Marriage Story. A Tale of Attachment, Love..and Divorce
Everybody is talking about "Marriage Story". In case you have been a bit distracted and away from Netflix, social media, film reviews and casual conversations, I am referring to the new, semi-autobiographical movie directed by Noah Baumbach , starring Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson. Both actors are phenomenal but there is something about Adam Driver's performance which I found exceptional and incredibly natural, his emotions were so real that I felt them all on my skin.
It does not come as a surprise at all that the director knows divorce very closely, having gone through his parents divorce which inspired at least one of his earlier movies, The Squid and The Whale (2005), and his own divorce. I truly enjoyed Marriage Story and it was definitely hard to stop myself thinking about it for the last week. Here are a few reflections from an exquisitely thoughtful, insightful and psychologically sophisticated movie.
Marriage Story is definitely a story of a marriage, but quite an atypical one. It only narrates one stage of the marriage: the end, the separation and divorce but nevertheless it is undoubtedly a tale of love.
The opening of the movie feels cruel to the audience: New York based husband Charlie (Adam Driver) and wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) share what they most love about each other, presumably answering a therapist’s question. We are brought straight in the daily intimacy of a lovely family, into the special tiny moments that compose a life together like little dots in a complex yet perfect pointillist painting. So much to be fond of : them as individuals, their couple, their routine, their family life.
Five minutes or so later, Baumbach gives us a slap on the face when we discover he has not brought us in a couple therapy session. We are instead in a Mediation meeting. In case you do not know, mediation crucially differs from Couple therapy as the aim is not to help the couple figuring out what is the best for their future as a couple, whether they work towards staying together or taking separate paths. In mediation, the couple holds no more the hope to stay together. The focus is to achieve a separation that is least likely to harm their child. The damage to the marriage has been deemed beyond repair. The decision has been made.
Although devastating, there is also a calm about their decision to separate and go through divorce. Nicole, actress, has (temporarily, or that is what Charlie believes) moved to LA with their child Henry, to star in a new Tv serie. Charlie, husband and theatre director, has flown to visit Henry and to figure out the next step of the separation process with Nicole. At this stage, filling the shoes of two people going through divorce feels very awkward to both partners. They are confident they will figure it all out amicably, informally without surrendering to the ugliness and the escalation.
This is what commonly happens when we go through stressful and adverse live events. We do not believe it is happening to us and even when we eventually do, we are adamant that we will not behave like everyone else, we are better than that. The universal rules will not apply to us.
But at some point there is one step in a different direction, a choice or "faux pas" that brings us back to being simple human in all its weakness and rawness. That calm Nicole and Charlie initially felt is of course doomed to disappear, the divorce becomes real and the whole process brutally moves into the divorce lawyers realm.
The separating couple loses control, simply because it is impossible to agree on how to split a whole life in two equal parts, one family in two perfectly symmetrical families with the same child at the centre.
This is masterfully symbolised in the Halloween scene of the film. Both parents cherish spending Halloween with their 8 years old son, Henry, but they are not a stage where they can spend the day together, it does not feel right. Henry will have to have two Halloweens on the same day: first with Mum then with Dad. By the time Henry reaches Adam Driver’s house, he is exhausted and not keen at all for a second late night Trick or Treat. But it does not feel fair for the father to miss out on such magical moment and ritual they shared since Henry was born. Indeed it is definitely unfair for Henry. As it frequently happens in divorce, demands on the children risk to be impossible to meet and damaging.
In that scene, we cannot help vividly feeling the pain of each family member, shattered and miserable, desperately trying to adapt to the new reality.
There are very few movies that depict divorce so poignantly like Marriage Story. Inevitably it made me think of "Kramer vs Kramer" (1979) the whole time. But while Robert Benton's movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep had the love of a father for his child and their relationship at the centre of the story, in Marriage Story it is the love between the divorcing partners for their child and each other , making it much more complex, contradictory and irresolvable.
Anyone who ever thought that divorcing may be a decision taken too lightly or who simplified it as "throwing the towel in " will have to reconsider their beliefs after watching this movie. There are few decisions that are harder than divorcing and nothing can take the pain away from the partners, children and also their extended families that got attached to the family as it was.
Love does not end with divorce. The couple relationship, their routines, projects and hopes do.
In the aftermath, short and long term, there will be so many “leftover” feelings, emotions, memories that are not consistent and do not find peace with the decision of divorcing even when there is a mutual agreement that it is the only possible step forward.
To put it simply, often divorce seems like the only choice but it still does not make any sense, like illness or death or loss. Feelings for each other and their journey through life together will still be alive and individuals will have to find a way to incorporate them with their present and future, with the next stage of their separate journeys. It is definitely a mourning process.
Baumbach reminds us that Love and Divorce are far from being incompatible nor mutually excluding.
Once again, Attachment theory helps us understand and clarify the complexity of feelings experienced through divorce. When a couple relationship is formed and partners plan to share their lives together, an attachment process has taken place. Partners rely on each other for love, caregiving, protection and interdependence. It is a strong natural instinct embedded in our sociobiological heritage. If the couple will welcome children, that attachment may become even more strong: now the partners not only rely on each other but they are also responsible to protect and love a third (and fourth etc.) helpless, vulnerable member. If conflicts within the couple become repetitive, unmanageable and irresolvable, and these usually stem from emotional disconnection, partners may come to the decision of separating but that attachment is likely be very resistant to be ripped apart. Some parts of each partner may rebel, it may feel like going against nature. The scenes where Charlie and Nicole viciously argue - “Honey…sorry..I just keep saying that” and their desperate embrace after insulting each other- or when Charlie helps her fixing the gate and Nicole cut his hair or tie his shoelaces like she always used to do during their marriage, portray this process so beautifully and painfully.
The challenge that separated couples face is to actually keep some attachment for each other with the aim of protecting their children and guarantee their physical survival and- more relevant and challenging- their psychological wellbeing, and at the same time allowing themselves to move on. But keeping some of that attachment (I am obviously referring to relationships where there had been no abuse or violence) is also crucial for couples who do not have children: it will allow them to integrate that part of their life to their experience and even help them forming new relationships in the future.
While watching Marriage Story until the very end, I debated whether there was any hope for Nicole and Charlie and I could not help wondering what had been the turning point in their story, the moment where conflicts and misunderstandings were still "fixable". If they had been honest to each other much earlier in their life together and addressed their problems, if they had realised they were slowly but sharply disconnecting at an emotional level, would have survived as a couple?
But this is a very difficult question to answer. The same question that couple therapists may be asked or ask themselves when they meet a couple: is there a hope here? What is the best for them?
And it is a question that only going through the very core of the pain in an honest and brave journey together the couple will be able to figure out.
Marriage Story is painful but it is also strangely hopeful and positive. Yes, divorce may happen to anyone, as an adult or as a child of divorced parents, and there is no way out of the pain that it causes but it is the way partners will handle and confront their own contradictory emotions, persisting conflicts and be aware of their attachment history and patterns that will ultimately make a difference for themselves, their children and their whole family systems.