Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen Divorce: Why Celeb Breakups Rattle Us

We realize that if it can happen to them, it can happen to us, too, relationship experts explain.

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Yes, we have relationships with the celebs we follow on TV, news reports, in magazines, and on social media.AP Photo; iStock

After the American football player Tom Brady’s very brief retirement and announcement that he would return as quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, rumors swirled surrounding a possible breakup between Brady and his supermodel wife, Gisele Bündchen.

“Obviously, I have my concerns,” Bündchen told Elle in September 2022. “This is a very violent sport, and I have my children and I would like him to be more present. … I have definitely had those conversations with him over and over again.”

In October, the pair, who were married for 13 years, confirmed the rumors and officially divorced. Each posted a brief statement on Instagram Stories.

Brady posted: "We arrived at this decision amicably and with gratitude for the time we spent together. We are blessed with beautiful and wonderful children who will continue to be the center of our world in every way. We will continue to work together as parents to always ensure they receive the love and attention they deserve."

Bündchen wrote a similar statement: "With much gratitude for our time together, Tom and I have amicably finalized our divorce. My priority has always been and will continue to be our children whom I love with all my heart. We will continue co-parenting to give them the love, care and attention they greatly deserve."

Even if we’ve never met either of the people involved, celebrity breakups like this one can shake us.

You might feel sad for both parties or mad at one person if you relate more to the other. Seeing people break up when you think they “have it all” or are ideal role models can also cause feelings of insecurity about your own relationship.

“If we put [public figures] on a pedestal and then if something ‘bad’ happens to them — like a breakup for a celebrity couple — people often feel disappointed,” says Cortney Warren, PhD, a clinical psychologist and adjunct faculty member in the department of psychiatry at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas School of Medicine, who researches love addiction and breakups.

We Have Relationships With Celebrities We Care About

Part of the reason is that we have relationships with the celebrities we see on television, read about in magazines and in the news, and whom we follow on social media. As we watch (parts of) their lives unfold, we begin to feel like we know them, explains?Lee Phillips, EdD, LCSW, a psychotherapist and certified sex and couples therapist based in New York City and McLean, Virginia.

Researchers have a name for this — it’s called a parasocial relationship.

The concept dates from the 1950s, when researchers Donald Horton and Richard Wohl observed that mass media (radio, television, and movies) gave viewers the illusion of a relationship with a performer. When a performer addressed the audience as if they were speaking to them, the audience felt invested, even though the performer wasn’t aware of them at all.

Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships or emotional connections that people form with a celebrity, public figure, or fictional character. “It’s this idea that as a consumer of information about a public figure (or even a favorite character on TV) you develop a relationship with them in your own mind even though you don’t know them personally,” says Dr. Warren.

The celebrity or public figure isn’t aware of the relationship and doesn’t reciprocate it.

“In general, we can become attached to celebrities we like and project onto the celebrity our view of who we think they are — again, even if this is inaccurate because we don’t actually know them personally,” says Warren.

These one-sided relationships can sometimes be helpful. For example,?research published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2017 found that parasocial relationships might help adolescents form their own identity and think about the types of relationships they might want as adults.

We See Celebrities as Representing Something Bigger

Celebrity couples can represent ideas of perfection, so it can be upsetting when they fall short, too. We see them as a representation, projection, or aspiration of what we want for our lives in some way, says Warren. “So, if the celebrity couple who looks like they have it all breaks up, [we might think,] what hope do we have in our own love life?”

They have professional success and money. If those resources can’t protect them against the struggles that come up in relationships, what does that mean for the rest of us who have fewer resources to cope when conflicts arise? It may make us feel less secure about navigating our own relationship struggles.

In the case of a celebrity couple like Brady and Bündchen, Warren says a fan or viewer who feels close to them may have a personal reaction to news of their divorce. The reaction could be anger, sadness, or even happiness that the myth of perfection is crumbling, she explains.

4 Tips for Making Your Relationship More Solid

If a celebrity breakup or the breakup of a couple close to you has you feeling uneasy, there are ways to fortify your relationship and address issues with your partner.

1. Focus on Communication

The first step to getting your needs met and learning the needs of your partner is to communicate with them. This can apply to how you want to be supported in a particular situation or what you need in the relationship overall.

“A lot of insecurity comes from avoiding talking about big subjects,” says David Helfand, PsyD, a Saint Johnsbury, Vermont–based psychologist who specializes in couples therapy, neurofeedback, and brain mapping. “If you are holding back on discussing a topic with your partner, it will lead to emotional disconnection.”

Warren recommends talking with your partner when news, like that of another’s breakup, triggers insecurities about your own partnership and what those insecurities are. Tell them about your concerns and explain that you want to strengthen your relationship.

2. Set and Respect Boundaries

Healthy boundaries can help keep a relationship balanced. They can empower each partner to say no and avoid possible resentment when one person takes on what they feel is too much, either emotionally, financially, or otherwise in a relationship.

Some things to set boundaries around include:

  • When to check in
  • When to give space
  • How to spend money
  • How to divide responsibilities
  • Sexual activities

3. Make Time to Connect

The day-to-day grind of work and family responsibilities can put us in a routine that leads to disconnection in a relationship. Scheduling time to be with your partner in a fun or relaxing space can help you maintain your connection.

“Make time to be with each other,” says Phillips, who recommends scheduling a date night. “When there is no time to connect, this can lead to more splitting emotionally, and if it's not addressed, it can cause resentment that leads to a split.”

4. Try Couples Therapy

If you’re having issues that feel deeper than what you can work through on your own, think about enlisting the help of a relationship therapist. They can provide a safe space for complicated conversations and give you and your partner tools to improve conflict resolution and communication.

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