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Minutes before he would be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, Joe Biden posted a very personal Instagram: A short video clip depicting a sweet, private moment between himself and wife Dr. Jill Biden in which she reaches for and rubs his hand. Captured on Tuesday, as the then-president-elect bade an emotional farewell to his home state of Delaware, it encapsulated what the Bidens' marriage is known for: support, affection and acknowledgment. And Joe returned the favor with his post, writing in the caption, "I love you, Jilly, and I couldn't be more grateful to have you with me on the journey ahead."
The couple's path from a widower and college student beginning to date, to first couple of the United States, is an inspiring one. And though Joe, now 78, had to propose to Jill, now 69, five times before she accepted, it's clear the two have a lasting bond.
Read on for more about their love story.
The Early Years
Six weeks after he was elected a senator of Delaware in 1972, Joe Biden got a devastating phone call: His wife and college sweetheart, Neilia, had been killed when a tractor-trailer crashed into the station wagon she was driving with their three children. Daughter Naomi, 1, was also killed, while sons Beau, 4, and Hunter, 3, were badly injured and would be in the hospital for months. (Biden would famously be sworn in at Beau's hospital bedside.)
At 30, he became a single parent to his sons, taking the train home from Washington to Wilmington every night, until meeting Jill (née Jacobs, then a college student at the University of Delaware) three years later. In his 2007 memoir Promises to Keep, Joe wrote of Jill, "She gave me back my life. She made me start to think my family might be whole again."
In an interview with Vogue, Jill recalled their first date, after being set up by Joe's brother: "I was a senior, and I had been dating guys in jeans and clogs and T-shirts. He came to the door and he had a sport coat and loafers, and I thought, 'God, this is never going to work, not in a million years.' He was nine years older than I am! But we really hit it off ... I went upstairs and called my mother at 1:00 a.m. and said, 'Mom, I finally met a gentleman.' "
The couple became serious very quickly, with Jill taking Joe's sons under her wing right away: "When Joe worked late, I would go over to make dinner and keep them company," she wrote in her memoir, Where the Light Enters, as excerpted in TIME. "I would help pick them up from school sometimes, or we'd pass an evening watching TV. We started to build our own relationship separate from their dad."
But despite her love for Joe and his children, she would turn down his marriage proposals five times, she said. Recently split from first husband Bill Stevenson, she was wary of marriage generally (and her former husband would go on to speak out to the media about his side of their relationship); Jill also wanted her own career and feared losing herself to the role of a political spouse.
What's more, she was very aware of the gravity of taking on parenthood to two children who lost their mother at a young age.
"[To each proposal], I said, 'Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.' Because by that time, of course, I had fallen in love with the boys, and I really felt that this marriage had to work. Because they had lost their mom, and I couldn't have them lose another mother," Jill told Vogue. "So I had to be 100 percent sure."
In 1977, the couple married — even taking the boys on their honeymoon — and in 1981 they welcomed daughter Ashley together.
Their Early Marriage
Jill received her Masters of Education degree from West Chester University in 1981, and after taking several years off following the birth of her daughter, returned to teaching English while also pursuing a Master of Arts in English from Villanova University (which she earned in 1987, pictured).
Also in 1987, Joe — who had been serving as a senator for almost two decades — announced his intention to seek the Democratic nomination for the 1988 presidential race. Jill campaigned alongside him, but the bid wasn't successful and he withdrew in September of that year.
Several months later, Joe underwent surgery to repair a brain aneurysm. During recovery, he suffered a pulmonary embolism; several months later, he had a second aneurysm surgically repaired.
Jill said her tendency to be the stoic one (in contrast to Joe's more open, affectionate manner) served her well during this difficult time for their family.
"In 1988, when Joe's first presidential campaign started to look bleak, people were constantly looking for cracks in our team ... I refused to show weakness. I [was] ...always fighting to keep control of myself, especially in times of hardship and adversity," she wrote in her book, according to TIME. "[Our kids] never saw me cry when Joe was lying near death at Walter Reed hospital after his two aneurysms in 1988, or when EMTs carried him down the steps of our house on a stretcher after he had a pulmonary embolism that same year."
Joe (pictured above after being discharged from the hospital) recovered well, and the two moved onto the next phase of their careers and relationship.
An Enduring Love
The Bidens continued to pursue their individual careers (he moved up the ranks in the Senate, while she continued to teach) while raising their family. In 2007, she successfully defended her thesis to earn her doctorate in education from the University of Delaware, and returned home to signs in the driveway that read "Congratulations Dr. Jacobs-Biden" and "Dr. and Senator Biden live here."
When Joe was announced as the vice presidential nominee on Barack Obama's ticket in 2008, he introduced Jill by saying, "My wife, Jill, who you'll meet soon, [is] drop-dead gorgeous. My wife, Jill, she also has a doctorate degree, which is a problem."
Despite his teasing, Joe is incredibly supportive of his wife's career; she will be the first First Lady to remain in her job (as a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College).
While working full-time, Jill also fulfilled her duties as a partner on the campaign trail and eventually, as the Second Lady (above, the couple dance at the 2009 Inaugural Ball). Far from the rigors of the campaign trail taking their toll on their marriage, the couple seemed happier than ever; Joe even had a plaque installed on a tree at the Vice President's residence to commemorate their love.
And when tragedy struck again, they continued to face challenges as a unit. In May 2015, their son Beau died of brain cancer at age 45, just two years after his diagnosis.
"It was totally shattering," Jill said in an interview. "My life changed in an instant. All during his illness, I truly believed that he was going to live, up until the moment that he closed his eyes, and I just never gave up hope."
Together they rallied around their family and faith, and the entire Biden family emerged stronger and more bonded than ever.
"Family comes first. Over everything," son Hunter said of his father's guiding principle, in an interview after Beau's death. "I can't think of anything that has been more pervasive and played a larger part in my life than that simple lesson. He didn't have to teach it by saying it. It was just in his actions."
The New First Couple
As time passed and the Bidens healed from their grief, Joe decided to pursue the presidency once again, in 2020. Jill was along for the ride, battling for her husband — once quite literally, when she fiercely blocked a protestor from approaching him onstage during the early days of race.
He continued to be his wife's biggest booster, publicly praising her on the Democratic National Convention as "the strongest person I know. She has a backbone like a ramrod. She loves fiercely, cares deeply."
In a CBS interview, Joe said of his wife, "I adore her. I'm gonna sound so stupid — I was saying the other day, when she comes down the steps and I look at her, my heart still skips a beat."
The two share devoted messages about each other on social media frequently, but nowhere is their love more evident than in those small, private moments, like the one Joe highlighted on his Instagram just before taking his oath of office — or in the encouraging squeeze she gave him afterwards.
"We have had our hearts wrung and broken. But the only place we are safe from all the dangers of love is hell," Jill wrote in Where the Light Enters. "And one thing in my life has stayed the same: Joe and I have always had each other."