How realistic is 'Marriage Story' on Netflix? Couples therapists weigh in

Should couples on the brink list what they love about each other? And can anything constructive come from that big fight?
"Marriage Story" stars Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver.
"Marriage Story" stars Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver.Everett Collection

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/ Source: TODAY
By A. Pawlowski

Spoiler alert: This article discusses specific scenes in "Marriage Story,” which was released on Netflix in December.

There isn’t much of a marriage left in “Marriage Story,” the recent movie about divorce that’s getting a lot of buzz from viewers and critics. It may be extra appropriate to watch on Jan. 8 — National Divorce Day.

The Netflix project received six Golden Globe nominations, including a win by Laura Dern for her supporting role as a divorce attorney and best performance nominations for Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. They play Charlie and Nicole Barber, a couple whose break-up starts amicably but soon turns nasty.

Two scenes in particular have been the focus of attention. One involves the characters Charlie and Nicole at a divorce mediator's office, each compiling a list of attributes they love about the other. The other scene, near the end of the movie, shows the enraged couple arguing so fiercely that Charlie punches a wall.

We asked two couples therapists how these scenes compare to what they’ve seen in real life:

Is having a person list what they most admire about their partner a common practice in marriage counseling?

Doherty: Yes, in some forms of marriage counseling, but not in divorce mediation.

It would be a mistake to lead with it in marriage counseling because the partners are upset with each other and you have to let them get that out. If you were to begin with an exercise like that, you’re essentially taking the side of the person who probably thinks the problems are not that great.

Anderson: This can be a helpful exercise, but it depends on the state of mind of the two partners. If they are angry and hardened toward each other, they'll likely follow the therapists instructions but put very little of themselves into it and will likely not "believe" what comes out of their partner's mouth.

The couple at the center of "Marriage Story" is fighting for custody of their child.Everett Collection

She didn’t want to read her list to him, which seemed to be another blow?

Doherty: Exactly. It was entirely predictable to me — she’s the leaning-out spouse, the initiator of the divorce. She has set her sights on ending it, so to ask somebody to take all that time to articulate why they loved this person puts them under tremendous pressure. Because the other spouse may ask: “If you think all that about me, why are you divorcing me?”

What are the benefits of such a list?

Doherty: In marriage counseling, at the right moment, it allows people to feel understood, appreciated and admired. Over time, married people can much more easily tell you what annoys the other person because we give each other that feedback more readily.

Married couples, after they settle into the marriage, often stop saying loving, appreciative things about each other. They may “I love you,” but they don’t necessarily say “Here’s what I love about you.” So having a structured way for people to say what they love and like about each other can be a very intimate and bonding thing, but it has to be at the right time.

Anderson: If they're able to take ownership for their part in the relationship struggles, this exercise can help to "soften" them toward each other by helping them remember what they love about each other. Often, it's been a while since their partner has been tender toward them, so this can create a warm moment in the midst of an icy time in their relationship.

When would be a good time to do that list?

Doherty: When they’re trusting each other more and feeling like they can be more open and vulnerable with each other.

If you were to do it before then, the other person could just say, “Well that’s a superficial list” or “How come you never told me that before?” They could just slam you. If you just have them write stuff out and they’re upset with each other, they’re going to put some zingers in there.

A safer version of that question is: “What was the best of time in your relationship since you met — the time you felt the most connection and joy?” People can always answer it because in a love match marriage system — as opposed to an arranged marriage system — nobody gets married without having at least one good date.

Was the fight scene realistic?

Doherty: Very realistic. That doesn’t happen in therapists’ offices because we maintain more order than that, but almost everybody who has gotten divorced has had a fight like that.

Was that fight constructive?

Doherty: It’s terribly human, very understandable and not constructive when you’re heading towards divorce. If you’ve decided to end the relationship, there’s not a possibility of repair so you’re just tearing at somebody. It’s not a good idea to be going back over who did what in the relationship.

Anderson: The couple quickly escalates, turning into attacks, name calling, character assassination, low blows and unhelpful comparisons. Nothing productive will happen next.

How would you advise such couples to be more civil?

Doherty: It takes two, of course. You can decide you’re not going to go there. You’re not going to re-litigate who screwed up more in the marriage — and that’s what they were doing. You can just tell yourself: "That’s not worth doing: I’m not going to do it, no matter how mad I am."

Anderson: Clearing the air is important, but each partner needs to first take ownership of their part in the problem. That allows space for dialogue, plus openness and curiosity in wanting to understand your partner. We each have a responsibility for how our concerns and frustrations are conveyed.

These interviews were condensed and edited for clarity.