The year of the split: How heartbreak went viral in 2010

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High-profile couples head for the divorce courts every year. But 2010 was different, argues Liz Hoggard, because thanks to social media, nothing was private

I'm worried about Arun. Should he move back to India? Will he still get access to little Damian? How are his parents coping? They never really liked Liz, after all. It must be so humiliating. I think I'll send him a sympathetic Tweet.

Of course, I've never met actually Arun Nayar – the soon-to-be-ex-husband of Liz Hurley. But I feel I know him intimately. Hurley shared every stage of their courtship with us. And now – courtesy of Twitter – I can pinpoint the moment when she tired of her husband and fell into the arms of cockatoo-haired cricketer, Shane Warne.

2010 has been The Year of the Split, when celebrity relationships fell like ninepins. Goodbye Charlize Theron and Stuart Townsend, Charlotte Church and Gavin Henson, Anna Friel and David Thewlis, Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Reynolds, Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, Christina Aguilera and Jason Bratman, Rachel Weisz and Darren Aronofsky ...

But what has been so extraordinary about the past 12 months is the access we were granted. Thanks to social networking sites, lawyers' statements, gossip blogs and the long lenses of the paparazzi, we were in at the kill.

Will there ever be such a thing as the private lives of stars again – after David Arquette used American radio to candidly discuss his separation from wife Courteney Cox? As for Hurley announcing her split on Twitter, she was merely taking everyone's favourite 140-character medium to its logical conclusion.

As the American website Jezebel observes: "Given the levity with which marriage is treated in certain Tinseltown circles, perhaps it's inevitable that Twitter should have become a vehicle for announcing divorces. * the past few months, Kelsey Grammer, Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy and Eva Longoria have all replaced the time-tested PR statement with a tweet. Maybe they feel like their fans deserve to hear it from them."

"You can use Twitter in lots of ways," says British family law barrister Charlotte Friedman: "It can be an act of proclamation about your fantastic life – or an act of veiled aggression."

Even we civilians (to borrow Liz Hurley's term) are learning about the relationship status of our friends and families differently, via Facebook and Twitter. You can green light your divorce simply by changing your status to: "Relationship: Not in One." Even when we die, we could end up as a memorialised profile – a virtual headstone – forever on Facebook.

Hardly surprising celebrities have embraced the blogosphere (extreme narcissism being part of the day job). But they may be wise, in one sense at least: the semiotics of the post-split are crucial as a way of rescuing or consolidating the personal brand.

Every star is bankrolling a small industry of agents and publicists and stylists. Not to mention those employed via merchandising, fashion labels, hotels and restaurants. And anything that threatens the money is bad news.

When Sandra Bullock announced her separation from Jesse James in March, the man she had thanked from the Oscar podium, it looked catastrophic for America's sweetheart. It turned out that while she had been slogging out her guts filming The Blind Side, her tattooed, motorbike loving husband of five years had been having an affair with a stripper.

Worse still, the couple were days away from adopting a son. But Bullock – voted the Top Money Making Star of 2009 in the annual survey of cinema owners – regrouped tactically. A month later, she was pictured on the cover of People magazine cradling her new son, Louis ("Meet my baby") declaring she would raise him as a single parent. We applauded her independence. And Brand Sandy was saved.

Cheryl Cole's popularity also faltered when she took back errant husband Ashley – only to have to kick him out again, when it emerged that explicit pictures of him had been sent from his phone to a Page 3 girl. But thanks to a near-fatal dose of malaria while on holiday in Tanzania, Cheryl became the plucky heroine once more.

It goes without saying that a new illness, adopted child, death of relative/pet/manager can turn a public-relations crisis around. Or why not try a so-called "sorbet relationship" (see Kate Winslet) to refresh the image and get the negative gossip-mongers off your back?

Arguably, our fascination with the latest splits say more about us – the peanut-crunching crowd – than the celebrities themselves. In true cathartic fashion, we get to experience the highs and lows of an A-list lifestyle. It's like Greek tragedy. With better outfits. If they can't be happy with all their money and glamour and fame, goes the thinking, no wonder we're having trouble with our relationships.

According to scientists, gossip makes us healthier. A study carried out by the University of Michigan in 2009 demonstrated how it boosted levels of progesterone among women, reducing anxiety and stress. For either sex, exchanging social information fosters trust and co-operation. And in times gone by, gossip proved vital to survival, with the trading of titbits helping cavemen catch thieves and elect leaders.

But even those of us who delude ourselves that we have a personal relationship with a star can be caught on the hop. According to some reports, Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Reynolds may have been separated for six months by the time they made their announcement. Laura Dern and Ben Harper separated back in January, yet the couple, who married in 2005, have continued to live together all year.

And the Winslets played a blinder. Back in March I looked up idly at the Sky News screen at London's Victoria Station. And the tectonic plates really did shift. "Kate and Sam split" ran the headline.

It was low-key, and brilliantly stage-managed. At 7pm sharp, lawyers Schillings announced the couple were separating after seven years. By then Kate had escaped with the kids to Mexico; Sam had just finished directing his Bridge Project theatre. And in a global media age, no one had a clue why they split.

It's a humbling moment when you discover you're not as close to a golden couple as you imagined. We witness the school run and the pub lunches, but the door slams firmly in our eager face when something major happens.

But one thing's for sure: the celebrity split has become a form of performance art. As we pore over gesture, nuance, subtext, we can read the anatomy of a divorce by the choice of jewellery alone.

Is reducing marital breakdown to a few key scenes from a soap opera healthy? "I think what we're being sold is the pain-free divorce," says Charlotte Friedman, "and it is so far removed from reality. The vast majority of people have to process what's happened to them in order to start again."

Don't be fooled by the red carpet appearances, she argues, it really is only the public face of private grief. Friedman set up The Divorce Support Group to help people deal with the psychological devastation that separation brings.

"I do see a lot of clients who are quite high profile and they have to put on that show, but actually they're no different from anybody else, they're just absolutely grieving. And I don't think you can get away with separating or divorcing lightly. There's something about having to convince the public that everything's amicable and best for everybody. But very often it's not like that at all. There is what is fed to the public – and what they have to face on their own at home."

The danger of social media such as Twitter and Facebook is it's like a fast-paced conversation – with the rest of the world listening in.

"The velvet rope has been replaced by a faux intimacy that allows us all to climb in for a quiet natter," says Marian Salzman, president of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR. "I for one am more bothered and intrigued by the good news announcements via Twitter and Facebook than the quiet exits this way. After waiting a third of a lifetime, the Royals deserved a national five minutes of silence for their engagement. The group posting seems so, well, humble."

So is there a way to do it well? For life coach Fiona Harrold, "the most elegant and dignified split we've seen is Scarlett and Ryan's. It's the one we'd all want. They came into it the relationship with love – and are leaving it with love. They didn't demand privacy – but asked for understanding. The statement itself got everybody talking. And they've been seen having cosy dinners after they announced it."

Friedman admires Dawn French and Lenny Henry's grown-up parting: "I think they've probably done an enormous amount of talking about it being mutual and how they're going to do it for the best interests of their child – and each other. What's interesting about divorce is one can live with somebody for a number of years and then almost overnight, once the decision is made, the other person can become an object of derision, and has to be diminished in other people's eyes."

"The car crash split of the year for me has to be the Gores," says Salzman. "After 40 years, did they have to end it amid rumours of legal actions coming from some bad behaviour moments (or rather allegations thereof) which never seem to have materialised?"

The trouble is the whole damn pantomime demands a villain. It seems we can't bear the thought that a couple may just be incompatible – and honourably call it a day.

In that sense, French and Henry have been an object lesson – even going on holiday together afterwards with their adopted daughter.

Rule number one, says Harrold, is you've got to try and keep your dignity. "Yes you are a public figure – and you've got things that you're selling, and in Liz Hurley's case, your Twitter fanbase. But I do think there's an obligation to lead from the front."

When you're hurting or in turmoil don't be tempted to pen that article or blog. If you want to send a lover or relative a letter, put it through her door, she says bluntly. Don't run it as an open letter in the newspaper like Gordon Ramsay.

"I know it's probably incredibly intoxicating if you're given the opportunity to set the record straight. But you absolutely, categorically, will regret it."

Revenge is a dish best served cold. Just look at the front cover of Mademoiselle magazine this month featuring Kate Winslet. Inside she cavorts in floaty cream and ivory silk, exposing luscious flesh. The headline: "Une Femme Libre".

"Courteney Cox is definitely the next face of cool under separation. No tears, just mature adult interaction," says Salzman.

2010 will be remembered as the a generation of digitally-engaged celebrities changed the emotional landscape.

But they're not alone. Flirty messages and photographs found on Facebook are increasingly being cited as proof of unreasonable behaviour. According to a new survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 80 per cent of divorce lawyers have reported a spike in the number of cases using social media for evidence of cheating.

Of course, 2010 isn't over yet for trophy marriages. As Friedman reminds me, January is the month when the most applications for divorce petitions are made. "People think, 'Look, I've been unhappy for a number of years and here we are at Christmas again. I want to begin the New Year with a fresh start'."

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