‘Don’t forget to have fun’: Ernest Owens and Barry Johnson on playing the long game in love

The newly married couple joins theGrio's "Mighty Love" series on Black love, romance and relationship resilience.

This is the fourth installment in theGrio’s “Mighty Love” series, running through February. Read our first couple’s story here.

Barry Johnson, left, and Ernest Owens
Photo: Courtesy of Ernest Owens

“I always assumed that I would have to alter something about myself in a compromising way in order to get in a long-term relationship,” says journalist and contributor to theGrio, Ernest Owens. Newly married to his longtime partner Barry Johnson, the duo agreed to be part of our “Mighty Love” series, where real-life couples are sharing their stories about Black love, partnership, and commitment in honor of the intersecting celebrations of Valentine’s Day and Black History Month.

Though they are newlyweds, Ernest and Barry’s marriage was eight years in the making, starting with a “meet-cute” at a party hosted by a Black Greek organization at the University of Pennsylvania. Barry was a freshman; Ernest was in his senior year. Still, there was an instant connection.

“We got together the final semester of my senior year; he was in the second semester of his freshman year,” Ernest explains. “The love was strong, but I think we both were initially scared that time and distance could change that.”

Following graduation, “we just kept at it. We made time for each other and communicated often,” Ernest recalls. “[We] didn’t let the ‘what if’ stop us from being together. He supported me as I explored the early tough days of navigating my journalism career, and I was there for him as he [persevered] the terrains of the Ivy League. By the time he graduated in 2017, I knew that we would be together forever.”

Still, meeting so young meant actively fostering growth as both a couple and as individuals. “I was 19 when we first started dating. He was 22,” explains Barry, now a media specialist and owner of his own event-staffing firm, Bartender Barry. “An obstacle I faced early on was being in a relationship with someone who already had their own identity—and a huge personality—when I was still trying to formulate my own. I never wanted to get so engulfed in his world that I lost my sense of self.”

Additionally, he admits, “I always assumed I’d get bored or annoyed being in a long-term relationship,” noting that he initially struggled with “being vulnerable and asking for help. I’m used to doing everything on my own and being the person everyone relies on. It was difficult at first to put that much trust in someone.” Learning “to be less selfish and a little more thoughtful,” Barry ultimately found balance in the couple’s now “deep-rooted” relationship by “staying in my own lane, yet still being supportive of his.”

For Ernest, who was growing his media career along with their romance, the challenge lay in “making time to plan for the future while juggling the very important things right in front of me.” In Barry, he has found a partner who “is consistent and romantically spontaneous—[he] knows how to keep me on my toes; constantly, lovingly,” he says. “I learned that as long as people show, not tell how much they are invested in a relationship, it will work. Not letting a thousand hypotheticals block [me] from joy allowed me to let go and receive it.”

Photo: Courtesy of Ernest Owens

The two officially became a married couple last fall. Ernest says he’s especially proud of “having our love be a Black queer possibility model for those looking up to us.” As the two now look toward the future, their highest priority is “continuing to empower and love each other, both inside and out.”

Though they’re both still young men, with eight years already under their belts, Ernest and Barry have gleaned some worthy insight on creating a love that both endures and evolves. “Don’t aim to be someone else’s ‘better half,’” says Ernest, sharing: “I make sure I can be the best version of myself. That way we bring our full selves into the relationship.”

Most of all, he says, “Don’t take yourself too seriously—and be honest with your lover, but more importantly with yourself. Have a clear understanding of who you are and how you want to be loved,” he adds. “When you find that special person, return the favor—and don’t forget to have fun.”

This is the fourth installment in theGrio’s “Mighty Love” series; part 3 is available to read here.

Maiysha Kai is Lifestyle Editor of theGrio, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades’ experience in the fashion and entertainment industries, a love of great books and aesthetics, and the indomitable brilliance of Black culture. She is also the editor of the YA anthology Body (Words of Change series).

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