One has to wonder if Angelina Jolie knew that her filing for divorce from Brad Pitt would trigger the soul-searching, self-reflection, and GIF-making that has populated the last 24 hours; given that she has the best publicity game in Hollywood, one would think so. After all, this is a woman who said she would put off formally getting hitched to Pitt until everybody could legally marry, as a show of solidarity with the same-sex-marriage cause. She is one of the world’s biggest celebrities, and so millions of people have a one-sided relationship with her — the movie star, the femme fatale turned patron saint, the U.N. special envoy, the London School of Economics visiting professor. There’s speculation as to whether the divorce is due to Pitt’s reported anger or weed problems, Jolie’s reported desires to enter politics and exit acting, or, as is often the case in life, a combination of these and other factors.
While we can’t know the cause, we can assess the symbolism — to not only understand why we care so much, but, since celebrities are perhaps our primary cultural text these days, to also come to know what the split means for those of us who will never meet the former couple, and, specifically, what it says about one of America’s primary cultural battlegrounds: marriage itself.
To put the grand institution of marriage into context, it’s useful to note that “till death do us part” used to be a lot more immediate. Take, for example, the long premodern sweep between the end of the Black Death and the start of the Industrial Revolution, from 1400 to 1800. In writing about Western family structures of the period, historian Beatrice Gottlieb notes that death was present in life in a way that we can only fathom in the contexts of “war and holocaust.” With that, the fragility of marriage was something everyone was deeply aware of. If you liked the person you married, you’d have to prepare for life without them. Marriage contracts were “provisions for widowhood,” she writes, and if you didn’t like your spouse, you could dream of their dying. “The ambiguities of monogamy are not a recent phenomenon,” she writes. “Law, religion, and literature may proclaim the exclusiveness of the marriage bond and extol the ideal of one man and one woman linked through eternity, but marriage as lived in the real world has always been something else.”
Zooming into the United States, the colonial era saw American marriages lasting under 12 years on average: Between childbirth, communicable disease, and natural disaster, people had a habit of dying way younger. One of the great miracles of the 20th century was the increase in lifespan, shooting up over 25 years, on average, in the U.S. “Prior to the 20th century, the most common endpoint of marriage was death,” notes family psychologist William M. Pinsof in a 2002 paper. “During the 20th century, the most common endpoint of marriage became divorce.” In 1900, two-thirds of American marriages ended with the death of a partner, falling to under one-third by 1976. In 1867, fewer than 10 percent of marriages led to divorce; by 1985 it was 50 percent — a number that has leveled off slightly, especially for first marriages.
Thanks to increases in medicine and decreases in war, you can’t count on death to dissolve a marriage; it comes through divorce. In reviewing the increase in lifespan and the revolution in contraception, liberalizing laws and values around divorce, and the revolution in women’s financial independence, Pinsof says that if those trends hold, the 50 percent rate is going to stick around. “It fits the evolved human level of monogamous marital stability,” he writes.
Though, in the statistical sense, divorce has become the “normal” outcome of marriage, he argues, American culture still takes a “deficit view” of divorce. The dissolution of Brangelina is a “union’s failure” to the The Atlantic, a “failed marriage” to Newsweek and Us Weekly. Trend stories continue to speak of a “divorce epidemic,” one that’s contagious from couple to couple and needs to be “vaccinated” against. While it might seem nitpicky, the metaphors we use do frame our understanding. (When study participants have crime described to them as a beast, their impulse is to build jails; when it’s a “disease,” they want to build schools.) To Pinsof, viewing divorce as a failure exacerbates the trauma of the breakup, doubly for any kids involved. The children of the divorce surge in the ‘80s and ‘90s got it especially bad, he said, since there weren’t any models for good co-parental relationships between exes — the children were traumatized by their parents’ divorces, he argues, and “their own sense of social isolation and shame.” It would be more generous to everybody involved to allow that divorce could be a courageous, positive act. To quote Louis C.K., “No good marriage has ever ended in divorce.” Like Vicki Larson, author of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, argues, it would be absurd to think that sticking it out in a sexless, alcoholic, and abusive relationship until somebody dies is success, while sharing a respectful, loving bond for 5, 10, or 50 years and then realizing that you’ve grown apart is failure.
With longer lives, people and their priorities change. If you can only count to living well until 40, then getting hitched at 25 means that your sense of self doesn’t have that much room to change. But today, says Pinsof, your sense of your “relational future” at 35 or 50 is way different than it was before the 20th century. “The prospect of another forty to fifty years with decent health and possibilities for individual growth in an unhappy relationship is very different than the prospect of another 10 to 15 years under the same conditions,” he writes. You can get a gray divorce, and find yourself a silver fox. There is also the matter of identity, and from examining the gossip columns, this appears to be major factor with the Brangelexit. The psychologist Dan McAdams contends that identity — or personal narratives, self-mythology, and the life story you tell yourself about yourself — is the highest level of personality. Indeed, as Jungian psychology warns, your partner isn’t going to do your self-realization for you; that’s on you. The relationships most likely to succeed, then, are those where the narratives, worldviews, priorities, and projects are in harmony.
From a distance, this is a satisfying explanation for what’s going on with Angelina: She appears to want to be a full-on humanitarian, leaving acting and reportedly pursuing, of all things, a seat in the British House of Lords. It would be awesome if media and society could, as Pinsof asks, view this divorce — and more divorces — as a “courageous and positive act.” Fittingly enough, you can thank celebrities for bringing this kind of language into the popular lexicon: Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled”; now there’s a whole book on the practice (with five full stars on Amazon!).
While we can’t know the full circumstances of Jolie and Pitt’s dynamic, we do know that, in some cases, staying married shows an incapacity to do what’s in the best interest of yourself, your partner, and your kids. And if Jolie and Pitt were to demonstrate effective, compassionate co-parenting of their children, the half of American families that have been long told that they’re “broken” would have another needed model of something fractured, yet whole.