Marriage Story: Four Lessons for Divorcing Couples

Over the holidays, I had a chance to watch the popular movie Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie Barber.

If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to add it to your watchlist: Marriage Story is essential viewing for anyone considering or in the midst of a separation or divorce, as it highlights several important issues.

Here are my key takeaways:

Marriage Story: four lessons for divorcing couples

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Mediation isn’t for everyone

Early on in the movie, we learn that the couple’s marriage is ending and that they have enlisted a mediator to help them settle their differences amicably and inexpensively. The mediator encourages them to make a list of everything they like about their partner, but Nicole refuses to read hers to Charlie, and their mediation journey ends abruptly.

In real life, mediation can be a good alternative for some couples, but it’s not appropriate in every situation. High-conflict relationships or ones where there’s a significant power imbalance between the parties or domestic violence are not suitable candidates. Neither is mediation a reasonable path when one partner maintains control over the couple’s money, and the other is completely in the dark.

Couples often decide to keep things amicable in the beginning, but once they move along in the divorce process and become aware of their rights and obligations, complications can surface.

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The reality of divorce is that it impacts the most critical aspects of your life: your children, where you live and your finances, and sorting through those issues can be more complicated than anticipated.

Not all lawyers are Noras, Jays and Berts
In Marriage Story, Nicole leaves the family home in New York and moves to Los Angeles for work, taking their son Henry with her. The understanding is that the arrangement is temporary, but once she arrives, Nicole hires family lawyer Nora Fanshaw, a win-at-all-costs attorney portrayed by the brilliant Laura Dern. Charlie is served with divorce papers.

Charlie hires Bert Spitz, a well-intentioned but bumbling family lawyer played by Alan Alda, who favors a civil and collaborative approach. The main issue in contention is custody of the couple’s son, and Charlie soon discovers that Spitz’s cooperative style is no match for Nora Fanshaw.

Enter Jay Marotta, a hotshot lawyer portrayed by Ray Liotta, who tells his client that the only way to win custody of his son is to fight dirty.

For dramatic effect, the movie portrays the worst of the bunch when it comes to lawyers. Sure, some of those exist in the real world, but in my experience, most family lawyers are advocating for a fair settlement for their clients.

The cost of conflict

By its very nature, the family law process is adversarial. Everyone has a friend or family member who’s gone through an acrimonious and expensive divorce. Lawyers are often criticized for the escalation in costs, but that’s not fair or accurate. In many cases, clients themselves are driving both the conflict and the costs.

One party digs their heels in, becomes vengeful and unreasonable, and sometimes argues just for the sake of arguing. As a lawyer, I encourage clients to minimize the conflict because, in the end, it serves everyone to resolve the matter as expeditiously as possible.

Marriage Story also illustrates the perils of not seeking legal advice early. When Charlie consents to Nicole taking their son to California, he doesn’t comprehend the gravity of what he’s agreeing to and the impact it will have on custody arrangements.

Children first should be your mantra

After their divorce is granted, Nicole and Charlie refocus on what’s most important: their son Henry. From the outset of a divorce, parents should be vigilant in thinking about how their actions impact the children.

Frequently, there’s a tug of war over the kids. One parent becomes territorial and stubborn, refusing to trade nights or weekends with the other. It’s much better to be as flexible as possible. There are a lot of weekends and nights in the life of a child, and at some point, each parent will need a schedule change. If one takes a hardline attitude, they should expect the same treatment from the other.

When your child tells the story of their parent’s divorce, think about what you want them to remember.

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