Why is the Internet so obsessed with celebrity breakups?

Love is dead.

Many of us have taken these words to heart, thanks to this year’s #SummerOfBreakups, and the recent streak of famous couples parting ways appears to be continuing into the fall. The latest alleged victim is Julia Roberts, whose Malibu home was recently swarmed by moving trucks amidst rumors that Roberts and her cameraman husband, Danny Moder, are headed for divorce.

If the Internet rumors about Roberts’s marriage turn out to be true, she’ll be following the footsteps of several other big-named couples including Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck, Kourtney Kardashian and Scott Disick, Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale, and even Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog (notably, the only muppets on this list). That’s not to mention a number of other semi-famous couples, all of whom called it quits between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

It’s undeniable that this was a cruel summer where love was concerned—or at least, where celebrity love was concerned. The trend got its own hashtag, and even the New York Times acknowledged it. On the Internet, every new celebrity breakup this summer opened up a new conversation about modern romance and how it all relates to our own love lives. But why do we care so much? The reason has less to do with celebrities themselves and more to do with what these breakups reflect about our own ideas of relationships.

While the pressure-filled holiday season and the gloominess of January have historically led most researchers to characterize pre-Thanksgiving through post-New Year’s as the peak breakup period, the New York Times’ Alex Williams talked to several sources who came up with various reasons why celebrities might want to break up over the summer. As one publicist told Williams, some celebrities may want to avoid negative attention until people go on summer vacations. According to a psychologist, it’s about neutralizing any negative press well before the stress of awards season. 

When things didn’t work out for one of my favorite celebrity couples, I took it personally.

Setting the reasons for summer breakups aside, the latest round of splits seems to have taken an emotional toll on the public. “When our models of romance—the people who give us hope that genuinely happy relationships can survive in a modern world—crumble, how are we, their adoring fans, to cope?” ask the Daily Beast’s Emily Shire.

Everyone reacts to celebrity relationship news differently, according to experts. “There are different domains in which we care about stuff,” said Art Markman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, in an interview with Salon. “You might not care about Ben Affleck, but you took pleasure or pain hearing about Tiger Woods being chased through his yard with a seven iron or whatever.” 

When celebrities go through the ups and downs of life, fans can’t help but get invested. “These people are successful, and from the point of view of evolutionary psychology, the general population tries to copy the people (who) are most successful in an attempt to be successful themselves,” said James Houran, a psychologist commenting on celebrity breakups in the Chicago Tribune. “When something happens to a celebrity, it can either depress or motivate us.”

That sense of aspiration that celebrity couples generate—the “Look at them, they’ve really got it figured out”—is palpable nonetheless.

For millennials, this investment seems to stem directly from everything they’ve been taught about marriage and relationships growing up. Although the “50 percent of all marriages end in divorce” statistic has been proven to be a myth, what is true is that the time period which inspired that statistic—the 1970s through the early 1980s—was the same time period where many millennials’ parents would’ve been coupling and uncoupling. It explains why, for many young people, divorce seemed to be the norm. 

Indeed, a Pew Research Center report from a few years ago indicated that only 62 percent of millennials had parents who were married while they were growing up, down from the 71 percent Gen Xers, and the 85 percent of Baby Boomers who grew up with married parents. This lack of exposure to traditional married life has helped fuel the argument that many millennials will never get married and that they may even be aiding in the destruction of the institution of marriage itself. 

But just because millennials don’t have traditional views on marriage doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in it entirely. It’s true that millennials are getting married later than Americans from previous generations and are often choosing to have children and live together first. Even though millennials are changing what relationships look like, another Pew study found that 61 percent of unmarried millennials would still like to walk down the aisle at some point. 

 The Atlantic’s Gillian B. White agrees: “When it comes to their views on marriage and families, millennials don’t quite fit into the same mold as their predecessors, but when it comes to their desire to have stable, long-lasting relationships and families, the generation might prove more traditional than they seem.” 

Whenever we focus on #RelationshipGoals in relation to celebrities, we forget that celebrities are just people.

When millennials feel involved in celebrity relationships then, it’s because we need someone to model a healthy relationship for us. That might seem like a ridiculous thing to do, considering the high rate of divorce in Tinseltown. But if anything, growing up with divorce—at home and in the media—has made the younger generation more determined to get it right.

This doesn’t necessarily mean our fascination with celebrity relationships is healthy. Whenever we use celebrities as the standard for our #RelationshipGoals, we ignore the fact that famous people are just people. In doing so, we forget that we already have similar relationships to celebrities: We fight, we breakup. Sometimes we get back together, sometimes we don’t. Celebrity relationships are subject to the same challenges we all face in relationships. Those are merely amplified by living in the public eye. 

So maybe love isn’t dead after all. Maybe this summer of breakups, this year of breakups, and this decade of breakups is simply more evidence that relationships are hard, no matter who you are.

Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on Mic, Salon, xoJane, the Week, and more. When he’s not writing, he enjoys making movies with friends. He lives in Los Angeles.

Photo via Alexandre Normand/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.