Written by Deborah Linton
From Gisele Bündchen and Tom Brady’s recent split to the Adam Levine cheating scandal, we can’t seem to take our eyes off the romantic misfortunes of others
Of all the celebrity shots that have surfaced on my social feeds this past week, there is one that has cropped up time and time again. In it, supermodel Gisele Bündchen, dressed in a white vest, blue cut-off track pants and no wedding ring, is standing with an Ayurvedic physician who is spiritually cleansing her car with sage, while divorce rumours swirl around her.
“I live for the extraness of Gisele – publically sage him away, henny,” one Twitter user wrote about the image. “She’s leaving prayer hand emojis under inspirational quotes posted by former monks on Instagram (‘You can’t be in a committed relationship with someone who is inconsistent with you,’ amen, sister),” wrote a publication in an Instagram post with over 800 comments.
Right now, millions are hooked on the romantic turmoil of Bündchen and her American footballer husband Tom Brady, after news they had both hired divorce attorneys broke earlier this month. Every time she smiles or even just steps out the house, the internet examines the photo evidence for clues. When Brady ranted at a teammate and lost a game last weekend, columnists put it down to his marriage woes.
Did Brady really briefly drop the word ‘family’ from ‘family and football’ in his Twitter bio as one screenshot suggested? Did his decision to backtrack on retirement actually sound the romantic death knell for these A-list sweethearts and their eco-aspirational shared life? The questions this split is summoning are endless.
Elsewhere, social media is still speculating on the future of Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine and his wife, Behati Prinsloo, after Levine’s flirty DMs to other women leaked and left everyone cringing, flinging the pair into a public cheating scandal that has rumbled on for weeks and shows no sign of abating.
And so, our insatiable appetite for news about other people’s break-ups is fed, and the cycle that seeks to make us hungrier still for romance trauma stories rolls on.
It’s ugly behaviour but it’s not exactly new. Why, then, do we feed the beast? The answer lies in the way our minds work, according to social psychologist Dr Ruth Sims of the University of Derby. “People engage in ‘social comparison’, so we compare ourselves with people that we know or read about to see how we ‘measure up’. If others are having problems in their love lives it can make us feel better about the issues in our own – or make us feel happier and smug if all is good for us in that area. There can also be an element of wanting to know what ‘works’ – or not – in relationships and see if that might be something we could try – or avoid – ourselves.”
Celebrity stories hold headlines but the phenomenon – that something about other people’s romantic woes has the ability to fascinate us – is not unique to stories in the public eye.
While those we are closest to receive our strength and support when their heart breaks, an odd fixation with those further away has forever fascinated us. It can be just as easily extended to school gossip about who dumped who, a university house share buzz about a course mate’s cheating boyfriend or a workplace break-up scandal. In all these scenarios, at least one person is hurting, but more people are talking about it, seeking out and re-sharing information, often without knowing them well enough to check-in.
Sims explains: “Gossip gives us a sense of power – the idea that ‘I know something you might not’ – and people can find it emotionally rewarding to share, even at the expense of its subject. With close friends we’re likely to know more details so less likely to gossip. Instead, we might be called on to offer comfort. We’re also more emotionally invested in their happiness so less likely to be comparing ourselves.
“With acquaintances (those we know but are not close to), we tap back into that social comparison: how does your life compare to mine? Does gossiping about your love life issues make me feel better about my own?”
Psychologists believe that we are drawn to trauma storylines because they ‘simplify’ and’ electrify’ life. If you’ve felt jealousy, satisfaction or insecurity alongside the friendlier feelings of empathy and relatability when you read about Olivia Rodrigo’s on-again-off-again relationship with Disney co-star Joshua Bassett or saw pictures of Olivia Wilde being served court papers from her ex on stage, you’re not alone.
No matter how we preach and strive for emotional intelligence and awareness, reaching for the most empathetic versions of ourselves and urging one another to ‘be kind’, someone else’s break-up still has the pull of an emotional car crash, drawing and holding our attention even when we know we should be better than that.
“Many humans are inherently nosey – that ‘need to know’ about what other people are up to,” says Sims. “When it’s people we don’t know and are never likely to meet, it also feels ‘safe’ to say and think anything and feel it won’t impact on the people concerned or ourselves, really.”
When the drama is high, we’re more interested, which isn’t too surprising. Drama can busy our minds, heighten our emotions and make us feel involved. It’s the reason why we binge documentaries and podcasts about normal people who have been swindled by lovers or why millions stream The Kardashians for storylines like Khloe’s, who opened season two sat on a sofa, dressed in bubblegum pink, inhaling deeply as she prepared to explain the pain of finding out her ex was expecting a child with someone else the same week they became pregnant with their son. That she had guarded her heartbreak for months, processing it herself before letting a world of strangers own it, was refreshingly healthy and something we have grown unaccustomed to. Kardashian admitted she was scared to go online after the episode aired. No wonder when tens of thousands of people had something to say, from the hurtful ‘you’re weak’ to the far more overwhelmingly positive responses praising her strength or sharing that ‘I cried… just know most of us have been there, even if in some lesser way.’
Sims explains: “For some people these stories can strike a chord. They feel, ‘I have experienced something similar,’ and there might be discussion around support mechanisms. For others, though, it’s the opposite and they’re thinking, ‘Well, thank goodness that’s not me; my life looks pretty good in comparison.’”
So, it seems that projecting our feelings onto the lives of others can serve as an easy fix for our own insecurities. From a social psychology and evolutionary perspective, knowing how stable other relationships are was important when communities relied on one another to survive. That need for social groups to feel stable and unchaotic still exists, says Sims.
There is also a social tendency to care for others. “Seeing people have successful relationships can make us feel good on their behalf – if we like them, we want them to be happy,” she says. Having constant access to one another’s life exacerbates that. But, if it doesn’t come from a place of caring, does the time and emotion we invest – the listicles documenting the year’s biggest celebrity break-ups in the same way that websites look back on 2022’s best moments, biggest news stories or favourite trends – make sense? Or is it just an unattractive side of the human psyche that will forever remain hungry?
“Our brains are still mammalian brains,” says Sims. “We can apply social norms and cultural differences and consider our unconscious biases and really try to do all those good things, but ultimately we still have those same evolutionary interests in what other people are up to, how it impacts us and how we compare.”
Relationships evolve. Perhaps, then, it’s time that our attitude to other people’s love lives did the same.
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