Review of The Marriage Story from a divorce mediator

WARNING-  the following contains spoilers.  Don’t read it if you have not yet seen the film.

The Marriage Story is a great film which movingly portrayed the end of a marriage, and also portrayed the pitfalls of litigation, and how mediation could have helped save money and resolve conflicts. Difficult topics were explored deeply. The failure of communication and misunderstanding which caused the divorce was laid bare for us to see. But I want to start by focusing on the role of the divorce professionals which was horrifying.

First of all, the mediator was so ineffectual, I winced.  I would never start a mediation by saying ‘It’s going to get very dark and difficult and I want you to have a piece of light and happiness to remember during those dark times in this awful and difficult process.’  No wonder the wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johannson) stood up and stormed out!!

People are nervous and sad (among other emotions) when they come to my office.  I want to help them to heal – to take deep breaths – to be reassured that they have come someplace where we have done this before – where they will get guidance and support so that they can move forward; that we will help them to figure out the puzzle of how to restructure their lives in a workable, fair and affordable way, and we will stay with them till they come out the other end. 

I was stunned, also, by how ineffective the divorce attorneys were at communicating with their clients.  In several scenes, the attorneys talked and laughed about events they had both attended – vacations, dinners – oblivious to their clients’ feelings, waiting while their lives and their child’s welfare are up for grabs. 

Charlie (Adam Driver) is an intense and passionate theatre director, and his wife, Nicole, is the star actor in his theatre troupe. 

This marriage ended because Nicole felt like Charlie’s voice was so strong that she couldn’t hear the voice in her own head.  She didn’t know what she wanted when she was around him.

Is that his fault?  Or her fault?  Most likely a combination of both.

Charlie bears some responsibility for failing to notice that Nicole didn’t contribute to their decision-making.  He was getting what he wanted, and he didn’t stop to think about why he always got what he wanted.  In a balanced relationship no one gets 100% of what they want.  (Sorry to disappoint you, kids.)

But Nicole also has some responsibility for not having communicated that she felt she didn’t have a voice in decisions. 

Somehow, the whole case gets whisked away to California and it’s not quite clear how that happened.  It certainly is not clear that it was the intent of Nicole or Charlie to have the case move to California. 

Maybe Nicole did want to move to California.  But it seemed at the beginning of the film that she was going to do one job and planned to come back to New York, where she was a successful, respected actor.   Her attorney (Laura Dern) said, ‘We have to file suit here,’  ‘Let’s set you up, enroll your child in school, and make this a California case.’  Nicole did not say ‘yes, that’s what I want,’ nor did she say, ‘wait, that is not what I want.’  It didn’t seem to be about Nicole – it was what the attorney advised that she do.

At no point did either attorney say:

            “Here is what litigation looks like.” 

            “Here is what it might cost you.” 

            “You have to decide – do you want to move to California, and take Henry away from his father, and live here permanently?  If yes – here is what that would look like.  If we win, Henry will live with you.  He will see his father summers and school breaks – but he won’t really grow up with his dad. 

            “And there’s a good chance you could lose.  Your life is in New York, Henry is in school in New York, he’s lived in New York his whole life.  Your work is in New York, you are a well-known and successful actor in New York.  And Charlie works in NY theatre, and just won a Macarthur grant.  He may well be able to prove more easily to a judge that the locus of your lives is in New York.”

No one said these things to Charlie, either.  None of the California attorneys communicated to him his strong arguments for filing for a divorce in New York and seeking to have Henry back in NYC with him.  Charlie is now relegated to a life where he will spend hours each month on planes – with his work suffering, not to mention the cost – in order to be a part-time father.     

So whose ‘fault’ is it?  Nicole seems to have no more of a voice in her divorce than she had in her marriage.  But neither did Charlie.  And the lawyers probably each earned $100,000 in fees.

Near the end of the film, Nicole and Charlie sit down together, for the first time, to try to discuss and resolve the divorce.  (As a mediator, I was thinking – great!  What took them so long to try this?)

They discuss the costs of litigation.  Nicole’s mother is taking out a home equity loan to pay her lawyer.  Charlie is also broke.  The litigation will hurt their ability to save for Henry’s college.  They discuss the unpleasant invasiveness of the pending child custody evaluation.  Nicole says, “Can we try to discuss this and resolve it ourselves?” 

But they are unable to do so, without a mediator to help them.  They need to figure out where they want to live, long-term, and what are their options?  What is best for Henry, and for their respective careers? 

But they are not able to stick to these important topics.  They can’t resist accusations and blame, each wanting to feel more like a victim than a perpetrator.  The conversation devolves into hitting ‘below the belt’ as one can only do with someone with whom one has been intimately involved:

                        ‘you are just like your father,’

                        ‘you’re just like your mother,’

                        ‘you f—d someone else,’

                        ‘because you stopped having sex with me for the last year’

                        ‘thinking of sleeping with you makes me want to tear off my skin,’

                        ‘I wake up every morning wishing you were dead!’   

Had they tried to have that conversation with an effective mediator, they could have been guided through that conversation, to avoid devolving into such viciousness.  A mediator could have helped them to express their hurt and fears more directly, while focusing on the things that needed to be resolved, in order to settle the case. 

In one of the more painful moments, Charlie said “you’re winning,” and Nicole said “are you kidding me?”  Charlie punches a hole in the wall, and both are sobbing.  There are no winners here.