

 

Robin is a youthful beauty portrayed as a well put-together, fashionable, career woman. Seemingly embodying a lover-girl archetype, she is a hopeless romantic. I imagine a number of Black women relating to her deep desire for love and intimacy, who fantasize about a perfect family life while uncertain if their fairytale will come true because they constantly fall for the wrong guy. Robin is aware enough to know thyself.

“My weakness is pretty boys with big sticks.”

 

As a mistress, she remains smitten over a longtime lover, Russell, who entraps her into nothingness with empty promises to leave his wife. While successful in her career, her love life sits in the negative with only occasional impromptu visits and half baked excuses from her paramour. Settling into her 30s, she seems clueless to Russell’s breadcrumbing though it causes her to yearn for her chance to have him and pass the time for her anticipated moment by entertaining men who are single, yet equally unpartnerable.

 

In an intimate scene between Robin and her newly hired employee, she recites a list of icks about his appearance and her lack of attraction to him, but she still entertains him. Her dreamy fairytale awaits so she has convinced herself that some concessions will be worth it in the long run. We watch Robin tender her body and standards for a future lifestyle. Most of her private thoughts are spent rationalizing why things are not better in her dating life: Maybe if we got to know each other a little better I might be a good influence on him. Unfortunately, Robin’s flings end with her being disappointed and disrespected by men who should have never qualified to be in her presence, let alone in her body and heart.

 

📷 Cred: X

Casual intimacy is frequent and emotional fortitude shrinks as we follow her into a trapped, repeated cycle with a number of men until she finds herself pregnant—again. For some of us, the events surrounding her pregnancy would make it too difficult to carry, however; she refuses to abort her chance at an impending unconditional love. She chooses her unborn baby, despite the challenges of navigating motherhood alone. It is likely that she will expect her mother-child bond to pacify the reality that she has yet to secure true, romantic love for herself. I can personally relate to choosing motherhood despite hard conditions, so I know the high price tag on this decision. Still, we move forward, believing we have enough to foot the bill. As mothers, we learn first-hand how children rely on their parents to provide emotional security, physical protection, educational support, and financial means. Some of these resources may not concern a career woman, but not attending to our inner suffering can cost us the mental and emotional capital we need to invest into our children. 

 

Bypassing an opportunity to reevaluate, Robin decides that the love and dedication she had previously poured into Russell would likely remain unrequited. Toward the end of her story, she  inadvertently assigns the responsibility to be present, available, and loving to her unborn child. What a burden for a child to pay for the unresolved issues of an adult heart. Time is a valuable asset for all but even more so for a woman who desires motherhood. Involving oneself with a married man and risking (unwanted) pregnancy with someone who cannot show up consistently is bad relationship business. Assessing the cost of her transactions with the frequent inconsistencies makes Robin’s decisions equal to reckless high stakes gambling.

 

 

Pregnancy is sobering for women who live in a fantasy world and play Russian Roulette with men—and now her life is forever changed. Robin explains to her girlfriend, Savannah, the kind of devastation she can anticipate from a cheating man’s unfulfilled promises. She describes how, as the other woman, the major cost is being left alone to sort the damage while the man keeps his wife and family as his security. She too, like Bernie, was left to fight for her survival, though of a different kind. Her heart wrenching story about the loss of things never truly acquired served as the genesis to Savannah’s delayed, but new line of sight. 

 

Savannah

 

Savannah is in transition, leaving Denver for Phoenix because she finds the city, especially its men, boring and has accepted a new position in television. Looking for both a new life and love scene, she prepares to attend a New Year’s Eve party that an associate, Lionel, invites her to. Upon meeting him, there is an instant connection broken by an interruption from Lionel’s date. She leaves and is under the impression that she will never see him again, but then he calls to apologize.

 

 

Five months later, she sits on her bed weighing her costs with the new information she has learned. He’s unemployed, addicted to marijuana, has lied about being a vegetarian, and isn’t the most integral when it comes to money. Savannah considers this against her true desire which was to have a good roll in the sack in a new town–some fantasy initiation she had sold herself. Nothing that we know about Lionel equals her sharing her body with this man. Of course the desire to be touched can outweigh our logical minds and good decision-making, but at this point in the film, she is in a position to dismiss him. The choice can be easier to make when we weigh more realistically, meaning it is not in Savannah’s best interest to place the attributes of a shiftless man against her need for physical touch and intimacy. If that is the deal, we will likely lose each time (and many times men bet on it).

 

 

I WAS @JOEWRIGHT — Whitney Houston as Savannah in WAITING TO EXHALE...

 

Instead, Savannah would have fared better to calculate her costs in sexing an unstable man and the impact that would have on her. The possibility of pregnancy and disease certainly lead the list but also the emotional or psychological impact that can brew from this sexual exchange. Would Lionel’s peen even be worth her time or risk? Though Savannah realizes that such a man is never one she could be in love with, she convinces herself out of what she wants to fulfill a temporary need. For a woman who is balancing emotional exhaustion from her disappointments in dating men, hoping for Phoenix to offer her a new love, and in prayer with God about a decent man who will want to marry her, this is not the best move. She waited five months, I assume to know the measure of a man, just to learn he did not measure up and give in to him anyway. 

 

Next, Kenneth, Savannah’s old flame, darkens her doorstep to reconnect. Now Kenneth is married and a father of one. For what Savannah wants this reunion does not make much sense. What good can come from it for her? Yes, she knows the sex will be good (an improvement from Lionel) but it will also unleash another wave of emotion and longing to which Kenneth is not available. She continues to take these emotional hits that present to be more expensive than she bargained–but she does gain herself another exhale moment, so it is not all upside down, I guess. She also carries a moral pound of flesh, indebting herself as she attempts to reconcile sleeping with a married man. In the universal order of reaping and sowing, it is rather off-balance to pray to God for your own husband while sleeping with someone else’s.

 

 

At Gloria’s birthday gathering, after the women are full of cake and champagne, there’s a chilling moment when pain suffocates the room, smothering each of them. Savannah scoffs at true love songs while Gloria and Robin sink so deeply into their misery that they are not present. Later, she confesses that the one man she loves is married with a child. Bernadine and Robin attempt to comfort her with messages that men sometimes leave their wives and praise Kenneth for being honest. Then, this moment comes when Savannah, a thirty-something year-old woman, counts her cost as she contends for the one asset she cannot afford to youthfully wager–her time

“I’m not your average 24-year-old girl who is willing to wait around and count the days, see.”

This still did not stop her from seeing him. Of course, as a thirty-something year-old woman myself, I can understand why it didn’t but as a woman dedicated to teaching other women about how to position themselves with men, I wish she had. These decisions Savannah has made where she failed to count her cost or turned a blind eye to them balloons into interest added to her balance. In a bedroom scene toward the end of the film, she is startled into consciousness after a night with Kenneth, gripped by the weight of her choices. These careless transactions are becoming so expensive that she needs her mother’s comfort, so she calls. She does not confess, in fact, she lies to her as the emotional blade of these Savannah-Kenneth exchanges begin to cut. She is clear that she loves him but now battles with whether she can trust him–because what real relationship can function sans trust? Silently, she wonders: If he cheats with me, will he cheat on me? It is hard to be the other woman in general, but even more so when you do not want to be. As Savannah overhears Kenneth lying to his wife and checking on his daughter, she stands in the background (ready to serve him) paying her too-high costs. In a conversation with Robin, Savannah does what most Black women who are caught in a similar situation do–seek to comfort a man and provide him with the very (emotional) resources he siphons from her. 

 

“I loved this man forever and now that we’ve got another chance, I don’t want to blow it by making him think I don’t have any faith in him.”

 

I see the appeal in Kenneth but I also realize that he cannot offer Savannah any present-day security or fidelity. The former outweighs the latter, if only she would do this math. Yet, she seeks to prove her faithfulness to a cheating man. Her time and opportunity costs are being spent while Kenneth operates at a complete advantage. Having been burnt before and unable to trust the word of cheating husbands on leaving their wives, Robin tells her a personal story hoping to snap her out of her delusion; but Savannah keeps her fictive hope for the forsaken wife. In Savannah and Kenneth’s final scene, all he has to offer is delayed time. He also mentions that one of the reasons she will have to wait longer than expected is so he can protect his pockets. Like Bernadine and John, we trace the same with Savannah and Kenneth–these women are expected to give up their most valuable resource while these men make plans to guard theirs. 

 

📷 Cred: TheRoot.com

 

Thankfully, Savannah sees the writing on the wall, denounces her selfishness, and leaves Kenneth to stew in his own mess. Later, she accepts a phone call from her mother, giving us insight into some possible origin of Savannah’s makeup and nature with men. Though the backstory on Savannah’s mother and father is missing, we can imagine that her mother was abandoned in some way and suffers in her loneliness. So much so, that she pushes her daughter into the arms of an unavailable man to save her from solitary. It’s clear that Savannah’s mother only sees female value as it can be attached to a man. As their conversation reaches its climax, she tells on herself with her iconic line, “He’s a good man, Savannah.” I remain perplexed on how a cheating husband and father holds the standard of a “good man” for her mother. What has this mother fortuitously taught her daughter? Even today, in 2024, Black women hail this phrase, originally pinned to an unfaithful man, to describe a “good one.”

 

Gloria

 

Gloria is arguably the woman we might describe as a quintessential “good woman.” She confidently rotates her daily responsibilities of managing her hair salon, keeping her home, attending church, and parenting her 17 year-old son, Tarik. She seems content with the monotony, only fretting over her child’s comings and goings. Gloria’s relationship with Tarik foreshadows a possible reality for how Robin’s mother-child relationship might later manifest and sideshadows Savannah and her mother. As such, we note the similarity between these relationships and clock how Gloria and Robin are unable to accept that the relationship with their children’s father ended long ago. Gloria’s denial distances her from processing her ex’s departure alongside her oblivion to him drifting away from the role she had hoped he would fulfill. Her moment of reckoning finally lands with a shocking revelation that he is gay. 

 

While we may not all have gay exes, this kind of scenario is similar to many. We bet on ourselves because we trust that the love we give a man will cover all costs. We place it all on the line, attaching blind faith to an outcome likely the furthest from reality. Our female love and nurture costs us time that we spend in hopes that it will not be for naught. Investing time into men or even our relationship is not an inherent threat—it’s our clinging to a dream of what could be to the extent that we lapse opportunities in debt to passive waiting. As expected, Gloria believes her love will sway Tarik’s father to return. She desperately hopes to rekindle their flame and reestablish their family. Love does indeed hold transformative power, but hoping for it should not be confused with delusion. 

 

📷 Cred: kgsmovierants.com

When the love we safekeep for a man is refused, where should we place it? As a woman also settling into 30s and mothering two sons, I insist that our good love be rerouted directly into ourselves! But Gloria entrusted the best of herself into her work, church, friendships, but mostly into her own child. For Tarik specifically, she holds unfair expectations over him with terms hidden in the fine print for him to reciprocate even more. When women with broken hearts and unrealized romance raise their sons, some blur the line between romantic love and maternal care—burdening their male children with the responsibility of tending to their unmet emotional needs. 

 

They borrow against their sons’ love accounts with more withdrawals than deposits, weakening their emotional currency. Gloria actually feels proud of herself in delivering this truth.

“He’s been the man in my life, you know? My companion. More than just my baby.”

She uses Tarik’s biological relationship to her ex as a link to stay connected to him, fighting to make it more than what it is. Clouded by her own pain, she lacks sensitivity to her son’s individual needs. Eventually, Tarik expresses his frustration with his mother’s approach, “Look, I see the bastard once every two years and I’m supposed to get excited? You get excited!” At his age, some detachment is normal and necessary, but she is dwarfing his development and profaning their mother-son connection with her fear of letting him go. 

 

 

 

Gloria’s across-the-street neighbor, Marvin, is a widower who grows to love her and her son. After offering his male insight that Gloria should allow her son to pursue his opportunity to travel abroad, Gloria dismisses him. Their conversation ends shortly after his stinging remark. “It seems to me Tarik isn’t the one who needs to come to his senses…if you don’t mind my saying so.” Her refusal to be honest with herself has cost her many good years. Losing precious moments of our lives fixed on a picturesque outcome, clinging to our children for emotional support and companionship, and disallowing potential new love interests are common ways women pay for loving hard on the front end as a long term investment. The love we sow into our relationships in the early stages may not be enough to carry them through the long haul. We must consider the integrity and security of the accounts we invest in. Gloria and Tarik’s father had been misaligned for years while she continued to view her shortcomings as an excuse rather than own that she had extended herself beyond the emotional budget for this relationship. We know that patience is a key ingredient to lasting love, so we smile when Marvin lends his to Gloria as she makes time for introspection and correction. She humbly returns to him now clear on the err of her ways. She is apologetic and he consoles her while professing, “It’s like you don’t feel you’re worthy to have someone to love you…I love you.”

 

📷 Cred: AfroPunk.com

 

Joyice introduced our article citing a quote from Bernadine about giving a man what he needs first and hoping he would make good on the return. While noble, it can turn out to be no more than a false hope that robs women of their tangible and intangible, and sometimes, unrecoverable capital. Bernie recouped her financial loss, but lost her independence and starved her aspiration to prioritize her husband’s ambitions during her marriage, so she must start over. Savannah regained her dignity by valuing singleness over being a second-rate pick, but lost her time and some opportunity. Robin recovered her sense of self and will now have her own version of family and love, but lost her first child and true hope. Finally, though Gloria was too occupied with an absent man to properly tend to herself and her son, she is the only one who “wins at love” among these four women. Perhaps, it’s because Marvin loved her first, covering her from false hope and the desperate desire for love to be returned. Because reciprocating love to the Black men who first loved us is also the kind of love that Black women make.

~ Joyice & Vanessa

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