The Brangelina break-up is like the big earthquake that seismologists missed. Angelina Jolie serving Brad Pitt with divorce papers just two years into their marriage has sent shock waves through the entertainment and parenting press, inspiring panicked headlines like, “If Brad Pitt And Angelina Jolie Can’t Make It, Who Can?” But should we be so surprised?
The unfortunate truth is that if fans of the A-list couple had consulted family and marriage experts, this real-life plot twist might have looked fairly likely, if not predictable. In other words, it was more a matter of when than if.
Like all divorces, the Jolie-Pitt split is not a happy occasion. It’s that much sadder because the break involves the couple’s six children, ages eight to 15, whose lives are about to change markedly.
Life will continue for the rest of us, save some damage to any illusions that life is a fairytale for the rich and glamorous. However, if we want to understand what may have soured—beyond rumors of an affair and allegations of child abuse— there are several structural risk factors worth considering, especially since they aren’t unique to Brangelina.
For starters, Britain’s Marriage Foundation recently conducted a study of 488 A-list celebrities. They found “that celebrities divorce at roughly twice the rate of the rest of us. . . . In the early years of their marriages, divorce among celebs is a lot more than twice as commonplace. During the first three years—as with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie—some 7 percent of celebs had divorced compared to 2 percent for [the rest of] us.”
Jolie and Pitt also match at least three of the individual risk factors for divorce that University of Denver research professor Scott Stanley, Ph.D., lists on his blog, SlidingvsDeciding. These include: being a child of divorce (as in Jolie’s case), both stars having had “a prior marriage that ended” (this will be Brad’s second divorce, and Jolie’s third), and “[p]rior to marrying, having sex with or cohabiting with someone other than your mate,” which looks applicable to the couple as well. They also match two other divorce risk factors for couples, including “having a child together before marriage,” and cohabiting “before either being married or at least engaged.”
The cohabitation piece is key for other Americans interested in protecting their relationships, especially given how common it has become. In June, the Barna Group released a report showing that 72 percent of Millennials “believe cohabitation is a good idea.” For 84 percent of respondents who favor cohabitation, the primary purpose was testing compatibility before marriage.
However, when Stanley and his team at the University of Denver drilled down into couples’ reasons for cohabiting, they found the outcomes can be negative for both men and women, including greater levels of anxiety and lower levels of confidence in the relationship’s durability.
In a recent Family Studies post, Stanley explained why cohabitation can be a devastating choice for couples:
Because many people cohabit before even having mutual clarity about commitment, such as through engagement or marriage, some people end up staying in relationships, including on into marriage, that they otherwise would have left behind.
Is that the case with Jolie and Pitt? Only they know, along with the real reason(s) for this split.
One thing seems clear, though: the Jolie-Pitt children deserve empathy and privacy right now. In her 2005 book, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, Elizabeth Marquardt presented an in-depth study, comparing children raised in both divorced and married homes. Marquardt found that:
- Nearly two-thirds of the divorced sample of adults reported that “it was stressful in my family” growing up, compared to 25 percent of the adults from the intact family sample.
- Only about one-third of those from the divorced sample strongly agreed with the statement, “children were at the center of my family,” compared to 63.4 percent of the intact sample.
The negative impact of divorce is not relegated to children from lower socio-economic strata, either. Economic privilege can be helpful in many ways, but it can’t completely shield wealthy children from the emotional toll of divorce, as IFS Senior Fellow W. Bradford Wilcox has pointed out. That’s the sort of thing that will need to be worked out privately, with the love and support of both parents.
Divorce is inherently difficult. And a divorce involving two beautiful people doesn’t mean it will be any less ugly, especially when there are children (and celebrity magazines) involved. While no one else’s relationship success is dependent on Brangelina’s, perhaps watching this very public dissolution can serve as a reminder to all parents to always work on our marriages—for our sake and our children’s.