Why Celebrities Are Getting Divorced: Society Is Changing – Business Insider

This wave of messy, high profile divorces may be a sign of bigger social shifts to come

In July, when Sofía Vergara and Joe Manganiello separated after seven years of marriage, my friend texted me with a link to an article about the breakup. “Love is dead,” she wrote. My friend had recently ended a long-term relationship, and she was bereft over the once happy couple. She wasn’t the only one. My social-media feed filled with similar declarations. Crying-face emojis. “Oh no! Not them, I thought they would make it.”
For the fans, celebrities’ lives function as a funhouse mirror. We see ourselves in them, except with better skin, hotter partners, and more money. Their clothes, baby names, and relationships become our aspirations. Because of the roles they play in culture-defining movies and shows, and the lives they display to us in magazines, celebrities are the stage managers of modern romance. And we project onto them all of our cultural and social anxieties. If Taylor Swift can find a supportive male partner, then maybe there is hope out there for the rest of us. But if Lisa Bonet can’t make her marriage work, can we?
Hugh Jackman, Britney Spears, Kevin Costner, the prime ministers of Canada and Finland, and Reese Witherspoon are among the many, many high-profile couples who announced they would be ending their marriages this year. It’s not just celebrities: Divorce among boomers is skyrocketing, and women of all ages are increasingly noping out of marriage altogether.
2023 was the year of the divorce — the year of the breakup. The year of the undoing of love. Headlines speculate about what is happening. Perhaps relationships are changing. We just survived COVID. Do we want more from life now? Is Venus in retrograde?
The Washington Post editorial board, Brad Wilcox of the right-leaning Institute for Family Studies, and the columnist David Brooks made for a Greek chorus of panic and concern. Ross Douthat joined in, remarking in The New York Times that something was clearly going on, whatever the reason — and that the decline in marriage today was “the simplest possible explanation for declining happiness.” Using Barbie and Ken as an analogy, Douthat lamented: “For women maybe first, and for men too, eventually, less wedlock means more woe.”
But we’ve been here before. A panic over the state of marriage and social order always follows a period of rapid social change. It’s an exhausting cycle, which we repeat ad nauseam. Every historical push for political freedom has led to a push for personal freedom. As a result, there is a rise in divorces. And then, a panic over the decline of social order. And finally, freedom.
Right now, America is in the throes of backlash to historic pushes for equality. And we have the opportunity to rage against this social shift, or to further expand our definitions of freedom — making divorce more accessible and less taboo and, in the process, making us all a little happier.
In 1866, newspapers and social chatter were still dominated by the Civil War, and the violent split of the country. That was, until Peter Strong filed for divorce from his wife Mary Strong. Mary was alleged to have had an affair with her brother-in-law, a widower turned Union war hero, Edward Strong. While being sued for divorce, Mary fled with one of the couple’s daughters. The case tore apart the rarified world of wealth and class in New York City and revealed that behind the veneer of money and respectability lay the same old human errors of the heart, and other organs.
Newspapers reported on the case with lurid fascination. Society was still reeling from another high-profile divorce 10 years earlier: Catherine Walker sued her husband for divorce on the grounds he’d been unfaithful to her with prostitutes in debtors prison. Newspapers published daily court updates of the trial. Other high-profile divorces of that era were covered breathlessly in the pages of The New York Times. By 1887, the New York Herald published a story that argued that marriage was society’s most sacred link and that more than crime, the rise in divorce was a sign of American decline and “barbarism.”
But despite the doomsaying, American society did not end or devolve into barbarism. America was, in fact, undergoing a seismic period of change that would start to make the nation more equitable for everyone. The American Civil War ushered in a push for equal rights under the law. Calls for emancipation and enfranchisement of enslaved people coincided with calls for the emancipation and enfranchisement of all women in society. And while the century ended with women still not receiving the right to vote, the push catalyzed a burgeoning feminist movement that included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Wollstonecraft.
“You can only say the sky is falling for so long before the sky actually has to fall,” the historian April White told Business Insider in an interview. Translation: Panic about change usually indicates a brewing feeling that change should come.
White noted that every highly publicized celebrity divorce prompts a backlash that claims divorce is ruining society. But the conversation seems to always precede more freedoms for women.
Take Blanche Molineux, a New York socialite, whose story White chronicles in her 2022 book, “The Divorce Colony: How Women Revolutionized Marriage and Found Freedom on the American Frontier.” Molineux obtained a divorce from her husband (a man who may or may not have killed her ex-lover) by traveling to North Dakota in 1902 and establishing residency for a quickie divorce. Quickie, in this sense, meant waiting 11 months.
“This moral panic in the 1890s ended up giving us greater access to divorce,” White explained. “And so in this case, after Blanche Molineux’s divorce, the newspapers were full of comments about how the family is crumbling, the nation is crumbling, we have to stop divorce. And then 20 years later, the family hasn’t crumbled, the nation hasn’t crumbled.”
Molineux was perfectly fine, except for the fact that she was trapped in a marriage that made her deeply unhappy and fearful. And when you feel trapped and scared, it doesn’t matter what laws or societal judgment stands in front of you; when you reach breaking point, you will do what you need to make a change — even if that means moving to North Dakota for almost a year. “All of the panic and all of the probation and all of the judgment had exactly the opposite effect these people were trying to accomplish,” White explained.
One hundred and fifteen years after Molineux got her divorce, I was in Wichita for my brother’s wedding, while my 12-year marriage was falling apart. Unable to sleep after the ceremony, with my kids and husband up in the room, I sneaked downstairs to the lobby for free cookies. A news station was playing a late-night documentary about the life of Princess Diana.
I sat down and watched, and immediately began crying. The documentary detailed how Diana had to fight against centuries of tradition to divorce Prince Charles. It was corny, but crying, eating stale cookies, and watching images of Diana in her black revenge dress gave me a way to see myself out of my own marital mess.
For years, I had been quietly grappling with the imbalance in my relationship — his comfort and goals taking priority, and mine being deferred indefinitely. Surely, if Diana could take on the monarchy to get her freedom, I could take on a tight-knit evangelical family. And more important, watching her smiling in that black dress, I could see myself, on the other side of tragedy and finally happy.
That same year, the #MeToo movement, which started in 2006, reached a zenith, provoking a global conversation about gender and emotional labor. Why do husbands add seven hours of domestic work a week to a woman’s life, per a recent study? Why do women do more of the cooking than their male partners, a gap that appeared to grow wider this year? Almost 20% of all marriages involve physical abuse, and emotional abuse is far more pervasive, according to the AAMFT. Married heterosexual women have historically not been happy with their sex lives.
The cultural anxiety was, and remains, palpable. That movement culminated in the historic US midterms of 2018, bringing more female representation to all levels of government. And yet, many women who have talked to a heterosexual man in the past five years have probably heard some version of how since #MeToo, he can’t flirt without being accused of sexual assault. Any spouse (especially one with kids) will remember when the pandemic began and this reality was laid bare: Mothers became our social safety net, taking over childcare and homeschooling often on top of their full-time jobs. Many fathers got really into making sourdough bread.
In sum, it makes sense for us to be in the grips of yet another panic in 2023, as we try to “get back to normal” while taking stock of these cultural shifts. And, as history has shown us, it’s only natural that celebrities would model that new reality first.
Celebrities are often a bellwether of cultural change because they have access to things that the average person does not. They are us, but with the money and the cultural power to test out a version of freedom that’s withheld from the rest of us — or at least, that’s what it feels like from our side of the screen. Whether it’s a singer like Kelly Clarkson or a socialite like Mary Strong, their push for personal change becomes a fantasy for the rest of us. When Glennon Doyle Melton and Abby Wambach model a new kind of co-parenting, what they are demonstrating is not the breakdown of social order but another way to approach it. Kevin Costner, on the other hand, modeled what not to do.
A few months after my tearful evening with cookies and a Diana documentary, I read Gwyneth Paltrow’s essay on her “Conscious Uncoupling” from her then-husband, Chris Martin. It showed me how divorce didn’t have to be combative, that there were other ways to break, and that it didn’t have to end my world, and I could fight for my freedom.
This divorce news cycle is being weaponized in a Republican push to ban no-fault divorces and promote marriage at all costs. Conservative commentators worry that divorce is becoming trendy. There is research that suggests divorce is catching. When one couple gets divorced, it can have a ripple effect throughout their community, with other couples following. But that study shouldn’t incite panic. In fact, it should inspire the opposite reaction.
Forcing women into institutions and relationships that don’t serve them doesn’t lead to longer or healthier relationships. The research shows just the opposite. A 2019 study by the US Census Bureau found that liberal divorce laws had led to better gender equality and stronger marriages. The study said that in countries where divorce laws were more liberal, the actual number of marriages were at least 9% higher. Suicides among women was lower by 8% to 16%. And rates of domestic violence were lower by about 30%. Additionally, in places with liberal divorce laws, women were 7% more likely to have jobs outside the home. And that’s just the beginning: Other research suggests that laws that make divorce easier to access improve the welfare of even couples that choose to stay married.
It’s hard to study the impacts of divorce law on societies, because relationships are subject to the vast array of human faults and desires. But writing in a study of Chile’s divorce laws, Misty Heggeness, an associate research scientist at the University of Kansas Institute for Policy and Social Research, found that implementing pro-homemaker divorce laws increased school enrollment anywhere from 3.4 to 5.5 percentage points. She also found that the faster divorce was available, the less likely the children in the family were to drop out of school. A 2005 study out of Australia found that there was no social, emotional, or academic difference between teens 17-18 who came from divorced households and those who didn’t. To explain this phenomenon, researchers pointed to Australia’s strong social safety net and enforcement of child support.
Basically, despite the pearl-grabbing and hand-wringing over divorce in America, what studies find is that when we are free to choose — to stay or to go — our lives all get just a little bit better. In any case, divorce rates in America are actually at an all-time low because more and more people are opting out of marriage. The marriages that do happen seem to be lasting longer. Turns out, when people are empowered to enter relationships not out of financial benefit and social coercion, they end up stronger.
We are in a time of social recalibration, so it’s no wonder the many, many celebrity breakups this year have become something of a fascination for us. But what if we didn’t try to stuff ourselves back into traditional systems pre-COVID, pre-#MeToo, that rely on women as the social safety net? What if we used this time of breaking to find new ways to imagine our relationships and to support families?
If there is one thing history has taught us, it’s that, as Blanche Molineux once said, women desire “freedom above all else in the world” and are “justified in seeking it.”
Read more about the year of celebrity divorce:
Divorce sucks. For rich and famous celebrities, it’s even worse.
Kevin Costner’s divorce is so messy that it’s worthy of its own TV series
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