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A “Marriage Story” or Something Else?

A child loses in divorce

I learned a long time ago that being a psychotherapist can be hazardous to my movie viewing enjoyment. It’s not uncommon for me to watch a movie with growing annoyance about a toxic relationship, knowing that good therapy for the feuding protagonists could seriously ruin this plot.

So it was the other evening, as my husband and I relaxed on the couch after dinner looking forward to enjoying the new Netflix film “Marriage Story.” The film stars Scarlett Johannsson and Adam Driver—two fine actors who didn’t disappoint. The film itself was another story, literally, as it wasn’t a marriage story to my mind; It was a divorce story. And no spoiler alert is necessary here. All the reviewers are calling it a “divorce drama.” And that it certainly is.

What was I looking forward to? Maybe a few good laughs, maybe some insights or wisdom about the depths and beauty possible when two people live together so intimately, their innermost selves can be revealed. What had brought them together? What had they loved about each other? They had a child together. Was there something here that was worth saving, not only for the child but for each other?

Okay, at this point, I am about to reveal elements of the film, so you may want to stop reading—although I’m not giving much away. A coy Laura Dern and a conniving Ray Liotta are the crafty lawyers ramping up the misery and the expenses of the divorce—fighting to portray each partner as the one to blame. The characters are being goaded into their worst selves, triggered into existential fears, vicious angry episodes, grieving anguish, and serious financial loss. A good therapist would have been a whole lot cheaper. On many levels.

The Scarlett and Adam characters didn’t have a chance. The biggest loser in the story was their only child, an 8-year old son whose life would become coast to coast airplane trips to fulfill visiting rights with one parent in Los Angeles and another in New York City.

What I saw was a marriage falling apart because these two characters didn’t know how to deal with the distance that had grown between them, which, no doubt, they had co-created together. Had they gone to a therapist instead of a lawyer, the story could have turned out a lot different for themselves and their child.

I like to remind the couples I work with that unlike lawyers who advocate for one partner against the other, I advocate for both. Both people have to come away from the experience feeling seen and heard and learning new ways of responding to old triggers. Empathy, love and sexual aliveness with each other, not hatred, are the goals of this work.

But that would have been a different story—not as dramatic or Oscar-worthy. Or maybe so.

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