I felt a little hitch in my stomach the moment I saw a big photo of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner in my Facebook feed yesterday. I knew what it meant: News had officially broken that they’d split up after 10 years of marriage. I had seen rumors of their impending divorce plastered across the gossip mags that haunt the checkout counters of every grocery store, so I knew it might be coming. What was weird about seeing the official announcement was how much I found myself caring. I have enjoyed both actors’ work. I was a huge Alias fan, I will defend 13 Going on 30 until the day I die, and I particularly enjoyed early Affleck — Chasing Amy and the like. And certainly, we all hope for the best for any couple with children (Affleck and Garner have three together). But I try not to make celebrities’ personal lives too much of my business, and I truly believe none of us can ever know what goes on between two other people — even when we know them personally, much less when we don’t. So why the little stab in the heart when I learned that these two beautiful people would be going their separate ways? And why does this feeling come up so often with celebrity breakups, from those of young couples who were only dating, like Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield or Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, to those of long-term stalwarts of coupledom, like Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins or rock royalty Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore? We watch others’ relationships for a reason. Many of us have our own aspirational couples — whether they're real-life friends whose enduring unions we admire and/or celebrities — with whom we identify. We’re looking, I think, for evidence that long-term monogamy works. Even the sophisticated among us, who have read a zillion science-backed books and articles and studies that tell us monogamy isn’t necessarily our species’ first instinct biologically, still often look at our partners and think, Monogamy has its hitches, but damn if I don’t want to stay with this person forever.
That pang of hearing the news comes from being reminded that the impermanence of life is a bitch. We resist change, especially when we like what we’ve got. Affleck and Garner feel just close enough to us to stir up feelings of sadness over the end of their marriage, maybe because they have stirred up feelings in us before — empathy, anger, frustration, joy — as we watched them on screen. They represent a merger of fairy tale and real life for us. But, we also see them remotely enough that we allow ourselves to believe that everything in their world is perfect. (Quite rationally, celebrities tend to present their lives in the best possible light when interviewed by major publications.) We know they are flesh-and-blood humans, yet we give into this myth, despite ourselves. A breakup dashes our fantasy of fairy-tale happiness existing for someone, somewhere, even if it doesn't exist for us. We also like to believe that if we’re rich, beautiful, famous, and thin enough, our lives will be in order, and our problems will disappear. We tell ourselves we haven’t reached peak wealth, beauty, fame, whatever, but people like Affleck and Garner have. So, their problems make us rethink our whole plan for perfection. I believe our brains can actually make a leap from reading about their breakup to wondering why we’re doing so many planks and crunches. We can think, through the convoluted logic of celebrity-obsessed culture, that if we do the things we read about Jennifer Garner doing, we will achieve our own idealized existence. The right smoothie recipe = True Love Forever. That’s a lot easier than having hard talks with our partners or, worse, moving on when it doesn’t work out. The Affleck-Garner union did seem ideal to many (even after Ben Affleck made reference to how hard marriage is at the 2013 Oscars). Their relationship was even held up as the gold standard in Rachel Bertsche’s very fun book from last year, Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me: The Pursuit of Happiness, One Celebrity at a Time. Their appeal as a couple, she says, lies in the dichotomy between their celebrity status and their public image as “normal” and “down-to-earth.” In 2006, The New York Times even used math to predict that they were more likely to stick it out than most celebrity couples (though this math could only stretch to a five-year period, so the newspaper wasn’t wrong). Affleck and Garner had great abs and skin, fame, fortune, normalcy, and math on their side, and they still broke up. We liked it better when Ben was calling Jen his “everything” in his Golden Globes acceptance speech.