The breakups of the decade

From Brangelina to Brexit, these splits left a mark
Olivier Bonhomme For The Washington Post

The 2010s gave us plenty of new couples to follow. (Harry and Meghan! George and Amal! Emma Watson and herself!) But the ones who broke up were even more revealing of our times. With Brangelina’s demise, we no longer have a First Couple of Hollywood. Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin were so agreeable about their goodbyes, they made the rest of us look like jerks. YouTubers created viral content out of their breakups. Marriage equality has meant divorce equality, too. And love isn’t the only realm where splits matter — just ask Cavaliers fans, who had to part (twice!) with one of the best basketball players who ever lived.

Here are the biggest breakups of the decade.

(Washington Post photo illustration; Mark J. Terrill/AP) (Washington Post photo illustration; Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s 12-year relationship was a series of high-stakes situations. It started with their scandalous courtship, which began while Pitt was still married to Jennifer Aniston. Then they officially confirmed they were a couple when Jolie announced she was pregnant with Pitt’s baby. Finally, they went through an ugly divorce in 2016 after two years of marriage, with reports of a custody battle over their six kids.

Brangelina was our culture’s last A-list movie star couple. Sure, some superstar celebrity relationships are still out there. (Looking at you, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Kim and Kanye.) But it’s tough to find a pair of actors where each person is on the same plane of superstardom and intrigue as Jolie and Pitt.

Not only is it a loss for the celebrity gossip ecosystem, it’s a perfect showcase for how fame has changed since Pitt and Jolie first got together in 2005, because of social media and the fracturing of the entertainment industry. For the most part, dramatic A-list breakups have been replaced by drama from reality-TV show couples and influencers who cater to their specific fan bases. Although Pitt and Jolie would probably prefer you remember them for their acting and humanitarian work, there’s no denying that their relationship marked the end of a Hollywood era.

— Emily Yahr

(Washington Post photo illustration; Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Entertainment Industry Foundation) (Washington Post photo illustration; Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Entertainment Industry Foundation)

Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow

“Conscious uncoupling.” You probably think Gwyneth Paltrow coined that term, which she famously used in 2014 when announcing her separation from Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. It was actually Katherine Woodward Thomas, a psychotherapist and relationship expert, who created it to describe a harmonious split where each person takes responsibility for how they’ve contributed to the breakdown of a relationship. While the un-couple faced backlash for using the term, it forever changed the way we talk about divorce, casting it in a more positive light.

Paltrow and Martin have remained friendly as co-parents. After she married TV producer Brad Falchuk in 2018, the newlyweds went on what Paltrow called “a very modern honeymoon,” which included Martin, their kids and Falchuk’s children. Harper’s Bazaar has deemed Paltrow and Martin’s breakup “one of the most civilized splits in Hollywood” — and it’s perhaps one of the most civilized of the decade as well.

— Lisa Bonos

(Washington Post photo illustration; iStock) (Washington Post photo illustration; iStock)

Britain and the European Union

Oh, this pair! On and on, with the back and forth. The endless late-night talks. How many trips in a sulk on the Eurostar train between London and Brussels last year?

Britain and Europe? Their issues go way back — from the Norman Conquest in the 11th century to World War II to Britain’s refusal to ditch the pound for the euro. But hey, it was great when it was great. The Age of Enlightenment? Awesome.

For the past three years, the E.U. and Britain have been breaking up (or trying to). We were never really that into you, you and your euro zone, Britain says. Meanwhile, the E.U. says, we were frictionless trade. We made the BMW, we made the Mini Cooper. Together! On the factory floor, in Oxford and the Netherlands. Angela Merkel is all like, mein liebchen, don’t go, we can make fiscal policy.

But Britain didn’t want open migration, “the freedom of movement.” Wanted to pull back. Take $50 billion and leave us the Scottish cod fisheries, Britain says. The E.U. counters: You’ll miss the common market. Britain says, you’ll miss the intelligence-sharing.

Then Britain was having a change of heart, big time, saying maybe we should stay together? Jeremy Corbyn was trying to make up, while Boris Johnson maintained: Walk away, babe. It’s over.

— William Booth

(Washington Post photo illustration; Mark Mainz/Getty Images) (Washington Post photo illustration; Mark Mainz/Getty Images)

Melissa Etheridge and Tammy Lynn Michaels

Before marriage equality became the law of the land in 2015, Melissa Etheridge and Tammy Lynn Michaels became one of the nation’s most famous same-sex couples. “I’d never been so clearly and purely in love before — ever in my life,” Etheridge, the singer and songwriter, told the Advocate in 2003 with her wife Michaels sitting beside her. They’d committed to each other in typical Hollywood-style fashion earlier that year in a Malibu ceremony attended by A-list celebs.

Seven years later, the poster children for same-sex unions found theirs on the rocks. They clashed over child support and alimony, and added an ugly battle over custody of their two kids that had Michaels accusing Etheridge of having “no maternal instinct,” while Etheridge claimed that Michaels had burned one of their children with a cigarette.

Michaels and Etheridge’s story is all too common, with about half of marriages ending in divorce. As one prominent LGBTQ leader told the Daily Beast, “it just illustrates that our relationships are pretty much the same as straight relationships. A lot of them make it and a lot of them don’t.”

— Steven Petrow and Caroline Petrow-Cohen

(Washington Post photo illustration; Evan Agostini/Invision/AP) (Washington Post photo illustration; Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Sofia Vergara and Nick Loeb

Actress Sofia Vergara and businessman Nick Loeb have spent more time fighting than they spent as a couple. They dated for two years, got engaged in 2012 and broke up in 2014. In the five years since, they’ve been in a public fight over the remains of their relationship: embryos they created when they were engaged. At the time, they reportedly signed a contract stating that no action could be taken on the embryos without both of them agreeing.

And they have not agreed. Loeb wants a surrogate to carry the embryos to term, which he says he’ll parent full time; Vergara wants them to remain frozen.

Loeb has written a New York Times op-ed, pleading his case. He’s filed lawsuits to gain custody of the embryos; the most recent attempt was dismissed in October. Meanwhile, Vergara has spoken out on Howard Stern’s radio show and on “Good Morning America.” And she’s moved on: Vergara married actor Joe Manganiello in 2015.

Americans are well-acquainted with battles over custody of children. Vergara and Loeb are the first high-profile example of a nasty fight over embryos. In a country that’s bitterly divided over when life begins, while also grateful for the possibilities that fertility technology can provide, there’s nothing more modern than a breakup dispute over custody of the unborn.

— Lisa Bonos

(Washington Post photo illustration; Nick Laham/Getty Images) (Washington Post photo illustration; Nick Laham/Getty Images)

LeBron James and Cleveland

Practice makes perfect, even when it comes to breaking fans’ hearts. When LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010, he nervously declared on a live television special dubbed “The Decision” that he was going to “take my talents to South Beach” and join the Miami Heat. Fury followed, as jilted fans burned his jersey and the Cavaliers’ owner levied accusations of treason.

Two titles later, James wanted to reconcile. His 2014 homecoming set the stage for total forgiveness in 2016, when James led the Cavaliers to a title that snapped the city of Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought.

By 2018, James was ready for another chapter — Hollywood — and he had learned from his missteps. His interest in the Los Angeles Lakers leaked months in advance, and he confirmed his signing with an anti-climactic news release. As a parting gift, James helped finance the I Promise Academy, a public elementary school in Akron, Ohio. Turns out, a little forewarning, a dash of tact and a giant pile of money is a winning formula for a clean break. A championship parade doesn’t hurt, either.

— Ben Golliver

(Washington Post photo illustration; Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Dick Clark Productions) (Washington Post photo illustration; Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Dick Clark Productions)

Liza Koshy and David Dobrik

Being famous these days doesn’t mean that everybody knows your name. Liza Koshy and David Dobrik are famous — at least on YouTube, where their channels have tens of millions of subscribers, each. In YouTube land, the Dobrik-Koshy breakup was huge. They’d been together for two years and announced the split in a 2018 video that is at times serious and joking, and has more than 59 million views.

“Liza broke up with me six months ago,” Dobrik says.

“Oh that sucks, why’d she do that,” Koshy quips.

The gist was: We’re young, we need to work on ourselves, and we’re still best friends.

Dobrik and Koshy’s video is two things at the same time. One is a look into the end of a relationship between two people in their early 20s who still are learning how to be themselves. Their eyes are red from crying; their jokes punctuate moments of relatable realness. But the video is also the creation of two online celebrities who are extremely good at making content for the Internet. Dobrik and Koshy’s fans are deeply invested in their personal lives, so the exes know they need to craft an explanation for a change in their relationship that will go viral — and leave neither of them the villain.

— Abby Ohlheiser

(Washington Post photo illustration; Katherine Frey/The Washington Post) ((Washington Post photo illustration; Katherine Frey/The Washington Post))

Josh Harris and Christianity

Josh Harris was once the role model for conservative Christians who wanted to remain chaste until marriage. In 1997, he became an icon among evangelical teens after publishing “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” which urged Christians to “court” one another rather than “date” and sold more than 1 million copies. He had waited to kiss his wife until they were at the wedding altar, he wrote, because of how “sinful and meaningless physical intimacy can be apart from the commitment and purity of marriage.” The book became a guidebook for a purity movement.

In July, after two decades of marriage and 17 years as a pastor, Harris told his Instagram followers that he was splitting from his wife and declared he was no longer a Christian. He also apologized for his former teachings against the LGBT community. The announcements signaled a decline of the “purity culture” where he was once a rock star. When a celebrity pastor leaves the evangelical fold, it rattles the rest of the flock.

— Sarah Pulliam Bailey

(Washington Post photo illustration; Brian Ach/Getty Images for Omega) ((Washington Post photo illustration; Brian Ach/Getty Images for Omega))

Daniel Craig and James Bond

Is anything more annoying than that constantly fighting couple who repeatedly breaks up only to passionately reunite like a romantic version of Sisyphus? Well, someone should tell Daniel Craig and the Bond franchise, whose tumultuous relationship produced some terrifically dramatic moments but has grown tired as of late. The pair got together for 2006’s “Casino Royale,” a film that reinvented the beloved franchise as a darker, more intense property. Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins joined the relationship to make 2012’s masterpiece “Skyfall.” By the next movie, though, Craig had had enough. When asked by Time Out London in 2015 if he’d consider reprising the role, Craig said, “I’d rather break this glass and slash my wrists.”

However, the following year, at the New Yorker Festival, Craig claimed those comments were born from exhaustion. “There is no other job like it … and if I were to stop doing it, just saying, I would miss it terribly,” he said. Craig has confirmed that 2020’s “No Time to Die,” the franchise’s 25th film, will be his last — but we’re not holding our breath.

— Travis Andrews

(Washington Post photo illustration; Matthew Peyton/Getty Images)

Jay-Z and Kanye West

“What’s up with you and Jay, man? Are y’all okay, man?” Kanye West rapped in 2005. Good question. West and Jay-Z’s friendship hasn’t seemed stable since the star helped produce Jay-Z’s breakout “The Blueprint” in 2001. It was petty squabbling at first: Kanye wanted to rap, but Jay-Z didn’t think he was street enough. Then the former blew up and turned a cold shoulder to his mentor. By 2007, they seemed to make nice, Kanye even sweetly rapping in tribute to their friendship. “If you admire somebody you should go on ‘head tell ’em / People never get the flowers while they can still smell ’em.” Four years later, they rapped as equals on the album “Watch the Throne.” So all’s well, right?

Not even a little. As Kanye’s public behavior grew more erratic — including a long rant at a 2016 California concert in which he insulted Jay-Z, just before he was hospitalized for “exhaustion” — the two grew increasingly distant. Kanye even pulled his music from Jay-Z’s streaming service, Tidal. Still, “We’re beyond friends. My little brother is Kanye,” Jay-Z insisted in a 2018 interview with David Letterman. Even after Kanye began donning a red MAGA hat and championing President Trump, the elder hip-hop statesman rapped “don’t Michael and Prince me and Ye,” a reference to the supposed rivalry between the music titans. Perhaps the two are simply on a break. Let’s hope they patch things up soon.

— Travis Andrews

Read more:

Decisions that shaped the decade

How to break up

Think divorce is miserable? Try getting one while serving in Congress

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