Inside Will and Jada Pinkett Smith's Marriage Turned 'Life Partnership'

(Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Will and Jada Pinkett Smith make up one of the most famous and long-lasting relationships in Hollywood, but the road hasn't been a conventional one. They've been married for 22 years, and have both been remarkably open about both the struggles and the triumphs of their strong union over the years.

Will, 51, and Jada, 48, first met when she auditioned for the role of his girlfriend on his beloved '90s sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, though she didn't get the part. However, in an October 2018 episode of Jada's Facebook Watch show, Red Table Talk, Will said that he actually immediately sensed they would have chemistry when he saw her on A Different World. He revealed that he went to a taping to meet her, but that during the taping, he ended up falling for the woman that was with the man who was supposed to introduce him to Jada. The woman was none other than his first wife, Sheree Zampino, with whom he shares his 27-year-old son, Trey.

Will says he and Jada continued to run into each other years later in what he described as "near-misses," and described sharing a deep connection with her one night when he spent time with her at a party thrown by Tisha Campbell and Duane Martin.

"We had that moment and we connected, but I was married," he said.

Jada quickly clarified, "We did not have an affair when he was married, let's be clear about that."

Will said that just one day after the party, while at dinner with Sheree, he had a breakdown in the bathroom due to the realization that he wasn't with the woman that he was supposed to be with, but would never consider getting a divorce from Sheree. However, Sheree later ended up filing for divorce from him, despite his reluctance to end the marriage.

A day after finally agreeing to sign the divorce papers, Will revealed he immediately called Jada, who at the time, had just moved out of L.A. and bought a farm in Baltimore, Maryland.

"'Are you seeing anybody?'" he recalled asking her. "Uh, no ... cool, you're seeing me now."

"My dumb a** was like, 'OK!" Jada added with a laugh.

The couple eventually got married on Dec. 31, 1997, in her hometown of Baltimore and Jada was three months pregnant with their son, Jaden, at the time. During their 2018 Red Table Talk episode, Jada said it was far from a fairy-tale situation.

"I cried all night long because I was pregnant, my life was never going to be the same," she recalled. "I didn't want to get married. I never wanted to be married. I didn't want to have a wedding either. It was a horrible wedding. It was a mess."

Jada said she was sick and "pissed" she had to have a wedding at the strong suggestion of her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Jones.

"I went crying down the freaking aisle," she said. "I cried the whole way."

Despite the rocky start to their marriage, she and Will made it work. They welcomed daughter Willow three years later in 2000, and they haven't been shy about their intense physical attraction to one another along the way. During a 2009 interview with Redbook, Jada said constantly surprising her husband with places to have sex was key to keeping their marriage fresh.

"It doesn't take a lot of money -- wallets are tight right now -- so just simple stuff," she said. "A night walk? Man, do I love those. Or pack a lunch and go to the park, like Will and I did. Even a drive — and then pull over on the side of the road! Think of places outside that are comfortable to have sex. Does he have access to his office? Have a fantasy date. Be his secretary! Be sneaky. Your girlfriend's house at a party. The bathroom! A guest bedroom! Just switch it up. Anything like that can keep it going. Anything it takes to keep the flame alive."

Jada, who has also acknowledged that she actually likes watching Will's sex scenes on film, later told Shape that the two got intimate in their limo on the way to the 2010 Academy Awards.

"Will started looking at me in this way that drives me wild," she told the magazine. "We started kissing passionately, and the next thing I knew, well, let's just say we missed the red carpet and I ended up with almost no makeup on."

Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith at the Museum of the Moving Image Salutes Will Smith at Waldorf Astoria in New York City, New York.
Lawrence Lucier/FilmMagic

Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith Focus premiere Hollywood, CA February 24, 2015
Kurt Krieger/Corbis via Getty Images

Still, tabloid rumors about their relationship -- specifically, that the two had an open marriage -- have persisted over the years. During a 2009 appearance on The Bert Show on Atlanta's Q100, Jada acknowledged the rumors and said that they didn't bother her.

"I've heard all the things -- their marriage is not real, he's gay, she's gay, they swing," she said. "But at the end of the day, people have to believe what they have to believe. One thing Will and I are not here to do, is like, what's real for us is what's real for us, so you can either get on that bandwagon or not."

"I'll tell you what, it's too hard to be in a pretend marriage," she continued. "Life's too short for that one."

In 2013, she addressed the rumor that she and Will had an open marriage head-on during an interview with Marc Lamont Hill on HuffPost Live.

"I think people get that idea because Will and I are very relaxed with one another and I think because, from how I've answered questions," she said. "I've always told Will, you can do whatever you want as long as you can look at yourself in the mirror and be OK. Because at the end of the day, Will is his own man. I'm here as his partner, but he is his own man. He has to decide who he wants to be, and that's not for me to do for him. Or vice-versa."

After the interview made headlines -- as some fans took her answer to mean that the two do in fact have an open marriage -- Jada took to Facebook to clarify her comments.

"Should we be married to individuals who can not be responsible for themselves and their families within their freedom?" she wrote in part. "Should we be in relationships with individuals who we can not entrust to their own values, integrity, and LOVE...for us??? Here is how I will change my statement...Will and I BOTH can do WHATEVER we want, because we TRUST each other to do so. This does NOT mean we have an open relationship...this means we have a GROWN one."

Though in 2017, Jada had a sense of humor about all the rumors when she appeared on Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen, and a caller asked her about the craziest thing she'd ever heard about her family. Jada replied, "That Will and I are swingers. It's constant."

Jada didn't take offense to the claims, adding, "And I'm like, 'Yo, I wish!'"

"Will and I just have amazing chemistry on a lot of different levels," she continued. "We love to laugh together, we love to learn together, and we just love each other. We just have a good time together. Yeah, I guess that’s the secret. Yeah, we just really like each other!"

Both Will and Jada have been incredibly open about continuing to evolve the nature of their relationship as time goes on. During Jada's appearance on Sway in the Morning back in June 2018, she talked about their "unique partnership" and why it's transcended the concept of marriage.

"Here's the thing about Will and I -- [we] are family. That is never going down. It’s just not. Ever," she said. "We are family. Take out all that whole marriage/relationship crap, at the end of the day, Will and I are family. I am going to hold him down, doesn't matter. All that relationship and what people think ideas of a husband, partner and all that, man, whatever. At the end of the day, that is a man that can rely on me for the rest of his life, period."

In a July 2018 interview on TIDAL's Rap Radar podcast, Will explained why he and Jada use the term "life partners" when referring to their union as opposed to "married."

"We don't even say we're married anymore. We refer to ourselves as life partners, where you get into that space where you realize you are literally with somebody for the rest of your life," Smith shared on the podcast. "There's no deal breakers. There's nothing she could do -- ever. Nothing that would break our relationship. She has my support till death and it feels so good to get to that space."

Jada echoed this sentiment during a Red Table Talk last January when explaining why she and Will don't celebrate their wedding anniversary.

"It's more of a life partnership, so it’s not steeped in that day,” Jada explained. "We don’t really celebrate that day anymore in the sense because the context of our union is totally different.”

"Usually Will on New Year's likes to be in an adventure in the world somewhere," she continued of why they often spend their anniversary apart. "There's no telling where he’s going to be. And I like to be inside. I don't want to be out in the world. He now has the freedom to go and have an awesome adventure of some kind."

Jada has talked multiple times about her and Will's marriage not living up to a perfect or conventional standard. As far back as her 2009 Redbook interview, she talked about letting go of certain expectations.

"We hardly ever agree on anything, and we've learned to really respect that in our relationship," she said. "You might have an idea in your mind of what a marriage is supposed to be, and you're driving, driving, driving toward this ideal picture. But you have to be open to the fact that your relationship is meant to be something else."

During Will's extremely candid two-part October 2018 appearance on Red Table Talk, he opened up about learning to let go of the perfect image when it came to both his marriage and family. He and Jada emotionally recalled a period in their marriage when they struggled, when both Jada and their kids resented their outside success -- Willow's 2010 hit single, "Whip My Hair," and Jaden having a box office hit with 2010's The Karate Kid -- though Will had pushed for it.

"I had a public perception that I wanted to protect of our relationship, of our family, and what my kids are, and what my wife is, and what we are in the world," Will acknowledged.

"I've been trying to live up to an expectation for Will," Jada added.

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith reveal the truth behind their relationship, from the day they met to the moments of crisis in their 20-plus year marriage.

Posted by Red Table Talk on Monday, October 22, 2018

Still, the two said divorce was never in the cards for them.

"I was reading in the tabloids that we were getting divorced and all that stuff. It was never even a consideration," Will said. "Because I had been divorced before I wasn't getting divorced again. Divorce wasn't an option."

"I put in too much. Period," Jada agreed. "Why do that? Why create all that disruption? I told Will from the gate, I said let me tell you something, 'If you marry me, know this: we're gonna be together. We're going to be under the same roof'... for me personally, I knew that there was no reason that he and I would ever [divorce]."

Will stressed that there were still absolutely no deal breakers in their relationship.

"There's nothing that could happen that we won't be together and love each other," Will said. "It's not because we're just saying it, it's because we've cracked each other's heads wide open and we woke up the next day and high-fived and kept going. I think that's the part where we set each other free."

"What you are is the best friend I've ever had. You're the best partner I've ever had," he also told Jada. "When you go to sleep at night knowing you have an unbreakable bond, an unbreakable friendship, an unbreakable connection -- that's how you want to go to sleep every night."

Meanwhile, Jada echoed, "It's a life partnership, in the sense that we've created a foundation together that we know is for this lifetime. ... It gives us the freedom to create a different context for ourselves to not have to live up to the expectation of what people consider marriage to be."

Part 2 of our Red Table Talk is Out!!

Posted by Will Smith on Monday, October 29, 2018

When ET spoke with Jada in October 2018, she opened up further on the difficult period she and Will had a decade ago. She said that ultimately, it was an issue that she had to fix, not Will.

"I just felt like, I needed more freedom," she told ET. "And freedom in the sense of like ... the public wants you to be a certain way, your family needs you in a certain way, your partner needs you to be something. And for me, that just was never ... I'm really a free spirit at heart, I really am. And I always have been. And I just felt like my life had got constricted into this little box and it was strangling me, basically."

"People very rarely talk about the courage it takes to be happy -- how much bravery it takes to be happy," she continued. "And really, that's what I needed to gain, was the courage and the bravery to do what Jada needed to do, to be happy, you know? And that was to dissolve everything that was and create something completely different."

Jada later explained to ET that Will was able to be so open because he was at a time in his life where he was "healing."

"He's also kind of breaking down some of the constructs that he's built around himself, of who he is and who he's not, and all of those kinds of things," she said. "I actually think this has been kind of him coming to the table. It's been kind of a release for him to not have to live up to this certain thing. ... And I'm proud of him."

In February 2019, Jada again discussed her and Will's evolving journey on Red Table Talk.

"There have been several occasions where you just had enough and you want to leave and I just couldn't. Or Will just couldn't," she shared of the two's struggles. "Because we knew this was what was meant to be -- this partnership. No matter what the form is. We had to redefine it. We don't call ourselves married anymore. We're in a life partnership."

"At the end of the day, to know that you have another person that can love you for all that you are ... Will has loved me through the worst of myself," she added. "And I have done the same. When somebody can love you in that way, it makes your faith in the world come together. ... I am 47 years old and I want you to know, that this is probably the first year of my life that I can say, 'I am happy,' because that’s how long the journey has been."

During a Red Table Talk episode in June 2019, Jada sat down with couples therapist Esther Perel and again discussed her marriage. The women gave their thoughts on infidelity, and Jada explained why she felt cheating actually wasn't the worst thing that could happen in a marriage.

"I’m asked a lot about, 'Is there infidelity in your relationship with Will?' And it’s like, ‘No, but there have been other betrayals of the heart that have been far bigger than I could even think in regards to an infidelity situation,'" she said. "When you talk about contempt, resentment, neglect, it can just tear your world apart."

Jada said that a big strain on her relationship with Will actually came from the expectations that had been drilled into her mind by society and those closest to her.

"[I was told] you have to be a perfect wife, you have to be that source that supports his dream, no matter what it is," she said. “Whatever he wants to build, you're there to support that. Our whole life looked like his dream."

Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith at Aladdin premiere in hollywood
Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

Clearly, Will and Jada are still working on their relationship today. Jada talked about how quarantining together during the coronavirus pandemic has affected them during a Red Table Talk episode in April.

"One of the things I realize is that I don't know Will at all," she said. "It's challenging. You're forced to look at things differently."

"Let me tell you, that's been something: To be married to someone for 20-some odd years and then realize, 'I don't know you and you don't know me,'" she continued. "But also realizing there's an aspect of yourself you don't know either."

Jada said the two were now continuing to build on their friendship.

"The thing that Will and I are learning to do is be friends," she said. "Because you get into all of these ideas about what intimate relationships are supposed to look like, what marriages are supposed to be. So Will and I are in the process of him taking the time to learn to love himself, me taking the time to learn to love myself, right? And us building a friendship along the way."

The nature of Jada and Will's relationship made headlines yet again on Tuesday, when singer August Alsina -- who has previously appeared on Red Table Talk as a close friend of Jada's -- claimed he was romantically linked to her, and that Will gave him his blessing.

ET has reached out to Jada's rep for comment. Her reps did tell Page Six that Alsina's claims are "absolutely not true."

During 27-year-old Alsina's interview with radio personality Angela Yee, he said that he's lost "money, friendships [and] relationships" over rumors about his relationship with Jada.

"People don’t necessarily know the truth, but I never have done anything wrong," he alleged. "I actually sat down with Will and had a conversation. Due to the transformation from their marriage to [a] life partnership that they spoken on several times, and not involving romanticism, he gave me his blessing."

"I totally gave myself to that relationship for years of my life," he continued to claim. "I truly and really, really deeply loved, and have a ton of love for her. I devoted myself to it, I gave my full self to it. So much so to the point that I can die right now and be OK with knowing that I truly gave myself to somebody. I really loved the person that I experienced that [with] and know what [that feels] like -- if some people never get that in this lifetime."

For more on Jada and Will's relationship, watch the video below:


August Alsina on Alleged Relationship With Jada Pinkett Smith

Will Smith Says Divorce From Sheree Zampino Was His 'Ultimate Failure'

Will and Jada Pinkett Smith Get Emotional on Special 'Red Table Talk'