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5 Theories on What Went Wrong

Some people look at the apparent rough patch in Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s marriage and ask, “Why?” Others look at it and ask, “Why not?”

Based on clues planted in Lopez’s documentary The Greatest Love Story Never Told, and a knowledge of celebrity couples, it’s easy to theorize which marital stressors led to this strife. Here are five theories on what went wrong.

1. The problem with ‘a love that stops time’ is that time inevitably marches on.

Back in the early ‘90s, newlyweds Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold used to stare into each other’s eyes while repeating, “I love you, I love you,” over and over on the set of her ABC sitcom. Roseanne and Arnold didn’t make it to the traditional wood anniversary. It’s simply impossible to sustain that level of romantic intensity.

This is not a new observation. “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long,” observed Chinese philosopher Lao Tze around 2500 years ago. Affleck and Lopez have perhaps come to the same conclusion.

In a way they got their Hollywood ending… except the film turned out to be Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. The grand gesture is grand but what happens next? It’s Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross sitting in the back of the bus thinking, “What the fuck did we just do?” as Sad Affleck’s meme song, “The Sounds of Silence” plays.

Katharine Ross and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez.

Katharine Ross and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez.

United Artists/Getty Images

2. ‘Two flowers, no gardener.’

Speaking of Mike Nichols… In Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher told the story of how Nichols used to say that a good relationship required a gardener and a flower—one person who enjoys tending to the other and the other who enjoys the attention. So when Fisher and singer-songwriter Paul Simon’s short-lived marriage fell apart, Nichols told Fisher that the problem was they were “two flowers, no gardener.”

Perhaps Lopez and Affleck are both flowers, too. In the documentary, Lopez comes across as deeply insecure in numerous exchanges.

Lopez: “Do you think I look fat?”

Affleck: “Too skinny.”

Lopez laughs with delight at his response.

In another spot, Lopez worries about walking around the house in sweats with her hair in a bun.

Lopez: “You’re used to seeing me like the little old lady at home.”

Affleck:You’re gorgeous and that’s what I’m used to.”

Meanwhile, Affleck voices his own insecurities. “When I first read the script, it looked like the inciting incident that causes all this pain down the road is our break up,” he says. “And I thought, ‘Wow. Nobody did anything wrong. It was mutual.’ And I think for us to move on from that, we have to kind of forgive it, forgive each other. Do you forgive me?”

Lopez stonewalls him. The camera lingers on her face as she refuses to answer the question.

For a second, I wondered if the renewed relationship was just a revenge plot from a J. Lo movie where she tricks the guy who jilted her decades ago into marrying her now—just so she can break his heart.

Toward the end of the documentary, Affleck poses the same question again.

Affleck: “Do you think you’ve forgiven me all the way?”

Lopez: “Yeah, I think I’ve forgiven you all the way.”

But… has she?

3. A pixel-perfect ‘Instagram relationship.’

They looked so damn good together that it made it seem like they belonged together.

Affleck even mentions Lopez’s love of social media. “It’s a hard thing to look at somebody whose professional life is wildly successful. And who, you know, on Instagram, looks like they’re living the happiest life in the world,” he says. “The thing you discover, like you do with alcohol, is that there isn’t enough alcohol in the world to fill up that thing. And in Jennifer’s case, I don’t think there are enough followers or movies or records or any of that stuff… [part of you still feels] a longing and pain.”

Living in two dimensions on Instagram is easy. Adding a third dimension in reality is hard.

4. Some fantasies should remain fantasies.

In the doc, Lopez explains how she and Affleck were able to renew their relationship twenty years later.

“We’re totally different people now and we’re the same and we have the same love. 100%. Like, I’d never fallen out of love with you,” she tells him.

Aw, that’s so romantic. But does it make any sense? Can you be “totally different people now” and yet “the same?”

Romantic poet John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” makes a solid case for lovers staying just out of reach. In fact, the poem insists that the Bold Lover should be happy that he doesn’t get to kiss the object of his desire. This way, “Forever wilt thou love and she be fair.”

Or, in this case, what happened in the aughts should have remained ancient history.

5. ‘The Greatest Love Story Never Told’ should have stayed that way.

It’s possible that the documentary that was supposed to chronicle their love caused it to crumble. The title of the doc comes from a book that Affleck gave Lopez when they reunited. It contained all their old letters and emails and he titled it: “The Greatest Love Story Never Told.”

The book that Affleck gave Lopez when they reunited.

The book that Affleck gave Lopez when they reunited.

Amazon Studios

Lopez shared the book with the people working on her new album—you know, for inspiration. Affleck discovered this when he went to the studio and saw his gift there.

“I was like ‘You’ve been showing all those musicians all those letters?’” Affleck says, then imitates a musician, “Yeah we’re calling you ‘Pen Affleck.’” Then Affleck covers his face.

Ben Affleck in The Greatest Love Story Never Told.

Ben Affleck in The Greatest Love Story Never Told.

Amazon Studios

Affleck tries to stay game but he’s clearly so uncomfortable with putting his private life on display. And he’s not the only one. Jane Fonda questions the purpose of the documentary in the documentary. “It feels too much like you’re trying to prove something instead of just living it,” the wise Fonda tells Lopez.

Lopez pushes back and later explains, “ I just want people to believe that love exists. If I can use my story to do that, then as an artist that’s what I should do,” she says. “Maybe I’m setting myself up to be fucking [sighs] criticized again. But that’s what my heart’s telling me to do.”

Flaunting their love may have undermined it. Now that’s a love story worthy of O. Henry.

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