As news of Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik's split rocks Hollywood, it’s hard to ignore the fact that these last few years have seen a number of iconic and beloved couples perish into singledom. Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux, Chris Pratt and Anna Faris, Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck, and who could forget Liev Schrieber and Naomi Watts? All recent and all devastating. But why?
High profile and even low profile celebrity breakups have been toying with our emotions for years. I mean, who among us isn’t inexplicably still reeling from Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling’s split in 2007? And you’re not fooling anyone if you say you didn’t whimper when your Twitter feed announced that Taylor Swift and Calvin Harris were over. It’s easy to argue that well, maybe you just like a particular celebrity and want to see them happy. But it turns out the reasons are less conscious than that.
According Katherine Schafler, LMHC, PLLC, a therapist in New York City, celebrity breakups tear us to shreds because of our deep wants and needs. “We attach ourselves to famous people because they symbolize our deepest desires for power, attention, access to resources, and the social success of being liked,” she says. “We need to see how awesome their homes are, we like hearing how much money they make, and we definitely want to see how amazing their relationships are.” In other words, celebrities symbolize our “unlimited fantasies,” explains Schafler. So, when something like a breakup throws a cog into our idealization, it throws us off.
When celebrities don’t meet the expectations we hold them to (simply because they’re celebrities), we get upset. “It reminds us of the truth that human beings are limited,” she says. “We’re limited in the amount of control we have over our lives, over how long we live, and over what other people do to us.” So when a seemingly ideal couple like Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt call it quits, we’re essentially slapped in the face with a reminder that reality and the pain that can come with it can happen to anyone ... including us. Celebrity break ups, it seems then, are personal.
The bad news is that as long as there are celebrity couples to be adored, there will be celebrity break ups to be mourned. The good news is that it’s completely normal to be upset by it. “Whether we like it or not, celebrities are part of our worldview and heavily integrated into our culture,” says Schafler. “It’s normal to be upset when our worldviews are dented, damaged, or totaled.”