Shaunie Henderson, media mogul and former wife of basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, recently unveiled a profound truth in her memoir UNDEFEATED: Changing the Rules and Winning on My Own Terms about her marriage to O’Neal. 

In a candid reflection, Henderson revealed, “Looking back, I don’t know that I was ever really in love with the man” whom she married in 2002. Expressing grace for her now ex-husband and father of her children, “I was in love with the idea of being married to the man I had a family with. He was trying to be a world-famous, thirty-something multimillionaire with thousands of women throwing themselves at him and people in general begging just to be in his presence while being a husband and a father at the same time. How could anyone possibly know how to do that?”

The matriarch’s remarks have sparked a deeper discussion across social media about the role of love in marriage and whether women should consider more than just love when they take their vows. Some folks online accused Henderson of being an opportunist—a gold digger who viewed Shaq’s multi-million dollar earnings as a long-term paycheck. However, many others, especially those who are or have been married, offer a more nuanced interpretation of Henderson’s comments. The reality TV star and producer even added her own clarifying comments to the discourse after seeing so much backlash online. 

She shared with People, “When you love somebody, you love somebody, but to be in love with somebody is a different feeling, and I will be honest, I didn’t realize that until I found the love of my life right now and I’m in this marriage [to current husband and pastor Keon Henderson]. I’m like, oh my gosh. It’s a different feeling.”

O’Neal, seemingly, was empathetic to his former partner’s feelings. Sharing on Instagram in a post, “I understand… I wouldn’t have been in love with me either.” 

In fact, in O’Neal’s own memoir, *Shaq Uncut: My Story*, published in 2011, he admitted that he was a terrible husband to Shaunie—regularly cheating on her and ruining their marriage and family life. However, this hasn’t stopped the public from criticizing Henderson, with some accusing the mother of five of being disloyal for questioning whether she was truly in love during their marriage. The reaction highlights the unrealistic and problematic expectations often placed on Black women in love and relationships. Not only was Shaunie Henderson victimized during her marriage, but she is even victimized in the retelling of her own marital experience. 

Henderson is not alone on her road to self-discovery. I often have conversations with women who married young and focused their lives so much on being good wives and good mothers that they equated those desires with love. If we’re honest, many of us—both men and women—begin relationships (whether marriages or otherwise) with faulty definitions of what it means to love and be loved. bell hooks revealed to me, in her seminal work *All About Love: New Visions*, that couples should enter partnerships with shared definitions of love. Like many women, I believed that my version of love would be enough to sustain a marriage—not realizing that love alone simply isn’t enough. Like Shaunie, I recall being in love with the idea of being a wife and a mother during my marriage—even while being unhappy in that marriage and feeling very unfulfilled.

In the famous words of the great songstress and survivor Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it?” Henderson’s revelations about being in love challenge a deeply ingrained societal narrative that places love on a pedestal as the ultimate foundation for marriage. While love is undeniably important, it is neither the only nor necessarily the most stable pillar upon which to build a lifelong partnership. Several other factors can be just as crucial, if not more so, in determining the success and satisfaction of a marriage.

Black women are particularly vulnerable to societal and communal pressures that emphasize the emotional aspect of love when choosing to marry. This social construct is part of the “ride or die” struggle love narrative, which suggests that Black women should accept the bare minimum in their relationships to be seen as loyal. Prioritizing more practical and sound considerations—such as shared visions and values around finances, parenting, worldviews, and (perhaps most importantly) the ability to recognize and correct patterns and behaviors detrimental to a marriage’s success—is often viewed as not being “down” for Black men. Can Black women require mutual respect? Can they insist that their partners master effective communication, especially during conflict? The prevailing answer seems to be “no,” whether they are contemplating what they need for a healthy, happy marriage before walking down the aisle or reflecting on these needs after signing their divorce decree.

As I read comments online from those who expected the matriarch to be deeply in love with someone who repeatedly harmed her, I can’t help but imagine how that kind of love might have hindered her ability to move forward, pursue her own dreams, and take good care of her children. Perhaps not being in love with Shaq enabled Shaunie to pick up the pieces of her life, achieve success in media and entertainment, and find the kind of love she truly deserves. 

Let’s be honest: we care less about Henderson’s happiness or her marital fulfillment as we gossip about her post-divorce revelations. Some of us, even other Black women, want to punish Shaunie for having the audacity to say “no” to the abuse she suffered. Many of us expected her to stay, play nice, and be grateful that she was at least financially cared for. How dare she leave? How dare she find love and joy again? How dare she publicly reflect on how unhappy she was as the wife of a Black, well-loved multimillionaire? What an ungrateful, gold-digging b*tch, right?

Ultimately, the societal pressure to marry for love can lead Black women to overlook red flags or rush into marriage prematurely. We need to stop telling them that love is enough. It isn’t, and Henderson’s candidness offers a liberating perspective that validates the importance of making more thoughtful and informed decisions about marriage. Shaunie Henderson’s memoir serves as a poignant reminder that while love is a beautiful and integral part of marriage, it should not be the sole criterion. Black women should feel empowered to consider a broader spectrum of factors when choosing a life partner. 

Henderson’s story is not just about her past but a call to rethink the foundations upon which marriages are built—foundations that lead to marriages that are both mutually beneficial and satisfying. I hope more Black women begin to show up as “ungrateful” and that more Shaunie share stories to remind us that love and money are not enough to sacrifice their happiness. For Black women, the days of demanding loyalty, love, and care in the midst of struggle love must come to an end.

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