I remember sitting on a bed in a beautiful little bungalow on the beach in the island of Samoa where we decided to spend Christmas 2013. For all I knew, my marriage was over, there was no way we would ever forgive each other and ourselves for what had been said. The perfection of my surroundings, the water, the palm trees, the rock pool, the outdoor restaurant, contrasted with the absolute mess and darkness I felt inside. I was stuck on an island where I did not want to be, far away from my friends and support network, in too close proximity to my hostile husband, amongst all the cheerful celebrations.
We separated for several months in 2014. Five years later, it is Christmas again. I opened lots of beautiful and thoughtful presents from my loving husband. Our house was filled with joy until we had to break a fight between our children. We told them off for not being able to get on, not even on Christmas Day. I am smiling and seeing the irony. I know they will grow up and be just fine. People can change, relationships can heal. I know and I trust.
We watched ‘Marriage Story’ on Netflix the other day. That is quite typical of our times that a ‘Marriage Story’ be about divorce. Charlie (Adam Driver) is a theatre director in New York City and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) stars in his plays. I see two good people, who love each other and have a beautiful family, going through a crisis. Nicole feels she worked towards Charlie’s dream, not hers. She has the feeling that her life is not enough so she moves back to L.A. and asks for a divorce.
Nicole has difficulty asserting herself, which is demonstrated by the fact she uses her lawyer to voice her feelings and desires. She asks someone else to ‘serve’ Charlie the divorce papers. Her lack of assertiveness is aggravated by the fact that Charlie hasn’t taken seriously her complains and requests to move to L.A. for some time or to include her in the directing.
Nicole obviously struggles to have difficult conversations. During their marriage, she failed to speak up until her needs were being heard. Then, after they separated, she would not be fully open and honest about her intention to move to L.A. with their son. She did not try to have a discussion with Charlie to try to find an agreement that would be acceptable to both of them. Her communication style alternates between holding it in and lashing out.
Behind her inability to have an honest and meaningful conversation, I think there is fear to express what she really wants. She is clearly desperate for Charlie to approve of the pilot she has agreed to do in L.A.. Behind the fear, there may a belief that what she wants is not as worthy than what Charlie wants.
Before being diagnosed with stage 4 blood cancer, I used to be a lot like Nicole. I too, for a long time, struggled to assert myself fully and gave in to things to make my husband happy, which created resentment towards him in the long run. Obviously, this resentment was misplaced, as I had failed to express my needs until I was totally heard and I had agreed to things I didn’t want to do.
Having a strong partner, who is very clear about what he wants and who expresses his needs and desires unapologetically, makes it even more difficult to have a voice for the one who is less clear and less assertive. If you are the least assertive in the relationship, whether it is because of lack of clarity about what you want, lack of self-confidence or simply fear of confrontation, know that not expressing your needs now is one of the greatest threat of your relationship in the long run.
Following my diagnosis, I realised how much more I wanted from life. More than anything, I wanted to be fulfilled in my relationship. I had not given myself a voice and, since I was responsible for speaking up, I could change that. It was not easy because I had always been paralysed by a fear of confrontation. However, once you are facing death, confrontation does not look so bad! Loving fearlessly is facing your partner until you have been heard, it is making your fulfilment in the relationship a priority and stopping the habit of compromising to a point where it feels like the relationship has taken from you more it has given.
Nicole’s crisis about self-expression is legitimate. Her blaming it on Charlie is not. Their crisis is really her identity crisis. Unlike in Kramer versus Kramer’s Joanna (Meryl Streep), who had no life besides raising her boy and supporting her husband’s career, Nicole had a very rich professional life. Charlie loves and admires her as an actress and has given her very fulfilling roles over their time together. Her career would be the envy of many actors.
She could easily pivot towards something more rewarding for her without having to throw it all away. It is very common to get to point when we feel dissatisfied and need more. It is a misconception that we have to make major changes when this happens. A much more effective way to achieve greater satisfaction is to pivot progressively towards our new goals.
The fact that Nicole and Charlie have been working together, giving life to Charlie’s projects, makes the situation quite complex but not unsolvable. For instance, she could insist on directing the next play. She could even do the occasional movie in L.A. and then come back to New York. And, of course, there is the possibility of Charlie starting to work in L.A., as he ends up doing the movie. There is truly an infinite number of solutions to her problem but what is lacking is the will to look for such solutions. She has already decided that Charlie is the cause of all her problems.
Blaming the other for own unhappiness is a far too common cause of divorce. Once again, it defies logic. Nicole was attracted to that theatre life that Charlie offered her. She made that choice.
Beyond blame, there is the lack of willingness to do what it takes to work it out. The movie clearly demonstrates that a divorce is by no means the easy way out. Lack of willingness is not because it is easier, it is because of the focus is on the individual above the family unit. This is based on a tragic misunderstanding. We see ourselves as independent individuals who can be linked for a period of time and then disconnected and everyone can move on easily.
There is tendency to underestimate the importance of connection, starting with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which has love and belonging in the middle of the pyramid. In the Soviet run Romanian orphanages, where all ‘basic’ needs of the children were met, mortality was very high. The children who survived showed abnormal psychological development, just as the physical development of children who suffer malnutrition is impaired. Make no mistake: attachment is a fundamental need.
Charlie hasn’t had appropriate attachment in childhood, he has no relationship with his family of origin. His family is Nicole, their son and Nicole’s family. The divorce constitutes a powerful threat to Charlie’s attachment and sense of belonging. Breaking the ties of attachment is one of the most serious decision one could make. The fact that it is made based on such trivial reasons is a sign of how little we understand our innate need for attachment and connection, on which our emotional well-being depends.
I think about all the relationships which are breaking under the weight of blame and resentment this Christmas. I think of all the couples who will go through an unnecessary divorce in 2020. I was sitting on that bed crying and all alone on Christmas Day five years ago and I thought there was nothing left in our marriage. We have overcome this crisis and have built something pretty solid on these ashes. We are now happily married after 15 years together.
We chose a different path from ‘Marriage Story’. We moved away from blame and took responsibility, we let go off our old patterns of thinking, we released anger and resentment and we chose to believe that we could have what the marriage we wanted. And we make that choice again every time we raise difficult issues with courage and respect , every time we end a conversation before we lose our cool and every time we let go of what we could too easily hold on to. We choose marriage over divorce one conversation at a time.