When celebrities announce that they are separating or divorcing, as Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin did Tuesday in a post on Paltrow’s lifestyle site, it’s obviously a different matter than when friends or family explain that their marriage has failed. Among other things, we can just observe the spectacle play out on magazine covers and social media, rather having to listen to the aggrieved parties and mediate between people we love. But precisely because our involvement is indirect, and consists more of conjecture than fact, our reactions to these splits actually say a lot about our larger ideas about marriage.
Female celebrities have more resources than most of us going into marriage: They are financially independent, able to spend plenty of money on child-care and all the accoutrement involved in keeping a marriage spicy. Theoretically, married entertainers achieved the holy grail for modern womanhood, the nebulous dream of “having it all,” even if we have yet to define what “it” or “all” actually consists of, or figured out the standards for “having it” actually are. So when celebrity marriages fall apart, the particular variety of our judginess or sympathy provides some insight into what we think “having it all” actually means, and what we believe is the right way to go about getting it.
The “She Thought She Could Buy It All” Divorce: The snark comes out in earnest when a lady celebrity who married in haste announces her separation. Kim Kardashian’s pre-Kanye West marriage to NBA player Kris Humphries, to whom she became engaged seven months after they started dating, and was married to for 72 days before filing for divorce, is a perfect example. Who knows what their year-long relationship was actually like? But the year-long cycle from dating to divorce made it easy to suggest that Kardashian had gone shopping for a husband whose level of fame and professional success matched her own.
Our suspicion of famous women who rush to the altar indicates that we think marriage is work, and that the marriages that count as “it” or “all” are ones we arrive at after due consideration. We end up showing our skepticism of instant romance, of the very Hollywood narratives that suggest you can lock eyes across a crowded room and find true love, even as we discount the particular pressure famous women face to have a commensurately famous and successful spouse. It’s reassuring and self-satisfying to look at a woman like Kardashian and say she makes bad decisions, or that she neglected to put in the work and the patience that a more sensible woman might have invested in her relationship. But that suggests we know some sort of guarantee for making a marriage last, which brings us to our next category.
The “She Really Was Smug About Everything, Wasn’t She” Divorce: The tide of Gwynethfreude that is breaking over the Internet is particularly tsunami-like because, since founding her newsletter Goop in 2008, part of Paltrow’s business has been telling other women how to live glamorous and complete lives. That her marriage broke up casts doubt on the certainty with which she recommended everything from $425 cleanses to Turkish towels. We can let go of both relationship envy and fear of missing out all in one go! But at the end of the news cycle, Gwyneth still wins, or she will once she’s got the server capacity for Goop restored (as of this writing, the announcement had crashed the site). As Slate television critic Willa Paskin put it on Twitter, “gwyneth is getting all the traffic for herself! it’s like selling baby pics directly to the tabloids but w/o selling picture of your baby!” Paltrow used the word of her split to promote an idea called “conscious uncoupling,” transitioning smoothly from married-lady guru to the woman who is headed for a better divorce than the rest of us.
The “If She Can’t Make It Work, No One Can” Divorce: Sometimes, when a celebrity couple breaks up, it actually is an occasion for sincere mourning. Maybe we have fond, unconflicted feelings for the lady in question. But those announcements often cause more twinge than gloating because they challenge what we thought we knew about what makes a good relationship.
Take a couple like comedians Amy Poehler and Will Arnett. Both had good careers, marked by artistic integrity rather than egregious selling out. They had two adorable children. And perhaps most important for the purposes of our imaginings, Poehler and Arnett seemed equally fun — the sort of couple you’d want to have to dinner. It was easy to take them as role models for the balance of their marriage, the pleasure they appeared to take in their sons and their lack of sanctimoniousness. They had a life, rather than a lifestyle. And they ended up divorced. If talented, seemingly pleasant people can see their marriages fail, then maybe none of us know any secrets. And maybe none of us can have it all.