At Sunday’s Academy Awards, Best Supporting Actress nominee Florence Pugh may walk the red carpet with her boyfriend, sending the Internet into a frenzy, because her boyfriend is, if you didn’t know, Zach Braff. Yes, the Scrubs guy. Yes, he is 20 years older than she is (44 to her 24). And, I may be in the minority on this, but I am fine with this. Hear me out! I have reasons and receipts.
For context, they met and began seeing each other in 2019 (making Florence 23), when Braff directed her and Alicia Silverstone in a short film based on a fake movie poster (it was a design contest): In The Time It Takes To Get There. From what we know of Braff’s dating history, he’s been dating women in their mid-twenties since, well, he was in his mid-twenties. Leonardo DiCaprio does a version of the same thing. It’s a little corny, a little predictable, a little eye-roll-inducing. But it’s not predatory. Pugh is an adult capable of making informed decisions.
But even between two certified adults, age-gap relationships can have pitfalls. As therapist Katie Lear, LPC, explained to me, “Couples with a large age gap might want to pay attention to power dynamics in their relationship. Is the older partner often the one who makes big life decisions on behalf of the couple? Is the younger partner dependent, financially or otherwise? An equitable relationship is also more likely to be a healthy one.”
I’ve never met Zach or Florence and I can’t say how they make decisions, but from an industry perspective, Pugh is in no way dependent on Braff. She’s a fast-rising movie star, an Oscar nominee, a critical darling, and she’s about to be in a Marvel movie, which, if it means anything, means money in the bank. Braff was on a television show 10 years ago and is now mostly in the news because of who his girlfriend is. If anyone has the PR power in this relationship, it’s Pugh.
Another potential issue between partners in an age-gap relationship is being at different stages of life. Neither Pugh nor Braff has been married, and neither of them have kids, so from that standpoint they aren't coming from a different starting line. Dr. Randy Schroeder, author of Simple Habits For Marital Happiness, told me that the key is having clear expectations. “Unmet expectations is what creates the emotional distance,” he explained; not so much having different goals, but being unclear with your partner about what those goals are and how you want to reach them together. “All relationships are about meeting needs and wants,” says Dr. Schroeder. Are they meeting each other’s needs and wants? Yes, according to Pugh’s one and only on-the-record statement about her relationship: “[Braff] got it.”
Ultimately, we can’t know whether their relationship is healthy, toxic, or fake because we’re all living in The Matrix. So let’s take a step back from the clinical analysis for a second. The real reason the Internet is so befuddled by this couple has less to do with age and more to do with the fact that people don't think they like Zach Braff. In 2020, we act like we know actors. We stan them, call them mom, pretend they’re our friends. After Midsommar (about a young women whose boyfriend isn’t good enough for her), film fans decided that Florence was Our Girl, and hardly anyone is good enough for Our Girl, let alone the guy who made everyone’s favorite indie punching bag Garden State. Braff has a goofy face, a tendency to pick unremarkable projects (remember Alex, Inc?), and starred in a show that, for better or worse, wore its heart on its sleeve, making it nearly impossible for him to retain any kind of mystique. (Same thing happened to Josh Radnor after How I Met Your Mother.)
Don’t get me wrong, the jokes are fine. This is the devil’s bargain of fame: celebrities get success and money and a huge platform, and we get to make fun of them. But be honest about what you’re mocking. Twitter doesn’t want Pugh to get a younger boyfriend, it wants her to get a "cooler" boyfriend. Because if we abide by the principle that who you date is a reflection of who you are, this pairing leaves us with two possible conclusions, neither of which anyone wants to believe: either Florence Pugh is a Zach Braff-level dork, or Zach Braff… is amazing?
At this point there's no telling which of these truths, uh, the truth. Maybe the happy couple will clear things up on Sunday's red carpet.
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