Inside Robin Thicke and Paula Patton's Passionate, Tortuous History: From Teen Sweethearts to a Suddenly Ugly Custody Battle

The actress filed for divorce in 2014, the split was finalized in 2015 and now the exes are fighting over son Julian, with Patton alleging Thicke has a history of domestic violence

By Natalie Finn Feb 25, 2017 1:00 PMTags
MTV Video Music Awards, Paula Patton, Robin ThickeDimitrios Kambouris/WireImage

There are many, many famous couples—or exes, rather—who had tortured relationships. If your best friend and her boyfriend could break up and make up eight times in a year in the midst of their perfectly ordinary lives, think how wild it can get for celebrities with money to burn, more chances to torpedo mutual trust and endless resources with which to stage grand "I'm sorry, please forgive me" gestures.

Sure, some relationships end with one, or perhaps even both, people being entirely blindsided by what triggered the breakup. But after the dust has settled, more often than not you start to see the clues that all wasn't everything it was cracked up to be for a good long while, if not the whole time. 

Robin Thicke and Paula Patton were together for the better part of 21 years and married for almost nine before Patton filed for divorce in 2014, citing irreconcilable differences, the legal catch-all for whatever makes a union ultimately unsalvageable. They also have a son together, Julian, who's now 6 1/2.

Robin Thicke & Paula Patton in Love

While both Thicke, who grew up with a famous dad, and Patton have been celebrities for a long time, it wasn't until 2013 when "Blurred Lines" came out that Thicke's career kicked into a whole other gear. And while it could be easy to say that his whirlwind year got the better of him, prompting the demise of his marriage, it seems more likely that their marriage was on shaky ground long beforehand.

And with what seemed like at least a restorative split now dissolving into a bitter custody battle, the lines between their happy times and their hard times are really no clearer in hindsight.

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Patton met Thicke "like, 100 years ago," Paula laughed to E! News once, describing the moment. Rather, they first laid eyes on each other at an all-ages dance club in Hollywood in 1991, when she was 15 and he was 14. "He asked me to dance and the rest is history," she smiled.

According to Thicke, he sang Stevie Wonder's "Jungle Fever" to Patton (whose mom is white and dad is African-American) during that first dance, a serenade being one of his go-to romantic moves—and he's never been shy about making a musical scene, including when he titled his first post-split album Paula. "I knew she was special the night I met her," he said. "I was only 14, but she was already the most special girl."

Not that the world they were living in was a perfect one. Thicke told Howard Stern in 2013 that Paula didn't want to take him to her prom because she was involved in black student activism and he was...well...


"The funny thing is, in high school she didn't take me to prom because she didn't want everyone to know she was with a white dude because she was president of the Black Student Union," the artist recalled. "I was a secret. She didn't want to show up with a white guy. Funny, right?"

Their subsequent visibility eventually made up for the high school-era slight.

"He wasn't my first kiss," Patton told Vanity Fair in May 2014, not long after they separated, "but he was my first lots of other things."

As for that kiss, the Baggage Claim star told Glamour, "He sang Jodeci's 'Forever My Lady' to me. He did a full-out R&B onstage performance in his dad's living room. Then he kissed me. It worked."

Like Thicke, Patton was born in Los Angeles, so they certainly made sense geographically. After graduating from Hamilton High, Patton attended UC Berkeley for a semester, but transferred back down south to attend USC for its film school, and all was geographically desirable once again.

Though they were one of the few longtime couples to not have the usual "and then we broke up for a hot second" story, or any other widely told tale of being off-and-on for any length of time aside from when they were teenagers, their relationship had its own growing pains.

Years later, Patton told a story about becoming so convinced that Thicke was cheating on her that she drove to his house and hid outside in the bushes trying to get a glimpse of any shenanigans going on inside.

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"I was a bit of a crazy-in-love girlfriend and I remember, way before we were married, having this suspicion about him," she recalled. "So I drove all the way to his house and, like, crawl through the bushes, to look through the window. I swear! And the worst part was that I got caught. The best part was that I was wrong.

"He caught me outside, he goes, 'I can see you,' like it was hilarious. It was like, 'You're not a good spy, OK?' And he had guy friends over. He was like, 'Come on over, see what's going on.' But the best part was, he said, 'You really do love me.' And I said, 'I do. Maybe a little crazy.' He's like, 'That's OK, I'm a little crazy too.'"

Wouldn't you know, celebrities at their not-finest moments are just like us at our not-finest moments.

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That being said, most otherwise-levelheaded people don't go around hiding in bushes unless they've been led to feel they have a good reason.

Regardless of what went on behind closed doors that we—or either of them—didn't know about, none of that is to say that they weren't madly in love with each other. Tales of their rambunctious sex life (thanks to anecdotes shared by Thicke himself) are legendary, and throughout their relationship Patton served as his creative muse. He made his early name in the music business as a songwriter and producer before finally releasing his debut album, A Beautiful World, in 2003, featuring a naked Patton on the cover.


"I was so afraid of failing that I waited from 16 to 23, seven years to even put the album out," Thicke told Howard Stern. "So then I'm 23, I put the album out finally and what does it do? It doesn't sell any records. It's critically acclaimed but doesn't sell any records. So the balloon pops, everything that I was afraid of happening. Then, for the next 3 years I struggled with believing in myself and had some problems and started drinking.

"Tried yoga a few times with my wife, side-by-side. Trying to find God. Then right after my album [comes out, Paula decides] that she wants to be an actress, instead of a filmmaker. Now she's doing love scenes, and I have a failed album… but it ended up making me a good man. Luckily, after 10 years of that, I'm like, 'Oh heck! Go have a good time, see you when you get home.'"

Thicke would continue to be a critically well-received but not exactly best-selling artist, though his 2006 sophomore album, The Evolution of Robin Thicke, did hit No. 1 on the U.S. R&B chart and sold 1.5 million copies to become his only platinum album to date. Patton starred in the video for "Lost Without U," when he wrote when he was going N"through an insecure period and wanted my lady to tell me how fabulous and how sexy and how wonderful I am," Thicke told MTV.

Meanwhile, he and Patton had married on June 11, 2005; they welcomed son Julian on April 6, 2010.

"He's so proud of himself," Patton joked about her husband to Women's Health when she was pregnant. "It's ridiculous."

She also described Thicke as being incredibly attentive and romantic—and during the interview, she even received a delivery of flowers he had sent.

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"He makes me feel beautiful," Patton gushed to the magazine. "That's the best thing about having a partner—there is someone to tell you, 'Stop it. You look great!' Of course, he can't say anything else—he's been trained."

The actress credited her husband with helping her through a personal rough patch in around 2008, when she was feeling low between movies and then, thanks to her dress hanging a certain way, she was the subject of pregnancy rumors.

Thicke, in turn, credited his family with inspiring his 2011 album Love After War, his fifth studio album. Husband and wife starred together in the steamy video for the title track that's about exactly what it sounds like—two people making up after a fight.

"I learned what true compassion and patience is about" after becoming a father, Thicke told The Root at the time. "You think you're a man, or you think you're grown, until you have a child and you have to see what a woman goes through when she has a baby—and how it changes her body, changes her mindset. I had to kick into gear because I love nobody more than my wife in this world. It was actually wonderful for me. Julian has changed everything—every move I make, I know that it will affect him, his growth and his happiness."

Around that time, he also talked to Essence about what Patton—and being with one woman for so long—meant to him.

"When you have that relationship and that means the most to you—you know I can't live without that woman, she is my muse, my best friend, and my creative partner," Thicke said. "I didn't have a great relationship with my mom and she didn't have a great relationship with her dad and we became that for each other. She's my mama and I'm her daddy. I even call her Mama and she calls me Daddy. We are that to each other."

Asked what Patton's sexiest quality was to him, he said, "It's her intelligence and her strength. I've never met a stronger person who stands by their will and their moral values. She is such an amazing human being. Ever since I met her and we were 16 years old and she was the president of the black student union and I was just a silly white boy who didn't understand or have compassion."

Thicke continued, "I have a song on my new album called, 'I Don't Know How It Feels to Be You,' and she and I were in the middle of an argument and she said, "Robin, no matter how hard you try, or how compassionate you are, you'll never know what it's like to be a black woman.' So I got up and I wrote this song in five minutes. The lyrics are: 'I don't know how it feels to be you, though I try my best to understand what you're going through, I don't know how it feels to be you. I can't walk in your shoes. But, I'm trying baby. You know how much I love you.'"

Dave Allocca/

It is this sort of evidence of a uniquely enduring yet also evolving connection that makes what ultimately happened such a damn shame.

After enjoying plenty of success, Thicke became a real-deal household name with the 2013 single "Blurred Lines," his smash-hit, song-of-the-summer collaboration with Pharrell off of Robin's album of the same name—and yet another song inspired by Patton.

"I don't think people got it," he told BBC's Newsbeat when asked about what were criticized by some as sexist or even misogynist lyrics. "I wrote it about my wife...she's my good girl. And I know she wants it because we've been together for 20 years."

It was around then that he and Patton went from a generally interesting couple to a couple under the microscope, particularly when Thicke's public (and party) appearances multiplied exponentially—the "Blurred Lines" furor reaching fever pitch after Thicke's now infamous performance with Miley Cyrus at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. (Yes, Robin Thicke was there, too.)

Scott Gries/Invision/AP

"It's just so funny because when I saw him perform I was like, 'You guys killed it!' We hugged each other, we went out, celebrated," Patton told E! News afterward. "The next day, my cell phone [has] all these texts: 'Praying for you.' 'If you need to talk, I'm here.'"

She added, "Why are people making such a big deal about it? Quite frankly, all my friends dance like that with him. He's like the guy that you can dance with, 'cause he's safe!"

She was supportive of the racy "Blurred Lines" video that made Emily Ratajkowski a star, too. Thicke told Now magazine, "Some of it was my wife's idea. My wife is an artist first and wife second. She was excited about it right away and loved the video and wanted to watch it like 10 times, then she would jump on my bones."

Vintage Robin Thicke.

Patton more or less concurred, saying, "I watched that video and I was a little bit jealous and then I wanted to jump his bones. I was like, 'I want to take you down right now.' That's how I know it's a hit."

But despite the public solidarity, it was also around the fall of 2013 when cheating rumors started to pop up—and a widely circulated picture of Thicke with his hand on a woman's bottom at a party didn't help matters. A source told us at the time it was a "non-issue" for the couple; moreover, Patton was apparently at the party in question.

"My only comment about the so-called scandalous photo would be that my wife and I are perfectly in love and very happily married," Thicke told Star. "So, no complaints there."

In the same interview he called their marriage "the greatest love of the century and the most functional dysfunctional marriage in Hollywood."

A lofty claim, indeed. (In a different Q&A, Thicke also called himself and Patton "John and Yoko—whatever that is"; ironically what that is is another couple who may be known for having one of the all-time great loves but in reality were decidedly not always the happy couple.)

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"You pretty much take it one day at a time," Thicke told Oprah Winfrey in an interview that aired that October, when asked how in the heck they were making it work after 20 years as a couple. "The one thing I've realized about loving somebody is, you have to love them every day...People are changing. Every day, their thoughts, their desires, their insecurities change every day." 

Asked about his "functional dysfunctional" remark, he laughed and said, "That was just meaning we're no different than any couple out there, that we have our fights and our problems, but somehow there is this big bang theory that just pulls us close to each other—and we are madly in love, and can't quit each other."

All in all, life was even better than he could've imagined, "because I still have the girl. I would be lost without her...It [celebrity and the fame game] is a lot and there are girls throwing themselves at you and you can really lose touch with any sense of reality when you're a big rock star kind of thing." 

Lester Cohen/WireImage

Earlier in the year, before all headline hell broke loose after the VMAs, Patton had told Prestige during a joint interview with Thicke, "I've been there for his down moments and he's been there for mine. Life is full of peaks and valleys."

They were spotted with Julian at a celeb-frequented pumpkin patch before Halloween and the rest of the holidays were uneventful, but in early January Thicke was photographed partying in Paris in co-ed company, and this time Patton was not with him.

They did walk the red carpet and look as cozy as usual at the 2014 Grammys on Jan. 26, but almost exactly a month later, on Feb. 24, came the news that they had separated.

"We will always love each other and be best friends; however, we have mutually decided to separate at this time," they said in a joint statement.


Patton and Thicke didn't look particularly estranged right away, instead holding it together as a family for their son, as they surely intended to do.

Thicke immediately went on the romance offensive, dedicating "Lost Without U" to Patton in concert days later and, as he said on stage that night, "trying to get my girl back."

"She loved it," Thicke told People when asked what his wife thought of his efforts. "She thought it was the sweetest thing and very romantic, and I've always been a romantic guy that way."

"We've known each other since we were teenagers. All I can tell you is there's a deep love there—always was, and always will be," Patton told Vanity Fair that spring.

But apparently the Warcraft star really did want her space, because Thicke told New York's Hot 97 in July 2014 that he hadn't seen her in four months.

Despite the rampant cheating rumors, which only got more sordid in the wake of their separation, the singer insisted that wasn't why they had split up.

"We're apart because we just couldn't be together anymore for a while," he said. "There's a hundred different reasons, there isn't just one. There's a long list… I changed, and I got a little too selfish, a little too greedy and little too full of myself."

Basically all of the things he told Oprah he was strenuously trying to avoid.

Meanwhile, Thicke's vanity and his regret had collided in his seventh studio album, Paula, his not in the least bit subtle attempt at spilling his guts and, if it wooed his wife back in the process, so be it.

"The album is exactly what happens when you lose the love of your life and you're trying to figure it out in your head," he told Hot 97. "How am I going to move on and get through it all? We just weren't happy together anymore and I still had so much I wanted to apologize for, and things I wanted to take responsibility for, so that's pretty much what the album's about."

Rather embarrassingly, the overall effort was widely panned by critics, which he later reflected on as a wake-up call to his priorities being out of whack.

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Back at Hot 97 the following summer, he admitted, "At the time, I thought I was doing the right thing for everyone involved...I should've focused on my personal life first; and even if I wanted to write songs, I shouldn't have tried to sell it, promote it, sing it. I wasn't ready to publicly even speak about it." And no, he hadn't thought all that much about how Patton might feel about an album devoted to their breakup just months after it occurred.

Either way, Paula didn't help his case. And right on the heels of that debacle, in September 2014, Thicke testified in a deposition for the copyright infringement suit brought against him and Pharrell by Marvin Gaye's family over "Blurred Lines" that he didn't really remember the creative process behind that song because he was on high on a combination of Vicodin and alcohol when he went to the studio to record.

He "didn't do a sober interview" in all of 2013, Thicke said, per the transcript. And that included the Oprah interview. But, he insisted, that didn't make him a chronic liar.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for for York Sisters, LLC

"I told my wife the truth. That's why she left me," he also said, adding that he'd been sober as far as any drugs went for eight months, though he still drank alcohol.

Patton filed for divorce in October 2014; the split was finalized in March 2015.

"I'm doing really well," Patton said on Good Morning America at the time. "I mean, the honest truth is it has been challenging, but it's been a year of growth, lots of healing, learning about all new things, but I've come out of it stronger." 

"My son's happy," she added. "And I'm very—you know, I feel like everything happens for a reason. And then you have to move on and grow from there." 

In August 2015, while promoting his new single "Back Together," Thicke acknowledged what that song title looked like but said he didn't write it—it just resonated for him.

"Actually I didn't write this song so I can't take credit for the meaning," he also said on GMA. "I just heard this idea of getting back together and getting yourself back together, and what I was going through at the time I really really related to that and connected to it."

Thicke also had a new girlfriend at the time, model April Geary Young, 18 years his junior.

Felipe Ramales / Splash News

And then life just sort of...went along.

Patton told Essence last August that she was slowly dipping her toe back into the dating pool, a bit of a shock after being in a relationship for half of her life—but that she too was working on her relationship with herself.

"It's really nice, honestly, getting used to being alone," she said. "It's freeing. It's scary at the beginning. It's really scary. But it's something I'm coming to embrace, knowing that that's really what it is now—learning to love yourself, enjoying your time with your friends and family, and then it will sort itself out. But I gotta figure all that out I think first. I have to learn that."

Also in August, Patton surprisingly posted a #TBT picture of herself with Thicke taken in 2002, writing, "Memories...I always try to only remember what was fun and made me smile. My friend showed me this and it took my breath away. We were babies and we had a beautiful baby. What an amazing time in my life. No regrets! Celebrating this amazing life we get to live never knowing what's coming next. Love is always the answer.@robinthicke #throwbackthursday."

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But at some point, the exes' seemingly amicable arrangement broke down.

Thicke's beloved father, TV star Alan Thicke, died suddenly on Dec. 13. Patton didn't attend the funeral, but she shared a tribute on social media, writing, "I knew Alan since I was 15 years old and he had a tremendous effect on my life. I loved and respected him so much! So many great memories and laughs together. We will miss him so much! His grandson is quite sure he is still here with us in spirit."

On Jan. 2, Patton posted a video of herself jumping into a swimming pool with the caption, "Diving in the new year with a smile on my face. No looking back. No fear. Embrace every moment that comes. Manifest the reality you want."

Ten days later, on Jan. 12, E! News confirmed that the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services was investigating claims that Thicke had been physically abusive toward Julian (the child had allegedly told officials at this school that his dad spanked him on more than one occasion) and Patton had filed an emergency order to stop her ex's visits. 

"On a very rare occasion and only as a last resort, I will use light spanking, but it is consistent with the law—open hand on the butt," Thicke stated in court documents  "This is the type of discipline to which Paula and I agreed during our marriage."

The singer also claimed that Patton was angry at him from blocking her from his father's funeral, stating that they did not have "a positive relationship" when Alan was alive.

A judge refused, however, to strip Thicke of joint custody and instead the family was started attending therapy together. 

Sadly, that did not mitigate the situation, and Patton was granted temporary sole custody on Jan. 26 after alleging in court that Thicke had a history of domestic violence. The judge also issued a temporary restraining order that required Thicke to stay away from Patton and Julian.

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"Paula never reported any domestic violence until she was in a position of contempt by violating the custody orders," Thicke's lawyer Angela Pierce di Donato told People. "Infidelity has nothing to do with custody. She is attempting to throw anything at him to hurt him, but Robin's focus is their son."

In response, Patton's attorney, Larry Bakman, told E! News in a statement, "Despite the rhetoric from the Robin Thicke camp, the court acted on the corroborative evidence that was presented by Susan Wiesner and Larry M. Bakman on behalf of Paula Patton...The Court granted sole legal and physical custody to Paula pending a full hearing on the merits. Contrary to Thicke's claims, his attorneys presented no evidence of a valid custody or visitation order violated by Paula."

Ahead of a court hearing yesterday, Patton's camp filed documents accusing Thicke of trying to influence the outcome of the DCFS investigation by treating the court-appointment monitors to a fancy lunch—to which Thicke's camp insisted that the monitors were just observing, business as usual and drinking water, when he took Julian to Nobu in Malibu because the boy had wanted to eat sushi.

Neither Thicke nor Patton attended Friday's hearing, which took place in Long Beach. A judge set a pretrial date in the custody matters for March 6, with testimony expected to start March 7, and extended the TRO against Thicke until March 22 or the end of the trial, estimating that the proceedings would take two weeks.

It's hard now not to view Robin Thicke and Paula Patton's intense romance through a more cynical lens, one where all that romantic spontaneity looks more like chronic apologizing, extolling the virtues of longevity sounds more like excuse-making, and lighthearted acknowledgements of mutual craziness suggest mutual fear of not being together.

Because—as they both probably wondered when they were younger and before they had a child's needs to consider—what would they do without each other?