Opinion: The relationship lesson we can learn from Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck

Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

There are many excruciating moments in “The Greatest Love Story Never Told,” the documentary about the making of “This Is Me… Now,” the 2024 musical film about Jennifer Lopez’s latest album by the same name about her reunion with her longtime love and fourth husband, Ben Affleck. What follows is one of the worst.

After expressing anxiety over other actors’ reluctance to star in the movie, Lopez brings up her spouse. “I don’t think he’s very comfortable with me doing all of this,” she explains to her manager, Benny Medina. “But he loves me, he knows I’m an artist, and he’s going to support me in any way he can…. He can’t stop me.”

Cut to Affleck, who after offering some empathetic remarks, muses: “Things that are private, I’ve always felt, are sacred and special… because, in part, they’re private… So this was something of an adjustment for me.” It’s the Chekhov’s gun of soundbites.

Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez attend the 75th Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater on March 23, 2003 in Hollywood, California. - Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez attend the 75th Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater on March 23, 2003 in Hollywood, California. - Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The couple’s first romance collapsed in 2003 under the weight of media attention, just days before their wedding. Now, with an albumfilm and documentary themed around their second act, Lopez has invited that scrutiny back again, despite her beloved’s obvious reluctance. In the context of the last few weeks of breakup rumors, it looks like a catastrophic misjudgment.

It’s little wonder so many of us are invested in Bennifer, whose relationship status is currently the focus of intense speculation. The first time they got together, they represented the epitome of early 2000s glamor. Every public sighting channeled ostentatious devotion, from Affleck’s appearance in Lopez’s 2002 “Jenny From The Block” music video to the $2.5 million dollar pink diamond in her engagement ring. They even pioneered the cloying portmanteau nickname.

Their 2003 split felt like the death of a very particular kind of Hollywood love, one that had appeared so lavish and choreographed it could never have been grounded in reality.

The couple’s 2021 reunion provoked a different response. Fresh out of lockdown, the world was hungry for uplifting, inconsequential news. Bennifer’s reappearance came with an added nostalgia hit, and photos of the pair celebrating Lopez’s 52nd birthday on a yacht looked like a tongue-in-cheek nod to their noughties heyday.

The pictures also served as a reminder of the press attention that’d suffocated the relationship the first time around. In the intervening years, Affleck had become the poster boy for disaffected middle age, and Lopez had endured several more high-profile breakups. When they eloped to Las Vegas in a paparazzi-free midnight ceremony in 2022, the world nodded its approval. The couple deserved happiness, and everyone, it seemed, had learned a thing or two about privacy. Everyone, apparently, besides Lopez.

Smash cut to 2024. “The Greatest Love Story Never Told” is swiftly becoming The Greatest Love Story Never Off Duty. The “This Is Me… Now” album, the sister record to 2002’s “This Is Me… Then,” is a whistlestop tour of Bennifer’s romance, featuring tracks like “Dear Ben, Pt. II,” and “Midnight Trip to Vegas.” If we’re in any doubt over the transformative effect of Affleck’s affections, the accompanying film offers a visual aid, in the shape of a massive steampunk “heart factory.”

It’s fine, it’s all fine. I mean the film’s puerile, but it’s fine. Until we discover its genesis.

In “The Greatest Love Story Never Told” (the documentary about the making of the film, keep up), Lopez reveals that the inspiration for her new music was a scrapbook Affleck gave her containing all their love letters. She presented it to her production team on day one, like a gift from the content gods. “We just left it there in the studio, and people would thumb through it,” she explains. Affleck, it transpires, was unaware.

“I was like, ‘You’ve been showing all the musicians all those letters that, uh…. I was like, Oh my God,” he shudders, clearly mortified.

Lopez spends much of the documentary musing on the consequences her movie might have for her career, but very little on its potential consequences for her relationship. Her attitude towards making it is decidedly unromantic. At one point, her longtime producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas tries to explain to her that the dancer Derek Hough won’t be available to film, because he’s in a wedding. “I want you to call him,” she replies.

In another interview, Affleck, a self-described alcoholic who has been open both about his struggles and his sobriety, compares Lopez’s need for affirmation to his compulsion to drink. “In Jennifer’s case, I don’t think there’s enough followers, or-or movies or records… to still that part of you that still feels a longing and a pain. Ultimately that’s the work that you got to do on your own,” he says.

It’s the most insightful moment in the documentary, and one many people could probably learn from. But the more you watch, the less it feels like Lopez has. It’s as though Icarus had survived that first disastrous trip near the sun, but having crashed to earth simply dusted himself off, glued his wings back on, and flew right back up again. Her movie trumpets the adage that you must learn to love yourself, but there’s less input about caring for a love forged with someone else.

Neither Lopez nor Affleck has addressed the current breakup rumors so far. When a reporter asked Lopez whether they were divorcing at the premiere of her Netflix movie Atlas last week, her co-star Simu Liu interrupted with the gallant reprimand, “We’re not doing that.” Affleck and Lopez have reportedly been living separately, but according to Hello! both have been seen wearing their wedding rings.

I want things to work out for Bennifer. We’re already in so deep, and watching everything potentially crumble again feels like paying off a mortgage, then setting the house alight. But if there were ever proof that ambition is no substitute for contentment, it’s this.

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