What’s behind our fascination with celebrity relationship timelines?

Written by Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is Stylist’s Entertainment Editor whose specialist interests include pop culture, LGBTQ+ identity and lore.

A curious relic of 00s pop culture, celebrity relationship timelines are as popular as they ever were. But why do we continue to comb over high profile romances, and what does it say about us? Stylist’s entertainment editor Christobel Hastings investigates.

It happened recently when I heard the joyous news that Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, aka Bennifer, were back together 19 years after they called off their engagement. Back in the 00s, the couple were catnip for the cameras: beautiful, successful, passionately in love. When Affleck popped the question to Lopez in late 2002 with an engagement ring that reportedly cost $2.5 million (£2.1m), the singer called it “the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen”. But in 2003, the couple with the catchy portmanteau had postponed their wedding, and by 2004, the pair had split up, breaking a million hearts all over the world.

How do I know these details? Well, like many other people around the world who become invested in celebrity relationships, I have avidly consumed every detail of Bennifer’s romance over the years, from the pair’s red carpet appearances for 2003’s (widely panned) romcom Gigli through to every triumphant yacht photo from their 2021 summer reunion. And aside from smiling moonily at every loved-up photo on J.Lo’s Instagram feed, I must confess that my encyclopaedic knowledge of their history comes from one place in particular: the celebrity relationship timeline.

Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in 2003

As ubiquitous as handkerchief tops, low-rise jeans and Aaliyah’s Try Again, celebrity relationship timelines were simply everywhere in the 00s. A transformative era in pop culture, these were the years when gossip magazines and the paparazzi industry were at the height of their power, splashing celebrity relationship “drama” on their covers every week. It was on these pages that we could track all the latest developments in our favourite high-profile couples’ relationships; their first dates, budding romances, painful break-ups and, inevitably, the messy fallout after they went their separate ways. It was here that I saw the biggest power couples of the 00s – Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, Kirsten Dunst and Jake Gyllenhaal among them – go through their ups and downs, and where I sourced all the need-to-know gossip.

But it was also the dawn of a new digital era, and with the rise of gossip websites and salacious message boards, celebrity relationship timelines became ever more prominent. Here, I could keep up with celebrity news that traditional tabloids couldn’t possibly cover in real-time: couples’ workouts, fancy brunch dates, furtive clinches behind the Hollywood Hills shrubbery. 

Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck at the Gigli premiere in 2003

I’d almost forgotten about my love for a celebrity relationship timeline until Bennifer 2.0 emerged to a rapturous reception on my social media feeds. These days, I have watched approvingly as many problematic aspects of 00s pop culture have been re-examined: the vilification of women’s bodies in mainstream magazines, obsessive media intrusion into the personal lives of celebrities, the endless slut-shaming, racial fetishisation and misogyny directed towards famous young women. But upon the news that the couple had reunited, the internet was once again teeming with comprehensive timelines of their relationship history, and in the middle of it all, I was happily scrolling carousels of Bennifer’s coupledom.

The revisitation of this particular brand of gossip made me wonder exactly why we have such an insatiable investment in tracking how the personal relationships of those in the limelight have changed over the years. While an interest in the lives of the rich and famous is nothing new, there’s something especially curious about our enduring desire to relive significant moments in celebrity relationships – the good, the bad and the ugly – and I wanted to find out what exactly drives our fascination to go back in time.

Looking at throwback photos of Jennifer Lopez in her pink Juicy Couture tracksuit, I couldn’t help but wonder if a major factor in our fascination is nostalgia. It’s been proven that in times of uncertainty, we gravitate towards the familiar for a sense of comfort and stability. During the pandemic, for instance, we turned to re-runs of our favourite TV shows and films, transporting us back to simpler, happier times. Rewatching our favourite on-screen stories guarantees feel-good energy, and it’s not just a phenomenon to be found in media. Nostalgia is big business in the fashion industry, and recently, the Y2K renaissance has seen a plethora of trends come to prominence once again – just look to the prevalence of tiny handbags and rimless sunglasses on the streets for proof of that. Could the same be true of our compulsion to reflect upon an A-lister’s relationship?

Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival

“With Jen and Ben it’s all about the nostalgia as we went through the highs and lows of their first romance,” says pop culture expert Nick Ede. “Now that they’re back together, we feel like we have been here before – older, wiser and in better places, which makes them ultra relatable. We then want to see the wedding and feel like we are guests there as we have invested time and energy in them and their love lives.”

According to Ede, this nostalgia isn’t purely about enjoying the happy moments of our favourite celebrities but the way that looking back upon certain relationships enables us to tap into our own lives. “We use these timelines as ways of relating back to our own love lives and relationship history,” he says. Crucially, relationship timelines allow us to invest in a future vision of romantic bliss. “We want to relate to the highs and lows of our favourite celebrities and have our own dreams of fairytale endings with our partners or potential dates,” he says. 

While we enjoy looking back upon defining romances from yesteryear, there’s something equally powerful in reliving poignant heartbreaks, too. “Watching celebrities go through heartbreak makes them more relatable and also allows fans to become more engaged with their favourite stars,” Ede continues. The advent of the digital age has made this detective work even easier. “Now with social media and podcasts, we can do our own investigating to see if relationships work out and if there are other people in the picture too.” 

While mapping celebrity relationships can help us connect with our own romantic histories, psychologist Dr Becky Spelman suggests that they can also provide solace when things aren’t smooth sailing. “Particularly if we’re single or in a relationship that we feel may be lacking, we can experience a dopamine hit to read about relationships with a happy ever after, such as the recent marriage of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez,” she explains. “It gives us hope for our own lives.”

Jake Gyllenhaal and Kirsten Dunst in 2003

In other words, tracking the evolution of a ‘successful’ celebrity relationship – at least from what we can glean from paparazzi pictures – is a shining bright spot in a gloomy climate. With our lives increasingly burdened by stress and fatigue, it makes sense that we latch on to any morsel of good news we can. And if it’s a story where a couple with global appeal are madly in love, so much the better. 

The repeated mention of Bennifer also makes me wonder if there’s something in the way their love story has played out – beautiful, wealthy movie stars who had been parted for 19 years, only for their love to be miraculously reborn after both going through marriage, kids, divorce – that gives their story added weight. Flicking through photos of them over the years, there’s a sense that everything has come full circle, just like it was all supposed to. A redemption arc, if you will, which provides both great gossip and hope for those who have grown weary in the quest for love.

Although there’s been an enormous cultural shift in both the nature of celebrity gossip and the way we consume it these days, I do wonder if we should think twice before diving into a celebrity relationship timeline. What does it mean when we’re projecting our own longings onto them?

“It starts to become a problem if we become obsessed with keeping up to date with celebrity relationships and neglect the people in our own life,” notes Spelman. “It’s always worth reminding ourselves in this instance that what we read in the press is probably only partially the truth and is more likely to be a perception driven by the showbiz media.” In other words, a perception that everything is sunshine and roses. Because just like the curated highlight reels on our social media feeds, a celebrity dating timeline is a mere facsimile of real life.

But as much as it’s important that we take off the rose-coloured glasses when reflecting on popular celebrity romances, I don’t think relationship timelines will disappear any time soon. Quite simply, we love knowing what other people are up to, and we love combing over stories of the recent past. Perhaps we all want to believe that we can find some crucial detail in a high-profile love story that was once missed in the hue and cry. Or perhaps we’re all just searching for ways to make meaning of our own lives.

Images: Getty

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