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Why the Kim Kardashian and Ye divorce drama is so uncomfortable to watch

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It's been nearly a year since Kim Kardashian filed for divorce from Ye (formerly known as Kanye West), a split she admitted was at least partly precipitated by a recognition that for all the fame and extravagance that defines her life, she was missing the "small experiences" of intimacy and connection. She was lonely.

In the last 11 months, Kardashian has remained fairly quiet about the split, while her ex has been intensely public. He's vacillated between professing his desire to reconcile with Kardashian and disparaging her. Most recently, he accused Kardashian of putting their daughter North on TikTok against his wishes, rapped about beating up Pete Davidson, Kardashian's rumored beau, went on Instagram Live to accuse Kardashian of trying to keep him out of his daughter Chicago's birthday party, and went public with a strange claim that he prevented a second Ray J and Kardashian sex tape from leaking. (Kardashian said the video Ye referenced contained no sexual content. Her rep said in a statement that "After 20 years, she truly wishes to move on from this chapter.")

Kardashian and her estranged husband may have been among the most visible public couples, and the dissolution of their marriage may be playing out in exaggerated ways because of their social status and Ye's mental health issues, but the public's interest in their relationship may reflect more than preoccupation with celebrity culture. Mental health experts say the former pair are a litmus test for behaviors the public views as healthy or unhealthy, and may also be shining a spotlight on behaviors of ex-partners that are troubling at best and dangerous at worst.

"When we look at celebrities, their lifestyle is symbolic for us of something we want or don't want in our own lives. When you look at this situation, Kanye's behavior, be it healthy or unhealthy, is emblematic for many people of what is dysfunctional in their own world or in the world at large," said Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of "Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships and Love Fearlessly."

Kardashian and Ye are mostly unrelatable, but for many people, especially in the social media age, this chapter in their relationship feels familiar.

Kanye West and Kim Kardashian attend The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala on May 6, 2019, in New York.
Kanye West and Kim Kardashian attend The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala on May 6, 2019, in New York.

"Doesn’t matter if you are famous or not because social media is a public space even for people who are just regular folks," said Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist. "Having the grief of a breakup played out in a public forum never feels good. It can also feel uncomfortable and like a boundary violation if a person is using any sort of public platform as a way to bait, antagonize or communicate with someone. And obviously, these dynamics become even more difficult if children and family are involved."

Kanye West's heartbreak is relatable, but experts say his attempts at manipulation can be dangerous

In July 2020, Ye sent a barrage of troubling tweets following a rambling presidential campaign rally in South Carolina (he launched a presidential run in 2020).

Afterward, Kardashian posted on social media asking for empathy for her husband, whom she called "a brilliant but complicated person," and noted that people who don't understand what it is like to love someone with a mental illness "can be judgmental and not understand that the individual (has) to engage in the process of getting help no matter how hard family and friends try."

It's unclear how the rapper's mental health issues factor into his recent behavior, but Manly said there is still something universal about his grief. When most relationships end, it's rare that both people agree it's time to let go.

"Where Kanye might be coming from, of course, is a place of heartbreak, a place of frustration, and also a place of hopelessness. And sometimes when we're feeling hopeless and frustrated, we resort to techniques and tactics that we might not feel the need to resort to when we are at our best place in life," she said.

His celebrity status is also a complicating factor. Manly said when someone receives attention for acting out, it can reinforce bad behavior – the attention can be intoxicating.

"It's frustrating for people who are watching this type of behavior, who may think, 'It's not working for you. Why are you doing it? It's only creating more distance. Why are you behaving in ways that are counterproductive?' But that takes personal insight for him to be able to see that," Manly said. "Suffering does not come with that objectivity that we really need."

Natalie Lue, founder of the self-help blog Baggage Reclaim, said while there are elements of Ye's behavior that are likely relatable to anyone who has behaved badly at the end of a relationship, behavior like his can also be a troubling precursor. Durvasula said some people experience public antagonism as akin to stalking. Everyone can identify with grief, loss, the feeling of being dumped, the agony of seeing the person they love moving on (though Ye ostensibly moved on himself, with girlfriend Julia Fox), but Lue said he is repeatedly trying to insert himself into Kardashian's narrative, to control her narrative, to re-attach himself to her. People's egos tell them they matter, and Lue points out that Ye has been shown to have a large one.

"It's the attitude of, 'You think you can just finish it with me? You think you can just move on and parade your new partner in front of me, and look like you've moved on? I'm going to make sure that you can't move on, because I'm just going to keep reminding people that you've hurt me, and reminding people that I still love you, and I'm the wounded party,'" Lue said. "It can feel very coercive and manipulative to be on the receiving end of that."

Kim Kardashian rarely responds publicly

Kardashian's behavior has been largely restrained. She's said little in the aftermath of her divorce announcement and until recently has rarely responded to her ex publicly. She has also not addressed her rumored relationship with Davidson. She was careful during the filming of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" to divulge little about her marital problems.

But in recent weeks, she's responded twice to Ye's provocations, releasing a statement when Ye said there was another sex tape and again when he referenced North being on social media.

"Kanye's constant attacks on me in interviews and on social media is actually more hurtful than any TikTok North might create," Kardashian said. "Divorce is difficult enough on our children and Kanye's obsession with trying to control and manipulate our situation so negatively and publicly is only causing further pain for all."

Lue said even these brief attempts to correct the record could unwittingly encourage his behavior.

"She has now responded and it's fed into something in his mind where he thinks, 'OK, I don't know when she's next going to respond. I don't know when I'm next going to catch her attention. I just know that she will respond again at some point,'" Lue said.

Manly said Kardashian's choice to try and disengage from the relationship publicly suggests she's coping differently with the end of her marriage.

"Separating from someone hurts. It's one of the most painful life experiences. It involves grieving. If that's not happening right, then all of the unrest can be projected outward," Manly said. "I believe Kim turning inward and keeping her personal life more personal, at least for now, is healthy."

Disengage or confront? Experts say it depends.

Lue said when deciding how to cope with an aggrieved ex-partner, it's helpful to examine whether their behavior is typical or an anomaly.

"If what they're doing is actually really just another variant of quite typical behavior, steer clear," she said. "Obviously, if you can do something legal that puts some distance between the two of you, go ahead. But if this is pretty uncharacteristic, then you have the opportunity to say, 'Look. I know you say you care about me and that you love me, but this is totally contradicting that.'"

Kardashian is either choosing not to engage or being advised not to, which psychologists say is often the most effective tactic. Durvasula said creating distance from an aggrieved partner is important to recalibrate and cope.

But Lue also said it's important for someone on the receiving end of this behavior to speak honestly with trusted friends and family. Otherwise, an ex-partner can poison the waters, claim the narrative and employ estranged family members to aid in their campaign.

Experts agree most people grieving the end of a marriage need support, whether from loved ones or a professional.

"It's difficult, these situations, because when we're very, very hurt, and we go through a breakup, and we feel like we've been discarded, even if we haven't been, maybe the person has been very gentle with us, it can bring out an uncharacteristic side," Lue said. "I always have to put it delicately with these two, because we don't know what we're really getting sucked into. But if we bring it back to most people, I do recommend that anybody who is in this type of situation not dismiss how serious it is becoming, because this can escalate into very obsessive behavior."

There's discomfort in wondering, 'what would I do?'

Shadeen Francis, a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified sex therapist, said while it may surprise the public to see Kardashian's family dysfunction, it underscores how celebrity status says nothing about a person's conflict resolution skills.

"I think people assume that folks with a lot of financial or social power may also feel really empowered to navigate challenges in their relationships. Public celebrity breakups give us lots of examples for the ways that is often not the case," Francis said.

The Ye and Kardashian situation captivates people, Manly said, because it forces them to reflect on their own relationships and behaviors. For many people, watching the divorce play out evokes sadness, fear, even disgust.

"We can put ourselves in his shoes on some level and say, 'Oh my God, I would not want to be that person. I would not want to be acting that way. But I could see that if I were really pushed, there's a tiny part of me that could do that.' That makes us uncomfortable," Manly said. "The other part of us can then jump into the opposing partner's shoes and say, 'Oh, she really seems to be handling this in a dignified way.' Part of us then may wonder, 'If I were in the same situation, could I do that?' There's discomfort in wondering, 'what would I do?"

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kim Kardashian, Kanye West divorce drama over TikTok is hard to watch

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