Marilyn and Joe. Brad and Jennifer. Brad and Angelina. Elizabeth and Richard. Tom and Gisele. Kim and Kanye. Diana and Charles. Henry VIII and … take your pick.
Our fascination with celebrity breakups has stood the test of time.
This week, the actors Sofia Vergara and Joe Manganiello announced their divorce after seven years of marriage. Ariana Grande and her husband, Dalton Gomez, also appeared to be on the outs. Fans were trawling the stars’ social media posts, looking for any clue about what was going on — on their ring fingers, in their facial expressions and even in the posts the stars liked.
You most likely don’t know them, so why do you care? Because dealing with a breakup is one of the most relatable things a star can do.
“Breakups are such an identifiable thing,” said Alicia Mintz, who hosts the podcast “Trashy Divorces” with her wife, Stacie Boschma. “It’s all about endings. We all have them.”
As traditional definitions of relationships change and marriage rates drop, people of all ages and backgrounds still observe with rapt attention the love lives of celebrities, and even theorize about their relationships. We root for some to stay together, and pray that others ditch the partners we see as a mismatch.
While it’s easy to glamorize aspects of stars’ lives, such as their wardrobes and vacations, experts say it’s in their personal hardships and romantic conflicts that we see our own lives reflected. In other words, stars — they’re just like us.
Or maybe we’re starting to take our cues from the stars.
“Statistically, you’re not one and done,” Ms. Mintz said. “You’re going to have some heartbreak, and maybe seeing some other peoples’ heartbreak will help you feel better about your own.”
The “Trashy Divorces” hosts have released deep-dive episodes on more than 500 celebrity relationships, including relationships that went on for far too long (F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald). They have also recorded episodes about stars worth rooting for (Vanessa Williams). They had high hopes for Ms. Grande and Mr. Gomez, and for Ms. Vergara and Mr. Manganiello, Ms. Mintz said, adding with a laugh that the actors were “the only people who are pretty enough to be together.”
Laura Wasser, one of Hollywood’s top celebrity divorce lawyers, said that whether you were famous or not, divorce was “the great equalizer.”
“Everybody is scared, they’re going through the same kind of heartbreak” and the instability of the unknown, she said, adding, “What makes it more difficult for people that are in the public eye is that it’s so public.”
Ms. Wasser, who has represented Angelina Jolie, Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears and Johnny Depp, among others, said that, despite headlines reporting messy, public-facing splits, celebrity couples had increasingly been settling matters privately with mediators instead of in courtrooms over the past decade. She estimated that about 90 percent of her clients dissolved their marriages that way.
Fans may recognize the behind-the-scenes, choreographed effort, one that attempts to shut the door to speculation and gossip. That approach entered a new era in 2014, when Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced their split using the now famous phrase “consciously uncouple.”
“We have always conducted our relationship privately, and we hope that as we consciously uncouple and co-parent,” they said at the time, “we will be able to continue in the same manner.”
Ms. Wasser remembered a time, some 30 years ago, when tabloid court watchers lurked at courthouses to sift through public documents as soon as they were filed; now an electronic system provides easy access. Ms. Wasser advises all of her clients that the moment they file for divorce, the world will know.
“Some people try their entire cases in the media before they ever enter a courtroom,” she said. By settling privately, “you don’t get the mudslinging that goes into it.”
In that way, celebrities are helping divorce become less taboo and seem more a part of life, Ms. Wasser said.
“If that changes the way our culture approaches divorce, I think that is ultimately a good thing,” she said.
Nelson Hernández, a marriage and family therapist in San Antonio, said stigma around divorce still affected many couples while trying to share the news of a separation with their families. He said there were often feelings of shame and judgment in these situations, and pointed to the example of sometimes-difficult divorce conversations within religious families.
“Even just telling your Catholic mom that you and your husband are getting a divorce is, for some folks, impossible,” he said. “I can’t imagine what that would be like in the spotlight when your family is composed of all these fans.”
Mr. Hernández said that regular couples not in the public eye also tried to control the narrative, just like celebrities.
“Oftentimes people come to therapy to figure out what their narrative is so that others don’t decide it for them,” he said.
But many fans of celebrities feel as if they are a part of the relationship narrative, said Erika Evans-Weaver, a relationship and sex therapist in Philadelphia. In social media feeds, friends are integrated alongside celebrities, further blurring the lines of reality.
“You see your friend’s post and then you see an update from Sofia Vergara and an update from Beyoncé; it all gets integrated into one stream of thought,” she said. “It’s a fictional relationship that you’re in, but it’s still a relationship. Just like you’re rooting for your friends, you’re rooting for these people too.”
Sometimes our relationships to celebrities we don’t know personally can even border on parasocial, said Bobbi Miller, the host of the pop culture podcast “The Afternoon Special,” meaning we’ve imagined we know them deeply or understand them in some way.
“There is a weirdly aspirational part,” Ms. Miller said. Some subconscious part of you might be thinking, “‘Oh, these two hot celebrities are single again; it’s great for me,’” even though, she added, “no one has a chance.”
She added, “It’s the fantasy of it all.”
We have imagined certain celebrities to be “paragons of society who can accomplish anything,” Dr. Evans-Weaver said. When they split, it can feel like a mixture of disappointment, shock and intrigue, and it can make you wonder whether any relationship can succeed. But experts said divorce shouldn’t be viewed as a shortfall or something with stigma attached to it.
“Marriage is a contract,” Dr. Evans-Weaver said. “When the contract becomes null and avoid, that’s not a fail. It’s honoring yourself.”