My thoughts at the closing credits of Marriage Story? “That’s too bad it turned out that way.”
(SPOILER ALERT: the movie might be more appropriately titled “End-of-Marriage Story.”)
If you can’t catch Marriage Story streaming on Netflix, here’s a synopsis of the film:
The critically acclaimed divorce drama– now with six nominations from both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes– tells the story of a relationship rift from the perspective of both partners. Charlie is a thriving theatre director in New York and his wife, Nicole, stars in his play which is bound for Broadway. When Nicole is offered an acting role across the country, she accepts. She feels that Charlie’s career has taken center stage for years and no longer wants to live in his shadow. In addition, she suspects that he’s been having an affair.
Though the couple initially agrees to a civil dissolution of their relationship, things quickly turn sour when high-powered lawyers, with an expensive price tag, get involved.
Marriage Story: A Poignant Divorce Drama
We all know that divorce can be expensive. The average cost of divorce in North Carolina is between $13,000 and $20,000. Yet, it wasn’t the outrageous amount the couple spent on their divorce that left me feeling defeated.
Instead, my discouragement came from watching two people that still had feelings for each other devolve into versions of themselves they never wanted to be, demanding things from each other they never intended to demand.
Unfortunately that’s the ugly reality of many divorces. The process has the potential to escalate division and resentment. It can pulverize a relationship past the point of reconciliation or, at the very least, goodwill.
Marriage Story is a poignant peek into those dark corners of divorce.
Even though I’m a couples therapist, I don’t automatically think couples “sticking it out” is best. Some couples have even thanked me profusely when I help them decide to separate with respect and compassion. However, I do think that the way things played out for the couple in Marriage Story was a shame. Studies have shown that up to 54% of divorcees have regrets related to their divorce five years later. It’s safe to say Marriage Story elicited that sense of disappointment in me, and probably millions of other viewers.
The movie has left many wondering, could the couple have saved their relationship and avoided all that pain? As a couples therapist, it’s hard to say without having the opportunity to work with them. However, I can offer a few insights for relationships that are on the brink.
Give Your Relationship CPR
Many couples reach a “breaking point” that pushes them to counseling or the initial stages of divorce. A call-to-action moment could be a blowout argument or the discovery/disclosure of infidelity. Other couples experience compounding conflict that eventually becomes intolerable. It’s common for these couples to feel that the relationship is “too far gone” and irreparable.
Despite what couples might tell themselves, it may not be too late. I don’t believe in calling a “time of death” on relationships until all relationship-saving options have been exhausted. Instead, I view relationships on the brink as injured or wounded. Acute care from a trained professional is necessary. Outside help can shed light on blindspots, offer new perspectives, and create a deeper level of emotional and physical intimacy.
Lay Down Your Weapons
Threats are the antithesis to resolution. Many couples come to counseling or mediation “armed.” Some use language as a weapon while others hide behind an emotional shield, failing to be open and vulnerable to the process.
When seeing couples in my office, I have them agree to take divorce off the table for a short period of time. This reduces threat and creates a temporary space of stability and security that is crucial to the therapeutic process. Partners need to be willing to hear each other out, have empathy, acknowledge wrongdoings, and commit to a period of repair.
At the same time, no one should feel trapped in a relationship they truly don’t want. If things aren’t improving after the agreed upon trial time, we revisit separation.
Make Agreements Now. They Get Harder Later.
Many couples experience conflict when they can’t come to mutual agreements. Disagreements can center around domestic responsibilities, parenting, finances, and everything in between. In Marriage Story, Nicole and Charlie couldn’t agree on whose career should come first: her acting role in LA or his Broadway production in NYC.
The irony of their story, and countless other cases, is that when couples divorce, they are forced to make agreements–often with higher stakes and deeper hurts. For example, couples who disagree often on budgeting may ultimately have to divide their property. And couples that struggled to co-parent have to determine visitation and coordinate parenting from afar.
I urge couples who can’t find a middle ground on their own to have the hard conversations in a safe, contained space, before hostility grows. With the guidance of an experienced couples therapist or mediator, partners can negotiate terms that are mutually beneficial.
Find An Experience Couples Therapist or Collaborative Divorce Attorney
The reality is that, when it comes to divorce, many lawyers are “in it to win it,” looking out for their individual client instead of promoting a win-win outcome. Before seeking out an attorney to go to battle for you, consider finding a trained professional willing to go to battle for your relationship.
In my private practice of couples counseling, I view the couple as my client. Together, we put the relationship first and use that as a foundation for all negotiations. Should you decide to divorce, consider collaborative divorce. Attorneys work together, outside of the courtroom, to find compromises that work for everyone involved. This style of divorce is also less expensive and less time-consuming.