Why we grieve power couple break-ups, and root for them to get back together, according to therapists

·4 min read
Kim and Kanye final picture
A number of power couples have split recently, including Bill and Melinda Gates (left) and Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West (right). Kevin Mazur/ Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
  • We pin our fantasies and unrealistic expectations onto powerful couples, therapists say.

  • When power couples break up, it can feel like our vision of what's possible in a relationship has shattered. 

  • Therapists say it's important to remember that celebrities have to deal with the same relationship issues as everyone.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Bill and Melinda Gates announced on May 3 that they would be ending their marriage of 27 years - the latest in a series of power couples to split in recent months.

In the past few months alone, there have been several power couples splits, including John Mulaney and Annamarie Tendler; Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez; Addison Rae and Bryce Hall; Kim Kardashian and Kanye West; and Zoë Kravitz and Karl Glusman. 

Also this month, actor Anna Faris elaborated on her 2018 divorce from actor Chris Pratt, once a golden couple in Hollywood. "I think it stunted me in a lot of ways," Faris said, adding that they rarely spoke about hardships with each other because they both "protected that imagery" of being a star couple.

Each split - or reminder of a split, like Faris' - triggers an outpouring on social media, with a timeline of shocked fans speculating about what could have possibly gone wrong.

It's a natural reaction, Suzanne Degges-White, chair and professor of counseling and counselor education at Northern Illinois University, told Insider. Celebrity couples are used in popular culture as models for our own relationships, meaning we put them on a pedestal. 

-Lauren (@lozzaloulilei) May 12, 2021

Similar to movies, power couples are an escape: we project unrealistic expectations and aspirations onto them, as was the case with Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, whose 2005 split is still talked about today. We've seen it again with Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck - or, Bennifer 2.0 - who may have rekindled their romance - to the delight of fans.

"In our minds, we make them more than they can possibly be," Degges-White told Insider. "We all need a fantasy. We all need to believe that magical things can happen."

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But these couples are humans too, and struggle with the same relationship problems as the rest of us, with the added ingredient of global fame.

Amy Nobile, matchmaker and founder of love, amy, says it's important to remember that the key to a successful relationship is always the same - famous or not.

We don't see the day-to-day realities of celebrity power couples

Unlike our personal lives, where a relationship spark fades or you see friends break up, the day-to-day realities of celebrity couples aren't public. That's why a power couple's split can feeling shocking. 

"We didn't slowly lose our fantasy image of them, all of a sudden it's just gone," Degges-White said. 

Degges-White said the Gateses' split feels particularly painful because people admire their charity work. 

"They've done so much philanthropy that we have higher expectations because they're good people," Degges-White said.

Although celebrities seem to have it all, they're still human 

As a society that values long-term monogamy, we want to believe that there are resources to fix marital problems, whether that's therapy or going on special couples vacations.

When wealthy couples like the Gateses split, Degges-White said, it throws that into question: they probably had every resource in the world to make their marriage work, if they can't make a relationship work, who can? 

But Degges-White stressed that they're still humans. 

"Everyone does the best they can, but sometimes no matter what the resource might be available, sometimes we can't make storybook endings happen," Degges-White said. 

A long relationship requires upfront conversations 

Nobile says some of her clients aspire to be in prominent relationships, like Bill and Melinda Gates, but she said not to put power couples on a pedestal because their image does not represent the realistic parts of a relationship. 

"We're seeing it through this sort of fairytale lens and so we get jaded. We get like 'Oh gosh, well, my relationship must be damaged because look at their smiles and look at how happy they are.' And that's not real," Nobile said.  

Nobile also stressed that it's important to be upfront about wounds from your past relationships because it can lead to a stronger bond, and power couples don't publicize these candid conversations. "It's not what is painted in the celebrity culture." 

In Nobile's work of helping people identify what they want in a partner, she finds that couples that have long relationships do the hard work of having upfront conversations about habits, strengths, and weaknesses early in the relationship.

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