What Netflix’s ‘Marriage Story’ gets right and wrong about divorce, according to a couples therapist

Noah Baumbach, the movie's writer and director, said

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Noah Baumbach, the movie’s writer and director, said “Marriage Story” hit a personal note for him, as he’s been through divorce.
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Heyday Films/Netflix

Editor’s note: This story contains spoilers for the movie “Marriage Story.”

  • “Marriage Story” follows Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) as they navigate their divorce.
  • At first, Charlie and Nicole agree to have an amicable divorce, but as they weather the process, viewers find they’re unable to stick to their play-nice plan.
  • A therapist who has worked with couples considering or navigating divorce told Insider the movie does an accurate job depicting the nuances of a deteriorating relationship.
  • At the same time, the movie could’ve offered more insights into the challenges of co-parenting, she said.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more.

Netflix’s “Marriage Story,” which was released on December 6, follows Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) as they navigate divorce while raising their young son. At first, Charlie and Nicole agree to have an amicable divorce, but as they weather the process, viewers find they’re unable to stick to their play-nice plan.

The dialogue-heavy movie centers on the relationship between Charlie and Nicole, as well as the relationship between the couple and their son Henry, and the ways those relationships evolve as they all deal with the divorce.

Noah Baumbach, the movie’s writer and director, said “Marriage Story” hit a personal note for him, as he’s been through divorce, and a therapist who works with couples considering or navigating divorce told Insider the movie does an accurate job depicting the nuances of a deteriorating relationship, but falls short in one area.

Laura Dern plays a divorce lawyer to Scarlet Johansson's Nicole in

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Laura Dern plays a divorce lawyer to Scarlet Johansson’s Nicole in “Marriage Story.”
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Netflix

Divorce is often triggered by the realization that the marriage only serves one partner

As Charlie and Nicole go through the divorce process, viewers come to realize that Charlie was more content with their marriage than Nicole because it was on Charlie’s terms.

For example, during their marriage, Nicole talked about having dreams of moving back to her hometown of Los Angeles to raise their son Henry, but Charlie always reminded Nicole that was impossible because they were a “New York family” and his entire livelihood as a play director was based in New York.

Nicole “says she should’ve communicated her desires more, but you find out, as the movie goes on, she has, but [Charlie] wasn’t receptive or didn’t take them seriously,” Nora Dankner, a couples therapist at Tribeca Therapy, told Insider.

For example, Nicole told her divorce lawyer (Laura Dern) that once she was offered a television acting job in Los Angeles that prompted her interest to move back, but Charlie laughed about the prospect like it was unimportant and trivial compared to his own career aspirations.

When Nicole realizes her marriage is serving Charlie but not her through moments like these, she decides to file for divorce. Dankner said realizing a partnership only served the wishes of one partner is a common catalyst for divorce.

Divorce can reveal how each partner has a different perception of the same relationship

At the beginning of the film, both Charlie and Nicole discuss keeping the split between them and not involving lawyers. But soon, Nicole meets with a divorce lawyer who helps her realize Charlie is trying to manipulate the situation to get his way, as he did for most of their marriage.

After that, Nicole decides to continue using the lawyer and makes a point to stand up for her personal dreams, even though those decisions upset Charlie.

Charlie “was hoping the culture of the marriage would play out in the culture of the divorce,” Dankner said, meaning that the divorce would be an amicable affair that served his wishes, but it ended up being quite the opposite.

“In the marriage, he saw her as an extension of himself,” Dankner said, adding that Charlie felt like he and Nicole were on the same page. In reality, “he was controlling all of the decision making. He thought they would have a divorce that wasn’t acrimonious because he thought they agreed more than they actually did.”

In that way, Dankner said “Marriage Story” accurately demonstrates how divorce can reveal how the same relationship can look and feel very different to each partner.

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson costar in Netflix's

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Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson costar in Netflix’s “Marriage Story.”
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Netflix

It also accurately portrays the wave of emotions divorce can cause

Toward the end of the movie when Charlie tells Nicole he picked up a few jobs in Los Angeles, signaling his effort at meeting her wishes to have him spend some time there for their son, Nicole looks conflicted.

“That’s the most realistic moment to me because she’s starting to have doubt in that moment,” Dankner said.

After Charlie compromises, which Nicole wanted all along in their marriage, she wonders, “Is there a world in which we could’ve stayed married?” Dankner said, which is a completely normal feeling to have during a divorce.

When Dankner’s clients go through these situations, she tells them to remember a one-off change doesn’t mean the person has changed for good or that the relationship can survive.

“Sure, that change is positive but doesn’t mean [Charlie] became a different person who’s willing to have a relationship where their needs are equally significant” all of the time, Dankner said.

The movie could’ve offered more insight into the struggles of co-parenting

According to Dankner, the movie fell short in one area: its portrayal of co-parenting as divorcees.

It isn’t until the end of “Marriage Story” that viewers get a glimpse into how Charlie and Nicole shared their co-parenting duties when they see Charlie pick up Henry from a party he’s at with Nicole. Nicole hands off Henry to Charlie so they can spend father-son time together, and the parents have a pleasant exchange.

Dankner said the portrayal left a lot to be desired because co-parenting is one of the hardest parts of divorce.

“Custody gets a lot more complicated in real ife,” she said. “You have to work out splitting time [with your child], which they skimmed over, and figuring out how to do that is hard and up for debate. No model of how to do it is perfect.”