Written By Madison Feller
Reprinted from Elle Magazine
Back in November, desperate to fill my brain with anything unrelated to the pandemic or the crumbling of our reproductive rights, I noticed something peculiar. Throughout the month, two very public couples—musicians Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes, and newly-minted reality show stars Batsheva Haart and Ben Weinstein—broke up after years of being together, and both decided to tell their fans in the same way: through a joint breakup statement that each person posted to their Instagram Stories. “We so appreciate your support from the beginning and moving forward,” Cabello and Mendes wrote, while Haart and Weinstein nearly echoed them: “We so appreciate your continuous support as we embark upon this new chapter of our lives, separately.”
Celebrities have long given statements about themselves, but something about these felt different. For one, they were directly from the source to the fans, with no third-party media publication involved. We were also meant to believe they were written by the couple together, a slick strategy presumably meant to ward off any he-said, she-said rumors about the breakup—even though both notes used fairly predictable language, and I rarely meet a couple that wants to sign any sort of note together after separating. But I digress.
The joint note that Cabello and Mendes posted in Nov. 2021.
In order to keep that small part of my brain that still makes room for frivolity alive, I decided to go deep on these notes, speaking to several experts who could help provide a wholly scientific analysis into What Exactly Is Going On Here. If this is the new trend in celeb splits, what’s the strategy behind it? And could a joint note really affect how the public viewed the breakup? Let’s find out:
The first question in this analysis is, of course, why? Why announce your break up at all, and why do so together, when you are in fact, not together? The urge to put out a statement might seem obvious; in our celebrity-obsessed culture, it’s difficult to keep news a secret, and it’s better to control the narrative yourself than let a tabloid do it for you. But according to Michelle Janning, a professor of sociology at Whitman College and the author of Love Letters: Saving Romance in the Digital Age, it goes even deeper than that. “One of the cultural values we attach to romance in our society is that we get to control the presentation of our love story to others,” she says. “For the celebrity stories, the same thing is happening. It’s making sure people see these individuals as adhering to cultural values and norms about romance, about how you treat a partner, about how to be mature and what to disclose in terms of secrets.” And for celebrities, she explains, that perception is key, as it’s often connected to the success or failure of their career. “The celebrity instances are happening in a marketplace where their image as people who abide by romantic values is a lot more scrutinized, and therefore probably a lot more controlled because their livelihoods depend on it.”
In terms of how quickly a couple might announce, Laura Wasser, a family law attorney who’s represented celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Angelina Jolie in their divorces, says to keep in mind that, particularly in California, once you file for divorce, it’s public. “So if you don’t put out a joint statement, or any statement, then the media’s going to do whatever they do and speculate and say this was filed,” she says. Also, often a celebrity’s publicist wants to get ahead of the news. “This comes from them, and they’re usually the ones that craft the statement and everything else,” Wasser says of publicists. “Sometimes they send it to the divorce lawyer for approval.”
The timing can also affect the language used in the notes. Dr. Khatchig Mouradian, PhD, a lecturer at Columbia University, who teaches a course on “Apologies and Non-Apologies,” points out that when these notes come weeks after the split, partners write that they are “still ‘processing’ what happened” and the notes are issued “to set the record straight as reports and rumors circulate.” He says, “Typically, these statements constitute a balancing act between maintaining privacy and not letting fans down.”
GETTY + LEAH ROMERO
So, does it matter where they choose to publish said statement? Elaine Swann, a lifestyle and etiquette expert, says yes, even if only for their own ego. “Their goal, of course, is to get ahead of the story and cement their position in time using social media,” she explains. “So they’ll use the platform where their audience resides. In addition, as we know, on social media, there’s the gratification we get from well-wishers or people giving us virtual high-fives. So if you go to the platform where most of your fanbase lies, you’ll get that reassurance.”
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The word choice
Perhaps the most fascinating element of this whole charade is what exactly you say when you’re trying to express the ending of a relationship, all within a limited character count. The result is often sanitized and predictable, though not necessarily inaccurate.
Are there kids involved? You’ll probably see something about co-parenting, according to Wasser, and more generally, buzzwords like “amicable,” “respect,” or “best friends” are likely to appear.
The note Haart and Weinstein posted in Nov. 2021.
Mouradian says that after examining about 15 joint breakup statements from recent years, he found a number of terms appear again and again. “The breakups, we are told, are a difficult decision that came after ‘much thought,’ ‘careful consideration,’ working on the relationship, counseling, and sometimes, prayer,” he says. “The parting is often with ‘mutual love and respect.’ The couple, we are promised, will remain friends as they embark on ‘different paths.’ The adjective ‘best’ is mentioned often: The couple is doing ‘what’s best,’ they ‘wish the best’ to their ex, and may even be ‘best friends.’ Another word we often encounter is ‘forward’: moving or looking in that direction. The couple typically thanks the fans for their support and requests privacy, often near the end of the statement.”
He explains that some of the statements can almost come off as implicit apologies to fans “for shattering fantasies about ideal relationships, all the while creating a fantasy of neat, amicable endings.” Joint statements, which are also negotiated documents, are by virtue amicable, he says. “When there is fault assigned, it is often to life’s circumstances—COVID-19 being one of the more recent ones.”
But still, if we know exactly what these celebrities are going to say, is their word choice even significant? Janning suggests maybe not. “I think the words matter less than the fact that people are using words that everyone accepts as normal,” she says. “To me, it’s a script. The scripts we have in our lives show people that we broke up in the right way or the wrong way. So every time you violate a script, you’re pushing up against cultural values and therefore lending yourself to being scrutinized negatively in the eyes of others.”
Selecting phrases about having “love” and “respect” for an ex-partner is all about setting a tone, Swann adds, “no matter how rotten the relationship might have been.” “Whatever you say, your words are creating history,” she says. “And there’s nothing that you can do to bring them back once you have said it.”
GETTY + LEAH ROMERO
And as calculated and as flimsy as they might seem, Wasser points out that statements like these can have real affects in the couple’s personal lives, especially when it comes to divorce. “If that’s the statement you’ve put out there, either in a public statement through your publicist or in social media, it’s kind of difficult the next day to come to your divorce attorney’s office and say, ‘I want you to file a pleading that talks about how he drinks too much or she’s a slut,’ or whatever else, because you just put this statement out,” she says.
The joint notes, echoing themes of civility and kindness, can also have more far-flung affects, influencing how the culture at large responds to separations. “I think the trend, and I’m very happy about it, is that people are coming to divorce in a different way, with more love and mutual respect and looking at it as a next chapter for their family instead of looking at it as burning down the house, literally and figuratively,” Wasser says. “We call it the ‘evolution of dissolution.’” Celebrities, to their credit, play a big role in that. “When celebrities do something, the general public follows,” she adds. “Some people will roll their eyes and go, oh here’s another one of these joint statements, but because it sets the narrative, and because I so strongly believe after doing this for 20-plus years that it’s important we change the way people approach divorce, I think it’s all good.”