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Bananas splits

Celebrity divorces are a dime a dozen, but certain ones seem to hit us hard

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It's easy to view celebrity divorce as just another empty spectacle, an exercise in legal finagling, power grabbing and PR finessing as participants trade in, trade up or race to the lawyer before the prenup bonuses are activated. What can you expect, really, when the poster child for celebrity divorce is Kim Kardashian?

Every once in a while, though, you get a real heartbreaker. Even cynical observers -- and I'd count myself here -- can get blindsided by one of those "If they can't make it, what hope is there for the rest of us?" celebrity divorces.

That's how I felt when I read that Amy Poehler and Will Arnett were ending their nine-year marriage. As a couple, they seemed grounded, grown-up, equally matched and funny -- especially funny. Arnett and Poehler both possess a demonstrated sense of humour, which always comes up on those lists of desirable traits in a mate. There are days, in almost any modern marriage, when a sense of humour is all you get.

What does it say when the gal from Parks and Recreation and the guy from Arrested Development can't stay married? Yikes.

I know people who recovered from their parents' divorces more quickly than they came to terms with some silly celebrity split. In real life, marriage breakdowns are hard to parse. There's usually a long accumulation of everyday irritations, years of back-and-forth guilt and grievances. That's why we have a no-fault divorce system.

With celebrity divorces, the problems are simpler, the lines clearer, the villains easier to identify. Celebrity divorces bear a heavy symbolic weight, allowing us to talk through issues that are too prickly and difficult to unravel in marriages that are close to us.

It's hard to know which famous breakup will grab us. My husband, for example, is still reeling from the Sonic Youth split. Musicians Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore were married for 27 years, which is, like, forever in rock-musician years. And it wasn't one of those clichéd rock star-supermodel unions but an ultra-cool partnership in indie music and life.

Their 2011 divorce was a huge blow to Gen Xers, many of whom had already given up on conventional middle-class marriage on account of their parents' embittered suburban divorces. Now they had to give up on the dream of underground alt-marriage, too.

Sometimes we mourn the passing of a marriage that seems almost too perfect, like a genetically destined fusion of A-lister fame and beauty. Before there was Brangelina, remember, we had Jennifer and Brad, seemingly Hollywood's golden couple. For years after their 2005 divorce, tabloid editors held out the promise that the pair was just one "secret midnight phone call" away from reuniting.

Other celebrity marriages touch us because they seem so adorably unlikely. The odd union of Courteney Cox and David Arquette inspired in many fans the kind of aching, protective love you feel for a homely dog. There was something quirky about pairing a recovering hard drug user and former wrestler with the uptight organizational freak from Friends. Their 2010 decision to separate hit some supporters hard.

Then there's Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Because they had embodied an impossible vision of chaste, selfless, eternal adolescent love in the Twilight franchise, many fans felt that RPatz and KStew, who had set up house in L.A., were obligated to do the same in real life. When Stewart was caught making out with her married Snow White director, fan reactions ranged from dismay to death threats.

Twihards publicly grieved the end of Pattinson and Stewart's love, but maybe they were just mourning the death of their own belief in fated, everlasting teen romance.

The importance we place on celebrity splits is in some ways an extension of our almost superstitious beliefs about how the institution of marriage operates. Among groups of friends, there is often one pair that needs to stay together for the sake of everyone else, their union taking on a kind of larger significance, "Oh, they just can't get divorced," we say. We make it sound like a joke, but there's an undercurrent of steely intent there.

You've probably noticed that if this magical couple ever does split, the marital chaos often spreads. Doubts are sown, blame is apportioned, longstanding assumptions are questioned, other relationships tremble, topple and fall. It's the Domino Theory of marriage.

So Will and Amy have decided to call it a day. For them, it's a private matter and -- with two small children -- certainly a source of much sadness.

For the rest of us, it raises the question, who's next?

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2012 E3

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