Dare to step together into an “usness” that has no guarantees but the shared vision of belonging, whose embers you agree to slowly tend. History provides the furnishings that are slowly and discriminatingly added to your insides, in the form of moments shared in grief and celebration, language and images that surprise you, stories revealed at the rate of trust, and the responses you receive to the calls you’ve only made silently.
– Toko-pa Turner1
I can think of nothing more “natural” than life-long monogamous fidelity.
– Stanley Hauerwas2
* * *
Of the many poignant images in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, one that stands out is that of the two lead characters, Charlie and Nicole, lying in bed with Henry, their 8-year-old son, in between them. Charlie is reading Stuart Little aloud while a tear slides down Nicole’s face. She’s crying because the moment is beautiful – the fact that this scene appears to be part of a regular routine only makes it more so – and because such moments will soon be coming to an end: Charlie and Nicole are in the middle of divorce proceedings.
Both Charlie and Nicole are good people. They are engaged and conscientious parents; they are kind and thoughtful; and even as they agree to separate, they appear to genuinely wish no harm on the other, even stating their desire to remain friends. And yet these good people who still love each other and have a child to raise conclude that they can no longer be together because, as Nicole says, it does not “make sense anymore.”
Taking my cue from moments and images like the one described above, I’d like to explore the idea that Marriage Story gestures at how much better it would be if Charlie and Nicole would simply find a way to stay together. Such moments and images powerfully facilitate a shift in our understanding of what makes for a life well lived – from a focus on individualized fulfillment to a more relational and communal understanding of the good life.
* * *
This take on Marriage Story explains why the film’s profound tragedy extends even to the ending, in which Charlie and Nicole stop competing and find a degree of reconciliation. Which is to say that I obviously disagree that Marriage Story has a straightforwardly happy ending. To say, as does Richard Brody in The New Yorker,3 that Marriage Story is a feminist success story of a woman finding her own identity with the help of her heroic lawyer by leaving a bad marriage completely misses both some of the most disturbing and some of the most compelling moments in the film.
Indeed, Marriage Story rightly portrays such individualized fulfillment – that is, seeking after what I presume to be my own self-defined satisfaction by finding, owning, and displaying my identity before and apart from others – as an illusion spun by predatory lawyers. Nicole’s high-powered lawyer, Nora, tells Nicole when they first meet that the focus from now on is going to be on “your story” and what “you want.” But curiously the story they end up forging seems to be at least as influenced by Nora’s past experience and anger (and desire for Nicole’s money) as it is by Nicole’s.
Much of the scene in which Nora and Nicole meet consists of Nora subtly, and sometimes less subtly, telling Nicole how to narrate the story of her marriage. Everything from Nora’s perfectly timed behavior (the tea and cookies arrive right after Nora begins comforting Nicole when Nicole breaks into tears) and scripted lines to the impeccably decorated room (complete with a box of Kleenex for when her clients inevitably cry) screams of a perfectly rehearsed emotional manipulation routine. The camera in this scene always looks up at Nora and down at Nicole, reinforcing not Nora’s power on behalf of Nicole but her power over Nicole.
We see in this scene how Nora’s vision of individualized fulfillment objectifies, not only others at the expense of oneself, but everything including oneself. It’s there in the names Nora calls Nicole – “doll” and “honey”; not once does she call Nicole by name. It’s there in the wealth she so prominently displays. We see it in how she refers to the other people in her life. “I’m always available,” she tells Nicole. “Except when I’m with my kids. I insist on doing drop-off and pickup every day at school.” Notice that nowhere do we learn anything about her kids, not even how many of them there are. What we do learn is not even, precisely speaking, that Nora does drop-offs and pickups, but that she insists on doing them. Her kids exist, here at least, entirely for the sake of her self-image, for the kind of individual she insists on being as part of a performance designed, in this particular instance, to make Nicole hire her. The same is true of Nora’s boyfriend. I’m not suggesting, of course, that women need to talk about the men in their lives in either professional or social contexts. The point is that, unprompted, Nora brings him up: “I’m now with a great boyfriend who lives in Malibu.” Again, he is entirely subordinated to Nora’s efforts to sell her own image; the one thing we learn about him – where she has him – only makes him look more like an object at her disposal.
This is power, undoubtedly. It is the power to name something and get it, the power to make people feel a certain way, and the power of an expert salesperson. But at the same time it is not a power that anyone should want, or at least that’s what Marriage Story seems to suggest. This is not a power that is conducive to living into love or beauty. It is not a power that allows one to do good. The ability to sell and own is very different from the ability to forge and live into real connections with other people.
When Nicole expresses to Nora her worry about using lawyers, because she and Charlie had agreed not to use lawyers and because she wants to stay friends with Charlie, Nora’s response is telling: “We’ll do it as gently as possible.” This is textbook emotional manipulation, whatever Nora thinks she may be doing. It creates the appearance of understanding and empathizing with Nicole while in fact dismissing her concerns and desires. Before Nicole has made any decision about whether to hire her – in fact, as Nicole is in the process of expressing her legitimate reservations about doing so – Nora creates a world for Nicole in which the only options that exist consist of her acting as Nicole’s lawyer, which includes the one option of being gentle.
Nora’s inability to understand or truly connect with Nicole is perhaps most evident in her final scene. There she informs Nicole, who has expressly stated her desire to split child custody 50/50, that she managed to get her 55 percent custody. “Take it. You won,” Nora tells her. The look of bewildered sadness, resignation, and disgust on Nicole’s face says it all: Nora may know all about Nicole, but she does not know her at all. The model of success and happiness Nora foists on Nicole completely loses sight of Nicole herself. Marriage Story shows how within the framework of what I am calling individualized fulfillment we not only lose our connections to other people, but ironically also lose the individual self as a person. That Nicole ends up refusing Nora’s framing, as I will go on to argue, is a condition for the personal happiness she does find at the end of the film. Marriage Story’s tragedy relies on the insight that we forge ourselves as individuals from, in, and as the ongoing relational work of receiving and negotiating our existence with and belonging to others.
* * *
In contrast to the individualized fulfillment Nora personifies are those images that show how Nicole and Charlie, together with Henry, have built a common story together, interweaving their lives with one another. These snapshots linger with the viewer, evoking the way that sharing ordinary living with other people is what constitutes and reveals a person’s identity, commitments, and desires. At their most poignant, these fleeting images show how Charlie and Nicole have forged this common story out of day-to-day life by means of simple acts and dispositions of everyday care for one another.
The two opening monologues, in which we hear Charlie and then Nicole recite the things they love about the other over a montage of scenes from their marriage, are perhaps most significant here. The two monologues emphasize the ways in which each person receives care from the other and how that care has helped to make life more livable. Far from being a clever ruse with a dramatic twist (as Brody would again have it), this opening sets the tone for the rest of the film, in part because the words and images are so striking and in part because such moments of tender affection recur throughout the film: the final scene sees Nicole kneeling to tie Charlie’s shoe while Charlie holds their exhausted son in his arms. We even hear Nicole’s list again at the end of the movie, such that the goodness of affectionate care frames the emotional tenor of the film. In this way, Marriage Story keeps in prominent relief everything that Nicole and Charlie are losing (and what they might partially regain) through their divorce.
Early in the divorce proceedings at Nicole’s mom’s house, after Henry has gone to sleep, Nicole and Charlie exchange gentle affirmations with one another. “He’s [just] in a Mommy phase right now,” Nicole tells Charlie, in response to the fact that Henry has just made clear his preference for his mom over his dad. “It’s a stressful time,” Charlie tells Nicole when she confesses to probably drinking too much wine and worries about being an inadequate parent.
This tender and vulnerable moment highlights some of what Nicole and Charlie stand to lose – a loss that the viewer feels immediately when, instead of a natural follow-through, Nicole breaks the mood, seemingly accidentally, by asking Charlie where he plans to spend the night. Charlie is flustered by the simultaneous realization that he had assumed that he would stay at her mom’s and the inappropriateness of that assumption. This brings the viewer through yet another layer of loss, for here we see how the breakdown of Charlie and Nicole’s marriage also disrupts the community that has built up around them and their shared story. Charlie is so close to Nicole’s mom that she’s the one who later finds him a lawyer. Now, when he visits L.A. to be with his son and her grandson, he can no longer stay at her place.
And finally, what’s so moving about the scene in which Charlie reads Stuart Little is the way that it points toward an entire life of caring for one another that includes but also exceeds caring for the basic or instrumental needs of the other. It displays the excesses of loving care – the kind of care that is inseparable from growing closer with one another, investing in the simple pleasure of each other, and sharing in that pleasure. In this case it is the pleasure of simply reading and listening to a story together.
The scenes that depict Nicole and Charlie’s common story are brief and infrequent, but they have an abiding power. This power, I think, comes from how wondrous and ordinary a thing it is when people come to know each other intimately through the ongoing, concrete, day-to-day practice of caring for one another. There are not many relational disciplines of care that have broad cultural recognition in our society.4 Marriage Story, in tragic form, presents one of these: the kind of love that the hard discipline of marriage can provide between two people, their children, and the communities that grow with and around them.
* * *
I want to pause here to emphasize two points. First, there are times and situations when an individual should exit a relationship, and I do not mean anything I say here to suggest otherwise. Some marriages should end. I don’t think that a model of or emphasis on individualized fulfillment is a helpful way to discern these situations or empower people within them, but that is not to deny that these situations exist (abuse being only the most obvious example).
Being able to let go of a relationship, which is an abstraction and not a flesh and blood person, can be an important and even deeply relational virtue. Sometimes, holding too tightly to a relationship is what impedes one from being able to actually see the other. The message I’m attempting to draw out of Marriage Story is not to stick with your marriage (or with other relationships) no matter how hard or destructive it (or they) may be. I instead encourage you to consider both your leaving and your staying within the framework of tending to your relational ties to the world, which may very well include various forms of self-assertion or refusal.
Second, I want to acknowledge that Marriage Story is not about a happily married couple simply led astray by the false ideologies of the day. It is a human story and gets into the complexity of human relationships and human fulfillment. Throughout the film, we discover in more and more depth how troubled Nicole and Charlie’s marriage is. We learn about the ways in which they were unable to see each other. We learn how unsatisfied Nicole in particular is, and since it is her dissatisfaction that appears to be the driving force in their divorce, I want to be clear that the tragedy Marriage Story illuminates is not simply her difficult and painful decision to leave.
Both characters grow in significant ways through their separation from each other. Nicole discovers that she wants to be in L.A. where her family and roots are. She also discovers that she is an excellent director and finds that work stimulating and satisfying. Leaving Charlie is certainly not a disaster for Nicole. “It’s only good,” she tells Charlie near the end of the film.
Charlie’s more painful growth consists of discovering how much of his own happiness is wrapped up in a certain image of himself (an image that, crucially for the plot, is tied to being in New York and being a New Yorker) rather than in his relationships. The fact that Charlie’s self-image is accurate and held by those who know him makes it no less of an image: it just means that he’s been more successful at branding himself and broadcasting that brand than most of us. Charlie’s is a difficult undoing, but also one that’s full of promise. Perhaps nothing makes this promise more evident than the slow, unconscious smile that grows on his face when he learns that Nicole has become a successful director. There is no performance here, for another or himself; Charlie is simply happy for her.
* * *
Given this, how do I come away from Marriage Story with an enduring sense that the breakdown of Charlie and Nicole’s marriage is primarily an unnecessary tragedy and not, as Nora puts it, “an act of hope”? I have two reasons.
First, I’d like to venture the controversial opinion that, given the competing images Marriage Story presents to us, whatever genuine satisfaction Charlie and Nicole are able to garner as a result of the end of their marriage, it pales compared to the goodness of the way they have built their lives into one another. This is a delicate argument to make with regard to the individual opportunities that come Nicole’s way, so let me articulate it vis-à-vis an individual frustration that Charlie expresses.
During Nicole and Charlie’s climactic fight, Charlie discloses that for at least the last year of their marriage, Nicole had stopped sleeping with him, and he implies that this was torturous for him. A year (or more) without sex when you’re married, in your twenties, and a desirable commodity to boot (Charlie describes himself as “hot shit” during the fight, another indication of the way individualism commodifies everything including oneself) feels like hell when you’re living through it. However, to this viewer, one shot of their family together reading Stuart Little in bed suggests this hell to be secondary, if not all but trivial. Marriage Story nudges the viewer to zoom out of Charlie’s individual frustration in order to see what matters. Or, perhaps better put, it suggests to the viewer that you must zoom in to the relationships and possibility of human connection all around you in order to escape the hell of being lost inside yourself, something Charlie fails to do when he gives in to this frustration and sleeps with another woman.
Maybe this only allows me to sidestep the more difficult question of Nicole’s reasons for divorce and the opportunities she is able to access only after her marriage ends. It is, however, a salient topic for me for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I’ve recently accompanied a number of friends who have been abandoned by lovers and partners who (both women and men) were concerned that by limiting themselves to one romantic engagement, they would be limiting their range of individual experiences and potential “growth” and fulfillment. When they expressed this yearning for individualized “growth,” these former partners always included – often explicitly – a desire for a greater range of sexual expressions and experiences.
An individualized and instrumentalizing vision of mythical sexualized fulfillment has a prominent, if not downright overbearing, place in our culture’s illusions.5 Here the self looks more like a disembodied and voyeuristic receptacle of “experiences” than an actual lived experience of embodied interdependence, capable of love and belonging: precisely the self that our capitalist consumer economy demands that we become, anxiously consuming the infinite expansion of desire itself. Ironically, an ideology that what was supposed to emancipate desire (especially oppressed female desire and repressed same-sex-oriented desire) and reorient us to the importance of intimate relationships now appears to promote a transformation of the self that would make intimacy, including sexual intimacy, impossible. A self that can see and experience everything and be hurt by nothing cannot give of itself, be vulnerable before another, or ask much of what may be refused by another, all of which is constitutive for intimacy. In Marriage Story, Nicole’s and Charlie’s griefs and joys powerfully suggest that individualized sexual gratification is radically unreflective of our capacities for the kinds of intimate belonging and care that express and create what is beautiful in our humanity.
When we see and think of Charlie and Nicole’s lives, individually and together, as belonging to a story that exceeds them – a religious person might say that they belong to a love that exceeds them – then, to put it bluntly, it seems better for them to stay together as a couple and a family. In the images we see of the affectionate care that they share we catch a glimpse of what lifelong monogamous fidelity has enabled for them, and how good and fitting it might have continued to be for them. There’s enough, if just barely, for us to imagine how they might have lived together into a storied, affectionate, and happy old age, with shared accomplishments behind them and family and community around them, and the loss of this is tragic.
This is a view that says that mutual care is more important than individualized fulfillment. It holds that finding, and even being shown, your place in community, your opportunity to be of use for concrete others, and your shared sense of what it means to live into the good life is more important for a good and true and even fulfilling life than is cultivating an individual identity (which turns out to be only a brand for sale). It claims that the upbuilding of one another in community is more important than the “satisfaction” of what we (erroneously) take to be straightforwardly physiological desires. Seen in this way, I think that Marriage Story effectively relativizes without delegitimizing the individual success and satisfaction that Nicole finds.
* * *
Again, I stress that this is not to blame or shame the woman who wants something more for her life – who wants her own little “piece of earth,” as Nicole puts it. As Marriage Story progresses, we slowly come to see the ways that Nicole was pushed into needing something for herself by the fact that everyone around her (including her husband) was pursuing their own self-images. Marriage Story shows how difficult, bordering on impossible, it is to build a shared life story based on mutual care in an economy, culture, and even moral discourse that pushes us inward and away from others. In fact, instead of saying that Marriage Story relativizes Nicole’s individual success, it may be better to say that Nicole’s happiness comes partially by way of her recovering her relational place in the world, within her city and artistic medium. So far as Charlie is concerned, she needed to push him away, it seems, in order to regain a good relationship with him.
This leads me to the second reason that I see Marriage Story depicting the end of Charlie and Nicole’s marriage as a tragedy. I’ve already outlined how Charlie’s arc in the film is not toward individualized satisfaction, but rather a painful breakdown of his carefully cultivated individual identity. This breakdown makes possible the final scene of Marriage Story, one of tender affection and care. Nicole and Charlie see one another again.
From this, the question arises: could Charlie and Nicole not have found a way to grow and come to the space they find at the end of the film while staying together? By the time they discover reconciliation at the end of the film, it is too late for their marriage. But because this care-filled reconciliation gestures at a greater (married) love as they together care for their child, the fact that it takes place in separation rather than in union is distressing as well as hopeful. Their marriage’s end now seems unnecessary, even wasteful. I do not mean my question as a critique of the movie’s storytelling. I’m suggesting that Marriage Story directs this question toward us in its brilliant examination of human behavior and the way a certain self-destructive instinct of preservation leads us to push others away and close in on ourselves.
Maybe Marriage Story poses this question to us as a challenge, calling us to consider the ways we might experience painful but rewarding growth in and through our relationships rather than through their breakdown. Sara Wenger Shenk, a scholar of contemporary Christian religious practices, takes this view in her articulation of Christian marriage: “Covenantal fidelity assumes marriage is deeper and wiser than anyone who enters into it. It is a precious gift from the tradition, held within community. . . . Love may fail at times, and then people just take a deep breath and stay married because they are married. And when they come through, their marriages are more firmly rooted in love.”6 I resonate with this argument, but I am less sure that Marriage Story does. The world it presents, rightly or wrongly, does not give me confidence that if people “stay married because they are married” they will come through to a greater love. This is a world that is in many ways sundered from meaningful belonging to tradition or community and a world in which gifts seem to appear in fleeting moments rather than as lasting givenness.
And so, to a greater degree, I think that Marriage Story poses the question of whether Charlie and Nicole might have found reconciliation in marriage as a lament. It is a lament that, in a society so oriented to the narcissistic and forever mobile individual, genuine growth may often only be possible via divorce and relational breakdown rather than via working through the difficulties of learning to care for one another in the context of lifelong, monogamous fidelity. It is a lament that this is so even for kind and committed people. And, as with any good lament, it is an indictment of the omnipresent individualizing, mobilizing, and isolating forces in our society.
Both married and single people need to be able to receive and place their stories within the kind of communities that care for one another and bestow a sense of mission and identity. I think, for example, of Beyoncé’s poetic provocation toward such a community, one that is (de)centered around a broken and recovering marriage, in her music video to the song “All Night.” Here we achieve the intensely personal via a disciplining erotic community, which is why children hanging out on a front porch in postures of comraderie, rather than racy images, accompany sexually explicit lyrics.7 But this video, of course, like Marriage Story, is no answer to our dilemma; powerful though the goad toward erotic community may be, many of us will have no idea where to begin: we have not just left home and forgotten our narrative place in the world, but live in neighbourhoods that are in constant flux, do not have a home to return to, and never heard stories that were “ours” to begin with. Is it too much to see in Marriage Story the profound worry that, lacking the possibility of home and belonging, both married and single people will continue to end up isolated and lonely and will turn to the objectification of themselves and others for an ersatz fulfilment? “Alone is alone, not alive,” Charlie sings in the shattering moment when he relinquishes his New Yorker self-image.
* * *
At the end of a letter Nicole writes just before the events of the film, whose final sentences are only revealed to the audience at the end of the movie, she states that she still loves Charlie, but suggests that they must nevertheless seek separation because “it doesn’t make sense anymore.” I’d suggest that this is true of all marriages. As Stanley Hauerwas observes, “you always marry the wrong person.”8 Lifelong, monogamous fidelity is not a commitment any of us can understand except by subjecting ourselves to its life of hard discipline. To give an extreme but revealing example, a person cannot begin to know what it is to be “stuck with” someone who receives a diagnosis of early onset dementia at age 45.
In fact, Nicole’s statement is an interesting inversion of Shenk’s argument above. For Shenk, when love fails we must count on the gift of marriage to endure and bring us through to love. For Nicole, even love is not enough to save a marriage. I urge us again to resist the impulse to blame Nicole for failing to see the greater truth of the matter. If I am right that we can see Marriage Story as a lament, perhaps Nicole’s insight is that in a world where marriage is no longer intelligible as a gift, a gift that the whole community can then tend to through difficult work, there is no good that remains in it once it no longer “makes sense.”
And yet, the surprising beauty of the mutual care that Nicole and Charlie find in their marriage and their separation compels me to keep searching for a way of living beyond sense. If there something in Marriage Story’s tragedy that might impel us to find a way to stop thinking of marriage as something that makes sense for us and our “own” lives, then it may also help us to make some new sense of its value. Its lament might also chart a path to a deeper consideration of how a lifelong commitment to care in love for another might slowly and painfully open us up to a better, and more truthful, way into the messiness of being human.
* * *
Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.
- Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home (Salt Spring Island, BC: Her Own Room Press, 2017), 118. [↩]
- The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 516. [↩]
- “What’s Missing from the Brilliant ‘Marriage Story,’” The New Yorker, November 14, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/whats-missing-from-the-brilliant-marriage-story [↩]
- In Pursuits of Happiness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), Stanley Cavell examines the Hollywood romantic comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, which he sees as a reinvention of the Shakespearean comedy. Cavell argues that these stories of “remarriage” show people overcoming the obstacles to a marriage’s endurance and finding a way back to friendship. They thereby “invoke the fantasy of the perfected human community” (152). However, a difference between these films and the Shakespearean comedies is that in these films the reconciliation of the romantic pair is restricted to the couple; it is not also a wider communal reconciliation, and there is no societal ratification of the couple’s remarriage. Cavell seems to be suggesting that when society loses its legitimacy and our belonging to broader communities breaks down, marriage may be one of the few forms of communities that remains for us. Marriage Story, I suggest, laments the loss of even this small community. It would be interesting to see a study in contrast between Marriage Story and these romantic comedies from the ’30s and ’40s. [↩]
- Several feminist scholars critical of liberal capitalism have critically documented the emergence of this form of sexuality alongside the myth of the unencumbered and (sexually) consumptive self. From the perspective of political theory, see Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988); from the perspective of psychoanalysis, see Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (Toronto: Random House, 1998); from the perspective of economics, history, and sociology, see Nancy Hartsock, Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism (New York, Longman, 1998). I am also indebted in this paragraph to Stan Goff, Borderline: Reflections on War, Sex, and Church (Eugene: Cascade, 2015), esp. 205-229, and Stanley Hauerwas, The Hauerwas Reader, 485-489. [↩]
- “Cohabitation: What’s at Stake?” Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology, vol. 9, no. 2 (Fall 2008): 25-32, p. 30. [↩]
- Beyoncé, Beyoncé: Lemonade (Parkwood Entertainment Good Company, April 23, 2016), 44:25-57:36. I have written elsewhere about this video along these lines. See Gerald Ens, “‘We Can’t Hear Them’: Beyoncé’s Inaudible Audience in ‘All Night,’” Earth World Collaborative (Fall, 2020), esp. para. 5-7. https://www.earthworldcollaborative.com/the-absence-of-audience-in-virtual-music-app-b [↩]
- The Hauerwas Reader, 513. [↩]