Promotional Poster from Netflix Film Marriage Story directed by Noah Baumbach and starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson

Theatrical Release Poster*

Most divorce professionals have “seen this movie before” in their own practices.

As a divorce professional for the last 20 years, I’ve been involved in more than one ugly divorce as I am sure you can imagine.  The stories are similar and seem to go one of two ways.  Either the parties get to a place where they can work through their differences out of court or the case devolves into a nightmare scenario where parents give up all control to a broken adversarial legal system.

The second option of the completely messed up divorce experience is powerfully portrayed in Marriage Story, now streaming on Netflix.  With a fantastic screenplay by Noah Baumbach, the film is the recipient of multiple Oscar nominations such as best actress, best actor, best picture, best supporting actress, best original screenplay and best original music score.  It’s a tour de force of acting prowess that made the critics very happy.  Marriage Story shines a light on the emotional trauma an adversarial process can cause when parties cede control of their families to the judicial system.

Our protagonists, Charlie (played by Adam Driver) and Nicole (played by Scarlett Johansson) are an artsy theater couple living in New York with an 8-year-old son.  We learn quickly that they are trying for an amicable split, but after a disastrous meeting with a less than competent mediator, things go pretty far south.  Mom moves to LA to reboot her acting career while Dad stays in New York.  While in LA, Mom hires a shark of an attorney in the form of Laura Dern.  What follows is the typical sorrow, pain and emotional destruction of the adversarial litigated divorce.

(An aside: The scene with the bumbling mediator would be great to use in a mediation training as an example of what a mediator should NOT do.)

Emotional Ambiguity is “Par for the Course” in Family Law

While the film gets some of the law not quite right, it nails the ambiguity and conflict experienced by a couple in divorce who are estranged yet still have good feelings somewhere- even if buried deeply.  In reality, when people marry and especially when there are children, there is a thread of positive in the feelings even when there is hurt and anger from a divorce.  I have learned as a family law mediator that the more tightly and deeply a person buries the good feelings for their ex, the greater the remaining love actually is.  Betrayal and hurt from a person one loves stings much more acutely than when it’s a person one cares less for.

Uncovering that Remnant of Good Feeling

Sometimes a remedy mediators use to find accord is to help the parties find that string of good feeling that remains – no matter how difficult to find and how small it is.  Litigation does the opposite. It creates new negative feelings and wounds unnecessarily, which chokes out the possibility for positivity and accord.

Divorce Litigation Disempowers

Further, divorce litigation takes control away from the parties.  It is disempowering, emasculating, demoralizing, debilitating and impoverishing. One particular scene in the film shows the lawyers arguing in the courtroom in front of a judge while Charlie and Nicole watch helplessly.  The attorneys take simple mistakes or misunderstandings and elevate them into unmitigated crimes against humanity.  While their horror is clear, they seem transfixed and paralyzed as the mutual assured destruction continues.

I’ve learned that such hyperbole argued in a courtroom tends to accomplish little.  One wise practitioner once warned me that it is rare for a person to be as horrible as portrayed by the ex spouse.  Insults hurled across the court room tend to boomerang.  This truth holds: water seeks its own level.  Said more coarsely, “Mother Teresa doesn’t marry Hitler.”

So, if you are a divorce practitioner, you owe it to your clients to watch this film as a window into what is going on when you aren’t there- the unintended consequences of a less than careful application of our craft.  If you are contemplating a divorce or are in the throws of divorce conflict, you owe it to yourself and your children to watch this film so you can be alerted to the dangers and pitfalls that may befall you without taking care.  As I always tell my prospective clients, the decision of HOW you divorce is almost as important as the decisions TO divorce.

*Note:  The Marriage Story Theatrical Release Poster shown above is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, Netflix, the publisher of the film or the graphic artist.  We use the image in this blog post to serve as the primary means of visual identification at the tip of the article dedicated to the work in question. 

Minimal Use: The image is used for identification in the context of critical commentary of the work, product or service for which it serves as poster art. It makes a significant contribution to the user’s understanding of the article, which could not practically be conveyed by words alone. The image is placed at the top of the article discussing the work, to show the primary visual image associated with the work, and to help the user quickly identify the work, product or service and know they have found what they are looking for. Use for this purpose does not compete with the purposes of the original artwork, namely the creator providing graphic design services, and in turn the marketing of the promoted item.  In fact, the use in this blog post serves to promote paid viewing of the film in question.

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*Note:  The Marriage Story Theatrical Release Poster shown above is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, Netflix, the publisher of the film or the graphic artist.  We use the image in this blog post to serve as the primary means of visual identification at the top of the blog post dedicated to the work in question and as a featured image on this blog. 

Minimal Use: The image is used for identification in the context of critical commentary of the work, product or service for which it serves as poster art. It makes a significant contribution to the user’s understanding of the article, which could not practically be conveyed by words alone. The image is placed at the top of the article discussing the work, to show the primary visual image associated with the work, and to help the user quickly identify the work, product or service and know they have found what they are looking for. Use for this purpose does not compete with the purposes of the original artwork, namely the creator providing graphic design services, and in turn the marketing of the promoted item.  In fact, the use in this blog post serves to promote paid viewing of the film in question.