Why Are So Many Notable Celebrity Couples Breaking Up?

5 minute read
Belinda Luscombe is an editor at large at TIME, where she has covered a wide swath of topics, but specializes in interviews, profiles, and essays. In 2010, she won the Council on Contemporary Families Media Award for her stories on the ways marriage is changing. She is also author of Marriageology: the Art and Science of Staying Together.

The conventional view of marriage holds that its satisfaction levels are U-shaped. There’s a crazy hyped-up romantic part at the start, and then a decline as people come to terms with the fact that life with another person is only sometimes an escalator to the upper reaches of happiness and often more of an Iditarod to a less hostile locale. And then, slowly, satisfaction returns, either because people have made peace with their lot or, even better, because they have negotiated their way to a more perfect union. 

But if 2023’s catalog of prominent marital events suggests anything, it’s that a long marriage is not always a forever marriage. Especially if it’s between two famous and driven people. This year saw some newsworthy clearcutting in what had been considered the old-growth forest of celebrity couples, as unions oft-cited as #couplesgoals crashed to the earth.

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In September, Hugh Jackman and Deborra-lee Furness, one of VIP coupledom’s sturdiest trees, announced that after 27 years, they were separating. Surprising as that was, it was overshadowed in October, when Jada Pinkett Smith revealed in her memoir that she and Will Smith had been separated for seven years, a full quarter of their marriage. Shortly after that Meryl Streep’s PR person let it drop that Streep and her husband, the sculptor Don Gummer, married 45 years, had been living apart for six. And let’s not forget that this was the year Kellyanne and George Conway called it quits after more than two decades—although what shocked most people about that split was how long it took.

Leaving a spouse after a quarter-century seems like madness to some people, like taking the trouble to learn Chinese and then moving to Mexico, or ironing a stack of laundry and then throwing it all in the wash again. To others it’s a sure sign that somebody found somebody else. (Despite the complicated Will-and-Jada “entanglements” scenario, there have been no public accusations that infidelity was a predicating cause of any of these splits. Then again, there rarely is.) 

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Other folks point to more prosaic reasoning. With no children to raise, there’s less of a joint project with which to engage. After 25 years, spouses find it hard to surprise each other, and their stories and habits and chewing noises can wear thin. Some couples have mutually exclusive views of what retirement means. And what with food-delivery apps, Wordle, OnlyFans, long-life light bulbs, fancy home-security systems, Medicare, Uber, and so much content to watch online, the benefits of growing old together, in many people’s judgment, no longer outweigh the drawbacks.

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It’s also possible to see these sundown splits as a sign of hope. They demonstrate an unwillingness to settle for what life offers, a refusal to make the best of whatever career, health situation, or life partner rolled your way. Exiting a marriage after so many years could be a sign to the great cosmic busboy that no, you are not done yet. Change is still possible. You could manage another course. 

This has been another underlying theme of 2023. Madonna, 65, is on tour. Barbra Streisand, 81, and Martha Stewart, 82, are on glossy magazine covers, the latter showing off a rack of the non-culinary kind. Annette Bening, 65, is starring in a biopic about Diana Nyad, who swam 110 miles from Cuba to Miami at 64. The current frontrunners for the next U.S. presidency are 77 and 81. And The Golden Bachelor, about a widower looking for a new spouse in his 70s, was a ratings success. The elders are not going quietly into the good night. They’re raging against the dying of their cultural force—and their romantic dreams. 

Or, at least, the rich ones are. In the same way that the past 20 years have seen an increasing income gap between those who decide to marry and those who don’t, the late-life split and its sequel, the search for senior love, are feats best attempted by high-net-worth individuals. The secret split, which necessitates people operating two discrete but desirable residences, is particularly expensive. For a start it means both partners are wealthy enough to pay the bills without any public tussling over assets. One of the main reasons Kevin Costner’s divorce (after 18 years) came to light is that his wife, Christine Baumgartner, decided to challenge the prenuptial agreement.

The search for new love is an eternally compelling fantasy. But as the golden bachelor, Gerry Turner, discovered, even when you have potential candidates literally being deposited at your doorstep, finding a new mate can also be a nightmare. Turning over a new leaf with someone whose flaws you already know will probably not lead to a dazzling springtime of new experiences, but there’s something to be said for a spectacular autumn. 

So it may be time to send positive thoughts the way of your favorite celebrity couple, especially the more venerable ones. How are Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon doing? Anyone heard from Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance recently? Could someone send Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks a Groupon for a date night? If 2023 is any guide, you can never be too careful. 

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