What Was the Most Significant Breakup in History?

Graham Roumieu

Sofia Alvarez, screenwriter, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

In my lifetime, for story purposes alone, I don’t think one can top Charles and Diana. Has there been a more public, twisted, and tragic union and parting?

Jenny Han, author, P.S. I Still Love You and Always and Forever, Lara Jean

Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child: When God closes a door, he opens a window.

Jasmine Guillory, author, The Wedding Date and The Proposal

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Not only did their breakup lead to five more wives for Henry and to the first Queen Elizabeth, but it caused England to leave the Catholic Church and create the Church of England. As a Catholic, I should abhor this breakup, but as a history major, thinking about it and its repercussions makes me rub my hands together in glee.

Keiko Agena, actor and author, No Mistakes

When I think of a significant breakup, I just can’t get away from the epic film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? On-screen, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton portray an absolutely crazed, tumultuous relationship. I can’t help but think it’s a peek into their life together, which included an affair, a marriage, a divorce, a remarriage, and another divorce.

Reader Responses

Michael D. Sidell, Evanston, Ill.

In the early 1980s, American Telephone and Telegraph was broken up into what were known as the “Baby Bells.” The breakup drastically changed the communications industry. The irony is that years later, many of the Baby Bells merged to form what we now know as AT&T.

Zakariya Willis, Philadelphia, Pa.

Marvin Gaye and Anna Gordy Gaye. If not for their divorce, a little album called Here, My Dear—arguably his finest work—would not have been created.

Darryl Weaver, Atlanta, Ga.

The separation of the North American colonies from Britain. What other breakup so changed the way nationhood is viewed or set such an enduring standard for what people should expect from their government?

Graham Roumieu

Jon Mathias, Mexico City, Mexico

The most significant breakup was that of Pangaea, roughly 200 million years ago. The resultant continental drift was one of the factors behind the great diversity of flora and fauna we enjoy today.

Joseph Pecora, Philadelphia, Pa.

Mark Antony’s abandonment of his wife Octavia, the sister of his fellow triumvir Octavian, in favor of Cleopatra. Their split gave Octavian the popular support needed to defeat Antony, conquer Egypt, and become Augustus, the first emperor of Rome.

Graham Roumieu

Christopher Corbett-Fiacco, San Diego, Calif.

The annulment of the marriage between France’s King Louis VII and his first wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine—without it, King Henry II of England would never have married Eleanor, and without that marriage, there would have been no Richard the Lionheart, no King John, and therefore no Magna Carta.

Graham Roumieu

Howard Gardner, Cambridge, Mass.

When the monk Martin Luther posted his 95 theses in 1517, he triggered a split of Christianity into the Protestant and Catholic branches, which remain in tension more than 500 years later.

Want to see your name on this page? Email bigquestion@theatlantic.com with your response to the question for our January/February issue: What is the coldest act of revenge of all time?