What Can You Learn from ‘Marriage Story’ if You want Your Relationship to Thrive?
By Kalanit Ben-Ari, Ph.D.
Both I and my husband were moved, or disturbed if you ask him, by the agonising dissection of a divorce in Marriage Story. We were not the only ones. The film touched millions of people around the world and was nominated for many Oscars.
Many of us are familiar with divorce stories, whether through friends who are divorced, being divorced ourselves or, like my husband and I, children of divorced parents. Although Marriage Story features no death, illness, violence, natural catastrophe or real danger, everyone I spoke to about the film talked about the deep sadness and feelings of tragedy that it evoked. My husband even found it difficult to fall asleep on the night we watched the film - and when he finally fell managed to do so he had some unsettling dreams.
We, as a couple, found ourselves talking about this movie a lot. More than I remember talking about any other film. I salute the director, Noah Baumbach, for producing a film that opens up conversations about relationships. I never expected that someone like me, who has worked with couples in distress day in day out for almost two decades, would think and talk so much about – and be deeply affected by - such a movie.
I wonder what is the ‘window’ of experience in this story that is so moving?
What is it exactly that has touched so many of us?
And how can lessons from the disintegration of that fictional relationship help real ones to thrive?
For me, it was agonising to watch two originally well-intentioned people, Charlie and Nicole, gradually lose trust in each other and become more and more torn emotionally. We see the inner conflict between the love and respect for a partner on the one hand, and feelings of hurt, disappointment and betrayal on the other (for both of them; one with a sexual relationship outside the marriage and the other by turning to an aggressive lawyer). These cracks in the edifice of trust led them to behave in a way that was not who they really were. In the movie, it was not- and it usually isn’t - one huge action, drama or catastrophe to start with. But, rather, a first small thought or step that led to another one and so on. It was the overwhelming of two lovely people by an accumulation of small events, sometimes coincidental, sometimes innocent that was so heart-breaking.
We all can find ourselves reacting to stressful situations in a way that is far from our core values and who we really are. Such reactions often come more from the feelings of hurt and defensiveness rather than from our core essence itself. These responses then create more stress and suffering both for us and others.
My sadness watching the film partly stemmed from my recognition of the many lost opportunities to repair the relationship. These were missed as one or other of the couple reacted defensively or negatively to something the other one did.
Now, it is not that I have an agenda as to whether they should stay together or not. I’m simply thinking about the process when a couple start to become aware of the problems between them , about the subtext of their conversations and actions, about the possibility of their turning these into a collective journey of discovery, growth and healing, and about the potential impact of all of this on their future relationship. In other words, making the conscious decision to move into a healing process rather than getting drawn into a spiralling deterioration of reactive events.
Couples who want to thrive should understand where unspoken conversations can lead. These avoided discussions often involve an imbalance in ‘power’, where one partner perceives the other as being more dominant. For instance, when they discuss moving back to LA, Nicole believes that Charlie is out to undermine her and is thinking only of his own success. But she doesn’t say so at the time. Beneath such avoided power-struggles there is pain and hurt that takes the energy out of a relationship.
Couples often avoid conversations about such things as lack of equality in finance decisions, children, sex, or unspoken past trauma – despite the vulnerability that these issues can create. As we see clearly in this film, the pain doesn’t go away because we avoid the topic. Actually, it is the other way around. Avoiding these discussions deepens the suffering that might have been allayed and even transformed if only one partner had brought the painful subject out into the open.
The film begins with a positive description of all the things each one loves and appreciates in the other. Then we realise that this is in the form of a letter and the starting point of a therapy session. However, Nicole feels unable to read it to her partner. This theme returns at the end of the film when Charlie’s son asks Charlie to read him the letter - and so Charlie sees it for the first time. And of course, we think about what might have been... I often wonder why it is only when they separate that people write and express all of their appreciation and love for their partner.
In Imago Relationship Therapy we use a “Positive Flooding” exercise in therapy and group workshops. Each partner inundates the other with appreciation and love for all aspects of their life together (physical, personal, behavioural and more). It is a hugely touching and privileged experience for me to observe this. Not surprisingly, this shifts couples into a mindset of connectedness and joyfulness. If you want your relationship to thrive, make it a habit to flood your partner with appreciation.
Don’t wait for a special reason!
Couples reach out for therapy, on average, seven years after their relationship begins to struggle. We can only speculate how Charlie and Nicole’s relationship might have been rescued if they had sought therapy earlier on in the or at least, when the therapy finally happened, if they had both at least agreed to read their respective appreciation letters to each other.
Coming back to my starting point, what was it in this movie that touched so many of us? I think it’s that when we watch this couple we recognise ourselves. The film evokes the pain that we may be suffering or have suffered in our current or a past relationship. But now we can see both sides and we despair as the couple move steadily apart, missing chance after chance to restore their relationship. Perhaps we think of our own unspoken conversations and missed opportunities.
'Marriage Story' doesn't show us the alternative option, an open and conscious partnership and journey of healing, growth and joy. Maybe the next movie can be more like 'Sliding Doors' where the couple are given another chance and learn what would have been possible if they had gained awareness with skilled support at an earlier stage.
This article was written by couples therapist and parental advisor Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari. With a doctorate in Psychology, Dr Ben-Ari has worked in the field for over 20 years and runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London. She is also an author, speaker, therapist supervisor and has been the Chair of Imago UK since 2013.