Marriage Story's Heartbreaking Lessons on Love, Divorce, and Growing Apart
In the trailer for Marriage Story, a voiceover reads a list of attributes that the movie's two main characters, a married couple, like about each other. The lists are lovely, if predictable. Charlie (Adam Driver), claims to like that Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) “gives great presents” and is “a mother who plays. Really plays.” We learn that they’re both competitive and they each like that about the other. Nicole is “brave” and “a great dancer” and “knows when to push me and when to leave me alone,” and Charlie is “a great dresser, never looks embarrassing, which is hard for a man.” Nicole likes that Charlie “cries easily in movies” and “loves being a dad.”
Maybe because the trailer came out over the summer, at the height of wedding season, the list reminded me of marriage vows. So much so that I assumed before I saw the film that the voiceover came to us from some earlier time in the relationship, when Nicole and Charlie found each other. I spent the summer listening to my friends promise always to talk things over with an IPA, or to love each other even when they get cranky on hikes. To forgive one another for leaving their underwear in the bathroom and singing off-key. They spoke about how much they loved each other's corny dance moves and sense of justice. I suppose for this reason I assumed that this list of likes came from the genre: An accounting of delights told for an affectionate audience during a time of sweetness.
But in fact, what we learn quite early in the film, is that these two lists weren’t anything of the kind. They were an assignment from a divorce mediator, who thinks starting the process of legal separation with a reminder that Charlie and Nicole once liked and even loved each other is a good idea. The two have brought their lists and hold onto them like little grudges in tupperware. Charlie weakly offers to read his, but Nicole doesn’t want to. The mediator, bless his heart, says it’s only going to work if they both do it. Nicole won’t so they don’t.
As I watched this scene it made all the sense in the world to me. Charlie and Nicole have the postures of people who have reached the end of a long and painful journey, and neither wants to look behind them. Reading the list would be an act of humility, a thing which is nearly impossible to summon when you’ve been beaten to the ground, and just barely crawled to safety, as Nicole and Charlie assume they have. But the mediator never appears on screen again. Instead we meet a series of attorneys, one sharp, one blunt, one played with fearsome power by Laura Dern, none of whom will encourage anything like this for the rest of the movie. From a plot perspective, Marriage Story is a divorce story; we go on to watch Charlie and Nicole duke it out in progressively more antagonistic situations until they are fully in the land of acrimony. What Charlie and Nicole think is the end is just the beginning. Their divorce, I left the theater believing, was far worse than their marriage ever was.
The greatest source of acrimony is their kid. Since Charlie and Nicole are white creative professionals, that kid is named Henry. Marriage Story, for all its focus on Henry, is a story told entirely from the perspective of the adults in the marriage, a choice that caused me great heaviness of heart. We are meant to assume that Henry has no idea what’s going on at virtually any time in the movie, an attractive myth that I imagine many parents tell themselves during divorces.
Poor Henry and his car seat are dragged all over town from this lawyer’s office to that poorly decorated apartment (why, in L.A., must all apartments of the newly-divorced have vertical blinds?), and the antagonisms are all supposedly conducted in his name. But I felt bad for this kid. He has trouble reading, his parents don’t seem to know at what age kids no longer need car seats, and he is forced to trick-or-treat while extremely tired.
Now, I suppose, is the moment to tell you, assuming you hadn’t already guessed, that my parents are divorced. Like Charlie and Nicole, my parents wore each other’s spirits down to little nubs during their divorce. The process brought out the worst in them, and though it didn’t destroy my sense that relationships could contain goodness, they certainly weathered it. They divorced when I was a young adult so I never had to endure multiple Halloweens, but was forced to watch them withhold small charities from each other because they mistook them for big ones. The destruction was mutually-assured and only grew more intense as the divorce wore on. By the time it finished—to the extent that a divorce is ever “finished,” a phenomenon that Marriage Story acknowledges beautifully—after something in the ballpark of 6 years, none of us would ever be the same.
My father recently, claiming lack of storage, brought a trove of old keepsakes over to my apartment. Most of it was trash: old report cards (I did ok, but not great in 6th grade), letters from my parents when I was at camp, anatomically incorrect drawings of animals. But taken together, they made a set of lists my parents never read to each other, certainly not at the end, and perhaps not ever.
In Marriage Story, one of the lists does get read, eventually, but by accident and far too late. Over beers after watching the film, my husband and I discussed this. He thought it was sweet. Tears are shed, there is regret. The room is filled with the sense that Charlie, Nicole, and Henry will always be a family, although it now takes a new form. The list, my husband argued, comes late but better than never and its reading does this child and this couple—this family—some good to know that once, they loved each other.
But on behalf of Henries everywhere, I want you to know that no, it does not. The point of the list is to prevent wounds in the first place, not to stanch the bleeding. The lists were to keep the divorce from dissolving the family. When we finally hear it in the movie, there is nothing sweet about it.
I loved Marriage Story for its portrayal of the conditions that lead us into cruelty, and also for its quiet instructions on how to prevent it. I think things could have been easier on Charlie and Nicole if they'd told each other what the trailer told us. Things could have been different for my parents. Things can be different for you. The pain of reading the list is surely smaller than the pains they endured in the courtroom. Their silences begat not more silences but louder and more public fights, as is so often the case. We all have our lists. They may not be literal lists. They may be fears, or secret soft spots. They may be bundles of feelings we wrap up tight, thinking if we let them loose, the one we love will turn them into a weapon.
Saying “I love you” is hardest when your partner has hurt you and you have been stripped to your skeleton by your own mistakes. Those of us with partners have probably heard it emerge from their mouths sounding like a statement of duty more than emotion. It’s a phrase that we beg for, but when we get it, it’s not the gift we wanted. "I love you" can feel empty, nonspecific. "I love you because you are my spouse" is perfectly fine, logic-wise, but what's to fight for in that?
So here is my recommendation: in your next fight, read your list. Pull it from your pocket and read it because she does not know what's on it. She doesn't know that you love how she pauses conversations with humans to talk to dogs. Don’t assume he knows that you like that he’s memorized the subway map. If he has exquisite taste in socks, tell him. If you like that she reads widely and hungrily, you should let her know. If he’s loyal to his friends or can carry a tune and you like that, please, I implore you, tell him.