Why Celebrity Divorces Can Break Our Hearts Too

When the Internet told me that Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are splitting after nine years of marriage, I audibly gasped.
09/07/2012 08:15 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2012
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28:  Actors Amy Poehler and Will Arnett attend The Comedy Awards 2012 at Hammerstein Ballroom on April 2
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28: Actors Amy Poehler and Will Arnett attend The Comedy Awards 2012 at Hammerstein Ballroom on April 28, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

When the Internet told me that Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are splitting after nine years of marriage, I audibly gasped. Then, as I stared at the red carpet snapshot of them with a Photoshopped rip down the middle, digitally rendering those comedy gems asunder, I wanted to shake my laptop and just make it go away. I could generally care less about who's shacking up with whom in Hollywood and shrugged my shoulders at the feverish coverage of the K-Stew breakup heard 'round the world. After all, stuff happens. People cheat. Love fades. Move on.

But Poehler and Arnett's divorce news elicited -- I'm hesitant to admit -- a genuine emotional response of sadness. Sure, I've never met either of them, and until today I mistakenly thought they had one adorable red-headed baby boy, not two. Yet some bizarre pangs of despondence struck me because -- I'm even more hesitant to admit -- if there were a celeb couple I could pick to regularly invite me over to weekend brunch and share laughs and mimosas with, it would probably be those silly kids.

Poehler is one of my favorite women in comedy, not just for her hilarious characterizations on "Saturday Night Live" or "Parks and Recreation," but also for being an approachable, outspoken public figure on behalf of women and girls. She turned an ambitious feminist (aka Leslie Knope) into one of the most beloved characters on primetime, for one. Along with Amy Miles and Meredith Walker, she also started up Smart Girls at the Party, which encourages younger girls to "change the world by being yourself" and features an interview with Poehler and 7-year-old feminist Ruby. I could go on and toss out more examples (Broad City) and choice quotes (this), but you get the idea: Amy Poehler is awesome.

For whatever reason, her marriage to Will Arnett, who's made me double over laughing I don't know how many times as the Segway-riding Gob Bluth, offered me some unfounded sense of comfort. Maybe it has something to do with being a smart-minded, comically inclined and feminist-thinking single woman that cozied up to the idea that there are attractive, talented dudes out there who are into us sort of gals. Or maybe it had something to do with imagining them just hanging out and cracking jokes and holding hands afterward -- who knows. Like I said, I don't normally get invested in the personal lives of celebrities, aside from an Internet-fueled habit of clicking on just about headline with the words "Lindsey Lohan" and "nightclub" in the title.

A psychologist might tell me that I developed a "parasocial relationship" to Poehler and Arnett -- in other words, a fake friendship in which we eat bagels and lox together during the most magical and punchline-filled brunches imaginable. In the early 2000s, some researchers began digging into the psychological correlates of these A-list attachments and came up with a buzzy name for it: celebrity worship syndrome (CWS). A touch of CWS isn't unhealthy, and in fact a 2003 study linked it to extroversion, so nothing to worry about -- yet. More intensive CWS that serves as a form of coping or obsession may be a sign of neuroticism or poor mental health, but since I've never attempted to track down Amy Poehler and asked to babysit her children or started an "Adopt Me, Amy and Will" tumblr, I think I'm in the clear.

One finding on CWS that helped explain why I negatively reacted to the divorce news of two perfect strangers is that people who indulge in celeb idolizing also tend to imagine the world as just and fair. Perhaps those parasocial relationships are a tool for making sense of our existence in a way. We find some relatable attributes as I've done with Poehler and derive a sort of hope from seeing that someone incredibly successful and at the top of her game can find a loving partner and build a presumably happy home. Some evolutionary biologists have theorized that it's an innate human behavior that drives us to mimic those around us with greater prestige. So when we witness a crack in that glossy celeb veneer, it understandably concerns the adoring public that had looked up to them, erroneously or not. Which gets to the ultimate irony of celebrity worship and these psychological attachments we sometimes form that spurs us to cheer them on, or, in the case of the Poehler-Arnett split, feel sadness or disappointment: we want to be like them, but we don't want them to be like us because it's a reminder of the universal, no-celebrity-exceptions truth that sometimes stuff happens, love fades, and you have to move on.