The tabloid-magnet couple had broken up after almost four years of dating, and J.T. was ruminating on whether forever-relationships were possible because people may not be the same six months later, let alone 10 years later.
"We talked a little about marriage," Timberlake told a cousin and a friend in the presence of Vanity Fair in 2011, a few months after the breakup went public. "I said that I think the mistake is that people commit to who that person is right then and not the person they're going to become. That's the art of staying together, is changing together."
"When you say it like that, it seems damn near impossible, right?"
Presenting, Mr. and Mrs. Evolution. The devoted pair—they've mostly been social-distancing in the mountains—will celebrate nine years of marriage later this year. Together, they share son Silas, 5, and Phineas, who they quietly welcomed in 2020. The exciting news itself was not announced until January, when Timberlake made a virtual visit to The Ellen DeGeneres Show. "He's awesome and so cute, and nobody's sleeping," he raved. "We're thrilled and couldn't be happier. Very grateful."
While having kids has infinitely expanded their capacity for love and devotion to another human being beyond their wildest dreams, becoming parents also showed them the importance of taking extra time to nurture their relationship with each other. "You just have to make time for date night, time for yourself alone and time with your partner," Biel told E! News in 2018. "It has to be fun!"
Moreover, she explained, "My husband always says, 'We can't stop dating.' I love that because it's true. You have to continue to make the space for yourself and your partner to just have fun like you did before you had kids. And not talk about them! Keep it fresh, keep it exciting. Spontaneous if at all possible."
And though it's not always easy for a couple of A-listers like them to maintain their privacy, these two have become experts at keeping certain things to themselves while sharing the occasional adorable moment on Instagram—such as when they celebrated Biel's 39th birthday on March 3.
"Happy Birthday to my favorite person in the world... the strongest, funniest, best, brightest and most beautiful mom/partner/BOSS there is," Timberlake wrote on Instagram. "I'm lucky to learn from you and laugh with you and celebrate you every day. But, today we do it with!!!! Here's to more slow-mos in the wind, jumping into bushes to save our kid's toys, and timing out jump pics perfectly..."
TimberBiel first formed in the days of 24/7 paparazzi scrutiny, which, while that hasn't gone away, has relinquished its place on the information superhighway to social media, where the celebrities themselves can get ahead of the narrative, post their engagement rings and baby photos. Or, in some cases, their joint breakup statements.
Justin and Jessica's earliest years together, as told by headlines, were riddled with cheating rumors and other wild speculation about why or why not they were close to splitting up. Until they actually did. They attempted to be quite professional about it, releasing a statement to confirm that they had parted ways as friends, but the quest for answers still ran its natural course, with or without input from Biel or Timberlake.
"I would rather not talk about her, because it's hurtful for me," Timberlake told VF. "It's unfortunate that even though you make the effort to say something, which I tried on for size, people do what they want to do. I don't want to say much more, because I have to protect things that are dear to me—for instance, her. She is the single-handedly most significant person in my life. In my 30 years, she is the most special person, O.K.? So I protect it, and until somebody shows me what would be more fulfilling at this point, that's what I have to do."
He said that, out of respect for his fellow celebrities and what they're going through, he didn't "look below anybody's waist" in line at the supermarket, because that's where the tabloids were on display.
Before he entered into one high-profile relationship after another, first with Britney Spears and then Cameron Diaz before Biel, Timberlake set out, at least, to be savvily tight-lipped about his private life. (Quite the opposite of how he handled his breakup with Spears.)
"I don't like to comment on my personal life anymore," Justin, then 19, politely told Rolling Stone in 2000. "Everything gets blown out of proportion. I've been in the tabloids, and I don't enjoy it. If I do decide to have a personal relationship with someone, I think it's best to keep it that—personal."
He first met Biel, whom Esquire named "Sexiest Woman Alive" in 2005, at a surprise party in Hollywood—a tidbit he revealed in his memoir, Hindsight & All the Things I Can't See in Front of Me, Timberlake having chosen to package at least some of the personal for public consumption. He and the missus are so beyond that now, anyway, why not share how their ultimately extremely successful love story got its real start?
Timberlake cracked a dry joke, Biel was the only one who laughed. They danced to Madonna's "Lucky Star." And then off she went into the night.
"It wasn't time" to ask for her number, Timberlake recalled.
Then in January 2007, Biel went to the first show of his FutureSex/LoveSounds Tour in San Diego, Calif., with friends and they all went backstage afterward. Timberlake was on his way north to Anaheim and asked the group if they wanted a ride back to Los Angeles. They accepted, he and Biel talked the whole time and then he got her number.
"I did it the old fashioned way—by telephone," Timberlake told the Hollywood Foreign Press at a press conference in 2012 (via Us Weekly). "That's something I learned from both my stepdad and my grandfather—that there is a thing called chivalry and it doesn't have to die with the birth of the internet. The way I see it, if you're asking a girl out on a date, it's only right to do it in a way that she can hear your voice. I had to be pretty persistent in order to get her to say yes. But I have a fair amount of tenacity and if I want something I stick to it. And in the end she agreed." (Ironically, it was rumored years later that he dumped her over the phone, too.)
A week later they saw each other again at the Golden Globes.
"I was there, like, the moment the love connection happened," Biel's 7th Heaven co-star Beverley Mitchell recalled on Access Hollywood Live in 2019. "I was like, 'OK, this is happening.'" She added, "It was so cute because they were like—it's that moment like, 'I like you, I think you like me. It was very, very sweet. They were definitely flirting. They were really cute."
From then on, they were indeed dating. Casually.
In fact, in the spring of 2007, Scarlett Johansson was asked about rumors that she was dating Timberlake, and she told Seventeen, "If it's somebody one week, it's going to be somebody else the next week. It's either me or Jessica Biel."
"We were both still seeing other people, keeping ourselves safe from getting hurt, from really putting ourselves out there," Timberlake recalled in the book. "It took a bit for both of us to admit to ourselves that were were really, really that into each other. When I came back from tour, we spent a month together. After that, I said, 'I really want to be exclusive.' And, somehow, she said, 'So do I.'"
"We didn't kiss for a very long time because he was on tour, and we were talking on the phone," Biel said on The Late Late Show With James Corden in 2019. But she still optimistically told her producing partner Michelle Purple in an email that she was going to marry him. She doesn't remember what he did to deserve such an endorsement that day, but she still has the email.
And so they settled into a comfortable routine of togetherness, taking trips, attending Met Galas and doing the domestic thing at their various home bases.
When long-term relationships don't work out for whatever reason, the go-to assumption is often that one or the other—but usually the woman—wanted to get married, and the other couldn't oblige. That of course is what was implied about Biel down the road, but the 7th Heaven star certainly didn't seem to be in any rush early on.
"I kind of go back and forth about marriage and kids," she said in the December 2008 issue of Marie Claire UK. "I feel like if it's an organic way for me and the right time in my life then, yeah. If it's right, it'll be right—but at this moment, that seems totally foreign... I have so many friends having babies and getting married and they just want to put me where they are so we can go to nursery together and stuff. I'm like 'Noooo!' I'm resisting!"
And while they didn't turn down the occasional red carpet photo op, they mutually respected each other's privacy.
2009 is when the adventurous couple got turned onto heli-boarding. Biel—who had previously skydived with ex Chris Evans—explained during a June appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman what they were looking at when Letterman showed an aerial photo taken of her maiden voyage in Telluride, Colo. (They repeated the feat on a trip to Iceland last year.)
The next photo she was asked to explain was mainly of Timberlake leaning in for an over-the-top hug and kiss at a Lakers game. "Are you in there somewhere?" Letterman quipped.
"That's my boyfriend and they put us up on the 'Kiss Me Cam'...I mean, he's such a ham..." Biel said laughing, as the next photo showed how Timberlake then tried to climb into her lap. "Who doesn't want to be mounted in front of 18,000 people?"
And while Biel was there, Letterman figured they may as well talk a little more about their relationship. "Go ahead, you start," he cracked.
"Yes, we're dating," she confirmed, noting it had been "a few years." She said even then that there were a lot of phone conversations before the dating really got underway. "Oh, ooookay," Letterman cracked. "You are the worst!" she admonished him, playfully swatting him on the arm. "PG phone conversations!"
In May 2010 they attended their second straight Met Gala and then Timberlake dove into promoting The Social Network, in which he played Napster co-founder Sean Parker. Also that year he had Yogi Bear, featuring him as the voice of Boo Boo come out, and he was making Friends With Benefits with Mila Kunis, In Time with Amanda Seyfried and Olivia Wilde and Bad Teacher with Diaz.
Biel also had two movies out in 2010, The A-Team and Garry Marshall's ensemble rom-com Valentine's Day, then she reunited with Marshall to make New Year's Eve and started lining up movies left and right.
All the makings of a strain on a relationship.
In March 2011, reps for the pair released a joint statement confirming that they had broken up.
"Addressing the media speculation regarding Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake's relationship, we are confirming that they mutually have decided to part ways," the statement read. "The two remain friends and continue to hold the highest level of love and respect for each other."
Cue the postmortem.
"As a naturally career-driven person, it was easy for me to relate to that character, to embrace that problem and make it the obstacle he's trying to overcome," he told Vanity Fair a few months after, referring to the workaholic commitment-phobe he played in Friends With Benefits, which came out that July.
But he actually didn't sound all that phobic.
He acknowledged that he had been thinking about marriage and did want a family.
"And as little as six months ago I wouldn't have even thought about that, but now it feels like a closer planet orbiting around," he said.
Boom. He managed to woo Biel back—probably starting with an old-fashioned telephone call—and proposed that December amid the scenic snowy mountains of Jackson, Wyo.
"She's a really, really, really special person," Timberlake described his bride-to-be to the HFPA in October 2012, doing press for Trouble With the Curve a week before their wedding. "Plus, she's really, really, hot!"
"I answer to a higher power now," he quipped. "We have a couple of rules in our relationship. The first rule is that I make her feel like she's getting everything. The second rule is that I actually do let her have her way in everything. And, so far, it's working."
Against all odds—Hollywood, tabloids, schedules, history—Biel and Timberlake got married in one of those fairy-tale destination weddings in Italy on Oct. 19, 2012. The bride wore a fabulous blush-colored gown by Giambattista Valli, a good friend. "It was a bit of a leap of faith at the time," Biel later told Elle, basically describing the entire institution of marriage as well, "but it turned out better than I could have ever imagined...I felt elegant. And it moved like a dream." As for the groom, who composed a song and sang it while Biel walked down the aisle...
"I called Tom Ford," he wrote in Hindsight. "I knew I was getting married only one time in my life and I wanted to look a certain way. Tom agreed to dress me and my groomsmen, which ended up being his wedding gift to me. He just did it for all of us. That's the type of person he is. Then he came on tour… There was so many of us and Tom Ford dressed us all: me, the dancers, the Tennessee kids, the whole band."
Their tale, frankly, is made all the more romantic because they've since lived happily every after.
"I think it's important to remember that you go into something like marriage knowing that you don't know very much about it at all," Timberlake also told the HFPA that day in 2012. "But I do look at the marriage of my mother and stepdad, and what makes it work for them is that it's a team effort."
He continued, "Some days are better than other days for all of us—and if we have our good days and bad days individually, and then we're dealing with someone else's good and bad days on top of that, it's going to add up. My mother is a ball of fire in the world and I love that about her. But what I have learned from my stepdad is something as important, which is patience and compassion. Because when you are living with someone else, those two qualities go a long way."
The rumors that things weren't going well for the pair, even once they were husband and wife, didn't go away all at once, but they managed to block out the noise.
And in 2014, when Timberlake's 20/20 Experience World Tour was getting underway, Biel informed him during—what else—a call (FaceTime at least, by then) that they were going to have a baby.
"I had just finished a show, and I go into my car and took my phone out," he wrote in Hindsight. "There was a text from Jess, in all capital letters. It read 'Call Me Now.' I FaceTimed her back immediately. She answered with this look on her face, and I knew exactly what she was going to say. Instead, she just held up the pregnancy test, and we both started bawling. I ended the tour early so I could be at home and take care of my family."
They welcomed Silas on April 8, 2015.
"Until I became a father," Timberlake explains, "I thought I had things to be afraid of. Now I understand that I don't have to conquer my fears. I just have to learn to live with them. Instead of looking for sunlight to erase that shadow, I know that it's always going to be there. Everything you're doing and as an adult is to try to heal whatever you've built up from your childhood. It's your shadow that follows you around, and the only time a shadow disappears is when you step into the darkness. And then you learn to step back out. Now I can finally see the relationship between all of it, and it's beautiful. In all of its ugliness, it's beautiful. Understanding that allows me the stillness."
He also says that being a parent "made me look at relationships in a new way. It's made me think about who my parents are as people, and how that affected me then and has contributed to who I am now—and how all that might affect my child. It makes me wonder how my son will see me when he grows up. It makes me want to be more thoughtful."
Biel, who returned to TV in 2017 executive-producing and starring in USA's The Sinner, was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Emmy, and Timberlake made for the most enthusiastic cheering section every step of the way.
If she wins, "I might be obnoxious," Justin teased E!'s Giuliana Rancic on the Emmys red carpet in 2018. "I might do something obnoxious... I'm very good at obnoxious!"
"I would hope for nothing less than, like, really inappropriate," Biel agreed.
"I'm more geeked out than she is," Timberlake added. "I saw how much she put into it. I'm just so proud to be here and see this happen for her."
Obnoxious can get out of hand sometimes, especially since Timberlake can't really go anywhere in public and not have every action scrutinized, but what he and Biel have built together has proved solid enough to withstand the occasional tabloid storm. (Even despite those pictures that surfaced of him holding co-star Alisha Wainwright's hand during a night out.)
To Marie Claire, trying to satiate the inevitable curiosity about how their relationship continued to work, Biel said in 2017, "We have similar values; we believe in loyalty, honesty. We like to have fun. We like a lot of the same things. Also, in the business, we're all very career-oriented, and you have to be a little selfish. I understand that about my peers—about being focused and driven—and if you can find that and someone who shares the same values as you, it's like: Score!"
And Timberlake knows when to cede the spotlight.
"With Justin, he's so happy for me," she told ELLE.com when The Sinner premiered. "I always say he's my biggest fan."
That support runs both ways, of course. On his birthday, which was just days ahead of his performance at the Super Bowl LII Halftime Show in 2018, Biel wrote Timberlake a note of supreme confidence, adding, "I love you, you hot dad.. I'm here, right by your side, OG fan girl #1."
And it may have been, as she noted, their most spectacular year yet.
"I'm fascinated by her. She's everything, man," Timberlake also writes in his book. "She just constantly surprises me with who she is, and who she's becoming, and I really hope I do the same for her. I'm excited to see what she's going to do next. I wake up and roll over and look at her, and I'm inspired."
Fans—of Timberlake, of Biel, of love, of commitment, of balance—look at this family and, without a doubt, they're inspired too.
(Originally published Nov. 2, 2018, at 4 a.m. PT)