How Could We Re-script “Marriage Story” for a Happy Ending?

Could marriage counseling have saved the marriage or the divorce process?


The poignant film Marriage Story hit a nerve and has been the subject of impassioned discussion for weeks. Following the release, I, like so many other divorce experts, vaulted into a conversation to deconstruct our flawed legal system and divorce professional culture. What has struck me in speaking with many in the community at large is not their intellectual response to the portrayal of the legal system, but their highly emotional response that Nicole and Charlie Barber could have so easily avoided divorce. Could marriage counseling have helped save the marriage? Possibly. There is no doubt, however, that marriage counseling would have saved the mediation.

As evidenced by the overwhelming reaction to divorced Hollywood actors exchanging a greeting at a professional event, we yearn for love, reconciliation and happy endings. So, how can we script a happy ending for Nicole and Charlie Barber?  

The Barbers, like so many modern dual-career couples, had a foundation of attraction, love, family, intellectual connection– and they had an understanding. They had an agreement that they would return to California to be near Nicole’s family and to support her career after allowing Charlie to develop his in New York. It is frustrating to witness that the lack of communication between them, combined with Charlie’s self-absorption and ego, likely prevented them from working together to find common ground prior to the marriage falling apart. We see Charlie basking in the glow of success and Nicole quietly waiting for her turn.  But, is it right for Nicole to expect Charlie to walk away from his well-deserved success to indulge in her desire to be in California? Shouldn’t she be thrilled for his success and be willing to make adjustments to support it? Or should Charlie be sensitive to his wife’s unhappiness, honor his agreement to relocate to California, and support her career path without hesitation? I expect that there is a deep divide over who is right, who is selfish, and what choices they should make, but that isn’t the issue in this particular discussion. 

The issue is that these two people could have, and should have, used some form of marriage counseling to help them address the shifting realities of career, their growing son, connection with extended family, and a vision for their future. Had these two addressed this early, before any possibility of a marriage crisis, then maybe Charlie wouldn’t have moved to the couch, maybe there wouldn’t have been an affair, and maybe this couple wouldn’t have been another statistic. We will never know how that might have altered the outcome, but we would know, and more importantly, they would know, that they tried. As I frequently say to clients, don’t step out until you are absolutely sure there is nothing to step back into. 

When Nicole walks out of mediation, we know she has reached her boiling point which we perceive is due to her feeling that she is unseen, disrespected and hasn’t chosen to or been able to express it. This contributes to the breakdown of mediation– another intersection where some form of counseling might have changed everything. Couples tend to think of marriage counseling as a last-ditch effort, and often one-half of the couple begrudgingly attends so that they can say they tried. But marriage counseling can also be a fantastic strategy to manage the divorce process, too. One of the reasons the divorce process explodes is due to the breakdown in communication between the spouses. In the Barbers’ case, we know from the letters there is a strong foundation of love, respect and shared family values, so even if this couple agreed to divorce, counseling would have allowed them to address the issues, gain better insight into the other’s thought process and tolerate the hard settlement conversations without exiting or abdicating to lawyers. With that groundwork, together they would have been equipped to handle a more creative, less expensive and far less explosive mediated divorce. 

As with practically every divorce, the Barbers’ situation required compromise. Either Nicole would stay in New York or Charlie would move to Los Angeles. When couples cannot communicate, they cannot compromise. Then, third parties are brought in and ultimately one side “wins” and the other “loses,” but at the end of the day they end up in exactly the same place, except as with the Barbers, angry and broke. 

The Barbers are perfectly imperfect, complex and human; they are representative of many families facing difficult choices. Some form of marriage counseling early on might have addressed the communication breakdown and saved the marriage. Without a doubt, marriage counseling to address the logistical issues of career and family would have dramatically changed the separation and divorce process into one with respect and compromise. Either path would be a great re-script with a happy, or at least a happier, ending.

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