Lessons from the movie ‘Marriage Story’

Anyone who is involved in the process of divorce will tell you that most couples start off from a place of wanting an amicable divorce, but few end up getting one.

‘WHEN YOU are forced into a zero-sum game, it is incredibly difficult to switch to a different track.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘WHEN YOU are forced into a zero-sum game, it is incredibly difficult to switch to a different track.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Anyone who is involved in the process of divorce will tell you that most couples start off from a place of wanting an amicable divorce, but few end up getting one. For those who have been through a divorce, the movie Marriage Story will feel familiar.
In the movie two people – two apparently good people who have every intention of having an amicable divorce – find themselves in a courtroom with lawyers throwing accusations at each other. We are drawn into their marriage and their story from the first moments where Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) describe each other in glowing terms in letters to each other, only to find that these letters have been at the behest of the mediator employed by the two in an attempt to start the process of separation.
Charlie is a charming and successful theater director while Nicole was a young semi-successful actress in Los Angeles who moved to New York to be with Charlie and was his starring actress. Together they have an eight-year-old son whom they both adore. Dissatisfied with her marriage, suspecting infidelity and feeling that her needs are ignored by Charlie, Nicole appears to instigate the separation. From the beginning, both act on the assumption that the other will act reasonably and that they will be able to work it out themselves. However, the couple soon begin to climb the “divorce escalator” at high speed.
The divorce escalator is a term used to describe the common phenomenon where events take over the process and others dictate the decisions to be made. From the moment Nicole employs her lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), the couple are caught in timetables and procedures, not of their making or choosing. The movie portrays how some lawyers can encourage their clients to take extreme positions from the start. As the shark lawyer Charlie employs, Jay Morrota (Ray Liotta) says, “If they start from a place of crazy and we start from a place of reasonable, when we settle we will be somewhere between reasonable and crazy.”
The film cleverly shows how when you are forced into a zero-sum game, it is incredibly difficult to switch to a different track. Charlie originally chooses a less aggressive lawyer, Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), who encourages settlement, but then swaps to the aggressive Morrota when the fear of losing Henry overtakes him.
Unfortunately, we see just one clip of the couple with a mediator at the beginning of the movie, and it appears that the mediation fails. The shortage of face-to-face discussions and the involvement of legal proceedings without mediation accents just how quickly the process becomes contentious. The lack of mediator is also apparent in a central scene where Charlie tries to talk it through with Nicole but, without a moderator or mediator, the conversation fails, ending in a huge fight between them.
The movie is beautifully directed, at times as melancholy yet including humor. Many try to tell the story of separation through the prism of the ugliness and bitterness of divorce, but Noah Baumbach (writer, director and producer), no stranger to divorce himself, having been a child of divorce and having gone through his own, depicts the characters not as bitter, but hurt, and more a victim of the system than of their own actions.
He astutely reveals how without realizing it, once you are within the system, it can spiral quickly out of your control.
As the conflict escalates and the fears of the couple expand, they are forced into more drastic action. As the well-known saying goes (which is quoted in the movie), “Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best, divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.”  Marriage Story depicts well how, what would seem to be innocent mistakes, which within a context of a marriage would be insignificant and forgotten, are, in the framework of divorce, exaggerated and held up to scrutiny. An extra glass of wine or the strapping in of a car seat become issues which are blown up into major character flaws in court, resulting in further hurt to the couple and to their relationship. As Nicole’s lawyer, Nora says, “The system rewards bad behavior.”
The movie also touches on many aspects that those who have gone through divorce will recognize, such as the shift in allegiances from family members, with Nicole saying to her mother and sister – who clearly love Charlie – that her mother “can’t be friends with him anymore.” It skilfully portrays that the familiarity, affection and love between the couple doesn’t just suddenly disappear when divorce papers are served and continues despite the acrimony. Added to this is a look at the financial cost of divorce with a discussion between Nicole and Charlie how the cost of the lawyers is eating into any college fund money for their son and when Nicole’s mother takes out a loan against her home to help pay for the lawyers’ fees. This is not unusual, as contested divorces can cost 10 times the amount of a non-contested mediated divorce in professional fees.
Although it is sometimes hard to watch the breakdown of a marriage, the movie has a lot to teach about the process of divorce and how to (and how not to) come out the other side. It is a warning to those about to embark on the process of divorce about the challenges they may face and about trying to find the right people to help them through it. The movie contains many lessons about how to try to achieve, if not a completely amicable divorce, one that is more within the couple’s control and retains their dignity whilst managing the financial costs and emotional anguish levels through the process.
The writer qualified as a lawyer in the UK and is a licensed mediator both in England and in Israel. She currently resides in Jerusalem, where she has a mediation practice specializing in mediation for English speakers. mediationinisrael.com; [email protected]