No Common Sense, & No Help  

Here’s my final critique of this movie: a basic lack of common sense exhibited by the various participants.

  • What Were Nicole & Charlie Thinking?
  1. How could such empathetic people possibly allow their family to be hi-jacked into a painful, expensive legal process that neither wanted?
  2. Why were they so darn passive about what was being done to them?
  3. Recognizing how important each other was to their son Henry, how could they be so clueless about how living 3000 miles away would impact their child?

Fortunately, my experience as a mediator and Collaborative attorney is that divorcing couples in real life are rarely so oblivious. The overwhelming majority with kids accept the shared responsibility to put children first as we re-structure our family.

  • Where are the Therapists?

As with most of us who divorce, Charlie and Nicole are trying to survive one ofthe greatest challenges of their lives.  In one scene, Nicole angrily tells her mother (who obviously still cares for her son-in-law) “You can’t love him anymore!”  In another, Charlie melts down and screams that he wishes Nicole were dead.   These poor folks are clearly in an emotional and spiritual crisis.

So…. why did they apparently never consult their own therapists or a child specialist? Did it never occur to either of them, or any of their family or friends, that they should such basic help?

 In Marriage Story, we see lots of potential building blocks that could have helped this couple but were ignored. They showed a lot of care for each other: Nicole helped Charlie choose a sandwich during a tense attorney meeting; Charlie rushed to her home during a power outage and Nicole ended up cutting his hair; Nicole, after agreeing to flex the parenting schedule to provide more “dad time”, tenderly tied Charlie’s shoe while he cradled a sleeping Henry. At the end of the movie, Charlie reads Nicole’s appreciations of him aloud to Henry, reinforcing that this boy is free to love both of his parents fully.  After the lawyers move on to their next case, this family has a long and promising future together.

                             The philosopher Theodor W. Adorno wrote:                          

   Divorce, even between good-natured, amiable, educated people,

is apt to stir up a dust-cloud that covers and discolors all it touches.”

 

What if these nice people had that dynamic normalized for them and were offered the skilled guidance they needed to see through the inevitable emotional haze of their breakup? What if peaceful divorce professionals had committed to helping Charlie and Nicole recognize their strengths instead of their weaknesses? What if they had been reminded of the decades, they had ahead of them as a re-structured family?

  • Conclusion

What’s most frustrating to me about Marriage Story is that it ignores all that we’ve learned in the last 40 years about helping divorcing families.  It unnecessarily scares couples into thinking that, should they be among the almost 50% of us who divorce, they will be inevitably sucked into a vortex of recrimination, expense and pain.  And, as I’ve had to reassure frightened clients over the few months since the movie’s release, that’s simply untrue.  Peaceful divorce is not only possible, it’s becoming the norm in our society through mediation and Collaborative Law.  I just wish this film had offered that good news instead of the unrealistic horror story it portrayed.

~~~

Jim O’Connor, Collaborative Attorney / Mediator
3939 NE Hancock St., Ste. 309
Portland, OR 97212
503-473-8242

Jim’s Website
Email Jim

It Ignored Current Options for Peaceful Divorce

In my first installment, I gave a synopsis of the film and noted the bad, and even unethical lawyering that was shown. Now, I’ll describe more ways the movie failed to show the peaceful processes that are currently being used by a majority of divorcing couples.

Collaborative Law vs. the Adversarial Legal System.

As kindly attorney Bert explains to his confused client Charlie, “We have to prepare to go to court so we don’t have to go to court.” This is akin to the idea of preparing for war to avoid war. Yet, that is the essence of traditional legal practice: in nearly 100% of cases, advocates prepare for a trial (at great emotional and financial costs to their clients) when less than 10% will actually end up before a Judge.

The crucial game-changer in the Collaborative process is that both lawyers commit that neither will ever appear in court. This frees the attorneys to focus all their efforts, skills and experience on achieving win-win, family-centered solutions.  As a foundation for this work, the parties list their goals from the process. When kids are involved, the reality is that the divorcing adults will necessarily have an ongoing relationship as co-parents, probably for the rest of their lives. Peaceful divorce professionals recognize the need to assist our clients in managing their current pain so they may maintain the bridges that will continue to connect them with their children, and all family members with their soon-to-be former in laws. Our job is to help folks navigate the rough waters of their break-up, to a better future on the other side.

Mediation in Real Life.

Marriage Story provided only a very limited, unflattering look at mediation. We never learn how Nicole and Charlie chose the process and only one very brief session is shown. The mediator was presented as a sort of hippie-ish stereotype. While I loved his homework for these parents to write appreciations of each other, he completely fails to effectively tap that rich resource of good will. Several times, the mediator pushes Nicole to read her comments about Charlie (which we know from the opening voice-overs to be very sweet). Yet it is absolutely clear that she is simply not ready to do so right then. What a terrible box this unskilled mediator puts her in: ready or not, be vulnerable enough to list all the wonderful things about the husband and co-parent whom you have decided to divorce.

It was both disrespectful and ineffective for the mediator to pressure Nicole in this way. Why not table the appreciations and just ask both to keep in mind the many wonderful things they like about the other during the ongoing work of re-structuring their family? Maybe they could have emailed their comments to each other to be read and absorbed in a safer, more private way. Instead, this treasure trove of mutual love and respect was wasted when it could have helped transform the experience of their divorce.

Well-trained mediators accept and support their client wherever they happen to find them. Generally, over time, as the pain and stress levels decrease, things often soften between partners. In Marriage Story, the mediator’s failure of empathy essentially ends that peaceful process and sends the family to the battlefield of litigation. I’m frustrated at the film’s failure to offer a more realistic and hopeful portrayal of mediation which in 2020 is the most common method that couples are choosing to divorce.

Stay tuned for the final installment of my review of Marriage Story: Nicole and Charlie’s many missed opportunities for an easier family transition.

~~~

Jim O’Connor, Collaborative Attorney / Mediator
3939 NE Hancock St., Ste. 309
Portland, OR 97212
503-473-8242

Jim’s Website
Email Jim