Like many public statements on the disintegration of a high-profile split these days, this one appeared on Instagram. “After many meaningful and difficult conversations,” a joint post said, Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, had separated from his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. The couple, who have three children and have been married for 18 years, were once seen to have had a fairy tale romance. But while the story was soon dominating headlines, millions also gave a digital shrug.
Once upon a time, for most world leaders, major political capital lay in the careful crafting of at least the outward appearance of a stable marriage and persona as a family man or woman. According to Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist and a host of the “Dear Therapists” podcast, people wanted to feel that their leaders were a solid and steady presence, much as children want to feel safe with their parents, the leaders of their family.
“Because our first leaders were our parents or adult caregivers, we tend to equate stability with family stability,” she said in an email, “which is why politicians tend to make their ‘perfect’ families part of the campaign, trotting them out in public. They’re saying, ‘I have created a solid, stable family, and I can do that for my country.’”
Orna Guralnik, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, said that generally, social and political leaders have been supposed to hold onto the ego ideal, a Freudian concept for the idea of perfection that a person strives to emulate.
“Historically they have been imbued with everything that we want to idealize,” Dr. Guralnik said in a telephone interview. “But in recent years, the ideological background of what we wish to project has changed rapidly.”
Justin Trudeau is the first Canadian prime minister to go through a separation in office since that of his own parents. In one of the first instances globally, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his wife, Margaret, went through a divorce during his final months in office in 1984, having initially separated in 1977.
In the United States, Ronald Reagan may have been the first divorced president in history (none have divorced while in office), but it was Bill Clinton who really pressed the reset button and created a spectrum of acceptability on what a presidential marriage in 21st-century America could look like.
And elsewhere, world leaders including Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Vladimir Putin in Russia have divorced while in office.
Others have divorced and remarried while on the job, indicating perhaps that while divorce may have become more acceptable, marriage remains a cornerstone of political brand building.
Nicolas Sarkozy of France divorced his second wife in 2007, five months after the start of his term as president, then married the supermodel Carla Bruni four months later. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain finalized his divorce from Marina Wheeler in 2020. His marriage to his next wife, Carrie Symonds, in May 2021, made him the first prime minister of Britain to marry in office since Lord Liverpool in 1822.
The role of mayor of New York is not that of a world leader. But the way in which former Mayor (and 2020 presidential candidate) Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, announced their separation last month — in a long and frank interview with The New York Times — underscored the ways their problems can sound just like our own.
Who would want to be married to a politician anyway?
Several former world leaders — and their spouses — have been candid about the toll of such a role on their relationships. In May, a month after losing a tight election, Sanna Marin, the prime minister of Finland, announced that she and her husband, Markus Raikkonen, had filed for divorce. Jacinda Ardern, who stepped down as prime minister of New Zealand last year, said she did so because “the role had taken a lot out of me” and she “finally” wanted to marry her longtime partner, Clarke Gayford, after years of delays.
In a 2019 interview with The Daily Beast, Justin Trudeau’s mother, Margaret, said her marriage to Pierre Trudeau broke down while he was in office because he worked 14 hours a day.
“We had one hour together every day,” she said. “I was alone all the time. As first lady I was mostly either pregnant or nursing. My life was not as anyone imagined it was. We weren’t in the same place.”
Mr. de Blasio said, “I can look back now and say, ‘Here were these inflection points where we should have been saying something to each other.’”
“And I think one of the things I should have said more is: ‘Are you happy? What will make you happy? What’s missing in your life?’”
Just like us
As notions of family structures expand, and if political leaders’ lives reflect our own, does that endear or alienate them from a population? Ms. Gottlieb suggested that political separations reinforce the idea that money or privilege can’t buy happiness, much like the way people see separations of celebrities or royalty.
“Sometimes people might feel empathy for a couple, but what I see most is a feeling of relief for themselves,” she said.
“They think: Wow, even world leaders who have everything — power, money, fame, mansions paid for by our taxes — struggle with parenting, arguing, sex lives, disconnection and personality differences just like many ‘regular’ people do.”
Dr. Guralnik said that while people are more realistic about what they expect from modern marriage, a breakdown in expectations for public figures in their personal lives chimed, amid culture wars and a climate crisis, with a wider sense of being let down by those in power.
“The fact that leaders separate or divorce doesn’t create shock waves as it once did because idealization around them has shattered,” she said. “From the couch I hear so much about a loss of faith and even deep despair in modern governance and leadership. A marriage split leaves people resigned to thinking: There’s just another human being that can’t help us.”