THEM AND US

03.18.16 5:00 AM ET

Death Is More Escapable Than Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner

The fascination with Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner’s marriage breakup goes beyond gossip and gawking. They’ve become modern family role models.

Whatever else Jennifer Garner wanted to talk about with Jimmy Fallon on Wednesday night’s Tonight Show, she wasn’t going to talk about the state of her marriage to Ben Affleck—and Fallon wasn’t going to ask about it.  

Instead, viewers were treated to a hysterically told story about a tight-fitting Oscars dress. The anecdote, which Garner presented as just the everyday tale of a Hollywood star’s bodily pain and sartorial dysfunction, took up acres of time that could have potentially, dangerously, strayed to more personal topics.

Those topics Garner herself has sensationally bought to the fore already as she does the interview rounds for her new movie, Miracles From Heaven.

And, as she does so, the question hovering in the interviews she does—sometimes spoken and addressed, and sometimes, as on the Tonight Show, not—is about her and Affleck.

America has something beyond a passing interest invested in this celebrity marriage. Is it just because, despite their riches and fame, the couple seems outwardly normal? Are Affleck and Garner bearing the brunt of America’s own anxieties around marital breakdown, and empathy for those affected?

The couple divorced nine months ago amidst rumors of an affair between Affleck and the nanny of their three children, yet in a much-talked-about Vanity Fair interview, Garner praised her ex-husband as “the love of my life... the most brilliant person in any room, the most charismatic, the most generous.”

She clarified that the nanny, 28-year-old Christine Ouzounian, “had nothing to do with our decision to divorce.” (They’d been separated “for months” before she heard about Affleck’s tryst).

Sure, the dissolution of their family was heartbreaking, but “no one needs to hate [Ben] for me. I don’t hate him. Certainly we don’t have to beat the guy up. Don’t worry—my eyes were wide open during the marriage. I’m taking good care of myself.”

To the Today show’s Savannah Guthrie this week, Garner said that people had been “so, so kind” to her family, which was appreciated, “but you know what, we are doing really well, the kids are great… and we will be making it work.”

Going through the breakdown of marriage in public was “just another facet” of going through something difficult, she said. People had been “so warm and loving” that what had happened had not been as bad “as you might imagine.”

Before she was married to Affleck, TV viewers had already fallen hard for Garner as Sydney Bristow, the cunning CIA operative in the popular spy drama Alias.

She won a Golden Globe and an Emmy nod for her performance in the popular TV series, but those accolades have seemingly paled next to the adulation she received since opening up about her split from Affleck in Vanity Fair.

During their marriage, America had been deeply invested in Garner and Affleck’s picture-perfect celebrity family. We marveled at this seemingly down-to-earth, un-Hollywood couple and their beautiful spawn.

We cheered them for surmounting the bumps in the road; wept when the camera panned to an emotional Garner at the Oscars, after Affleck thanked her for “working on [their] marriage for 10 Christmases” while accepting the Best Picture award for Argo. “It’s work,” he added, “but it’s the best work there is, and there’s no one else I’d rather work with.”

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When the wheels came off last June, we (or at the least the media acting as our perverse emotional conduit) were devastated, just as we were when Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale called it quits.

We were pretty broken up about Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin consciously uncoupling, too, even as we mocked them for it.

The root of our obsession with celebrity divorces has nothing to do with them and everything to do with us. We project our anxieties about monogamy and marriage and nuclear families onto them—despite not knowing these people or anything about their relationships.

No matter what Garner tells us, or how much she pours her heart out in an interview, we have no idea what really happened in her marriage. (She said as much to Vanity Fair: “He’s still the only person who really knows the truth about things. And I’m still the only person that knows some of his truths.”)

Although Affleck has told us precious little about what happened to his and Garner’s marriage, those few words have also been leapt on.

In an interview with The New York Times to promote his new film, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, he said: “Jen’s great. She’s a great person. We’re on great terms. I just saw her this morning, so that’s the reality that I live in… She felt like she wanted to discuss it and get it out there and get it over with, so she could say, ‘Look, I already talked about it—I don’t want to do it again.’”

“It’s fine,” Affleck told the Times. “She’s allowed to talk about it.”

We’re shocked and scandalized when infidelity breaks up celebrity marriages (we can’t help ourselves from living vicariously through them), and we point fingers and assign blame for the dissolution of a marriage, despite the fact that we know nothing about the reality of that marriage.

Yet if there is hope in this weird looking-glass world of celebrity, it is that—much as the gossip-loving public craves the sensational—it seems it also has an even greater appetite for celebrity divorces that resemble a “new normal” among divorced American families, wherein parents put on a united front for the kids’ sake in ways they wouldn’t have 10 years ago.

That may encompass vacationing together or sharing a home, or sharing—as Garner intimated on Today—school-run duties. Affleck told the Times another family holiday was planned in Europe when he films Justice League.

The media and public may know nothing substantive about Affleck and Garner’s marriage or its breakdown, but in their conduct and brief words of recent weeks, other couples may be learning from them something pretty useful about how to continue functioning, as healthily as possible when kids are involved, after a relationship breaks down.