Somewhere Between Reasonable and Crazy

The very touching Netflix movie, Marriage Story, provides an unusually realistic depiction of divorce dynamics.

I particularly appreciate the portrayals of the spouses and their eight year-old son, reflecting the complexity of their conflicts and their ambivalences.  Both spouses are decent people – and both have their foibles.  They struggle with the tension between caring for themselves and the other, as often happens in real life.

The couple starts out with an agreement to handle their divorce without lawyers.  Then a friend urges the wife to get a lawyer and they are off to the races.  She gets a tough lawyer, which leads to the conflict to spiral out of control.  The husband consults a high-priced lawyer who warns that, considering the wife’s lawyer’s approach, they can’t afford to be reasonable:

If we start from a place of reasonable and they start from a place of crazy, when we settle, we will be somewhere between reasonable and crazy. … Half of crazy is crazy.

The film includes extensive scenes with various lawyers, a mediator, a custody evaluator, and a judge in a courtroom.  Although the professionals’ actions are problematic, they conscientiously attempt to fulfill their roles as they see them and the spouses ultimately are responsible for their decisions.  In any case, they combine to produce a sad result as the whole extended family gets ensnared ever more deeply in a conflict they all want to avoid.

Mediation plays a small role in the film and, although less than ideal, fortunately it is much better than the farcical scene from the movie, Wedding Crashers, and the mercifully short-lived TV sitcom, Fairly Legal, about an alleged mediator.

I am tempted to describe many fine touches in Marriage Story but I don’t want to provide any spoilers.  I highly recommend it, as do critics and audiences.

6 thoughts on “Somewhere Between Reasonable and Crazy”

  1. I don’t have a problem with spoilers here because I think everyone knows the outcome of the movie. Those of us who have been through a divorce, or been divorce attorneys/mediators, know this drill. The outcome, a divorce, is the same. The movie alludes to how the parties ultimately figure out what things will look like post-divorce. All parties to a divorce eventually figure out what their relationship will be, what you see and experience in the movie is the universal pain, fear, and uncertainty that the system ( in particular the attorneys) inflicts on divorcing parties.

    About 7 years into litigating divorces, I behaved in a way, on behalf of client, that I regret to this day. This behavior would have been applauded in some circles of attorneys who handle divorces but for me, it was clear that the actions I took did not bring about a resolution that was best for anyone involved. All I did was make a difficult and painful situation worse. I felt then, and I feel now, that the adversarial system is a bad system for divorcing parties, children, the Courts, the judges, etc. It is when I began the journey into ADR.

    I don’t know if we have stumbled onto a better system, but I know this: the way we do divorce hurts everyone. It needs to be reworked from the ground up.

  2. It was a very good film but I did wince at the mediator scene. It always seems like a cheap laugh. What can be done about getting more realistic portrayals of mediators? They all seem to be either control freaks or completely pathetic – either way, not a good image for the profession. I listen to a BBC podcast of a long running agricultural soap opera (don’t judge me) called the Archers. There was a long running divorce mediation in that, which ended up to be a more positive impression, though still not without its flaws. Maybe there is a market for a good script!

    1. Thanks for noting the mediator scene. I watched the movie with my brother and his wife during the holidays. As an ADR evangelist that I call myself, I was so bothered by the mediation scene. The mediator was presented like a mere counsellor, started out exactly how a marriage counsellor would have, which did not sit well with the wife. I could not help but blame the mediator in my mind, as the divorce journey became a battle. I wish I had the opportunity to be the mediator and the story would have turned out differently. A mediator should be able to discern the best way to begin the process. He must understand the desires of the couple and seek to help parties achieve that desire, afterall it’s the parties’ process. The mediator in this movie was trying to do exactly opposite of what the wife wanted, hence her outburst.

      Film makers need to properly understand any profession they seek to portray without necessarily undermining or misrepresenting such profession. I am sure a lot of viewers contemplating divorce might have a wrong view of what divorce mediation really is, given how it was depicted in this movie.This is my only displeasure about this interestingly, realistic movie.

  3. It is a nice movie, but the way mediator is depicted is not that good. This plays into the general preference for lawyers, tough ones, leading the way. Bashar H. Malkawi

  4. Thanks for your comments. I have some different perspectives.

    I don’t agree that the film presents “universal” pain, fear, and uncertainty that the system (in particular the attorneys) inflicts on divorcing parties.

    It certainly portrays some of the pathologies of the adversarial system, but there are other paths and outcomes than presented in this film. In fact, many couples and families manage quite well. Indeed, the divorce can be a relief for both spouses who found the difficulty and uncertainty of marriage to be too hard. I worked with one couple who worked together so well in mediation that they decided not to divorce and I have heard of similar cases.

    The pathologies of adversarial divorce have motivated a cohort of lawyers and other professionals to offer collaborative practice as a more humane option for clients. From what I can tell, collaborative divorces generally work quite well, though there are some problems as with all practices and sets of practitioners.

    There also are lawyers who label themselves as “cooperative” lawyers and many more who don’t use a special label but act cooperatively, especially when the counterpart lawyers also act cooperatively. Indeed, sometimes counterpart lawyers cooperate to get both clients to act more reasonably.

    Although the mediator made a problematic move, I bet that, in real life, many mediators make similar decisions that don’t turn out well.

    Of course, this is not a documentary or film promoting use of mediation. The filmmaker was producing a drama reflecting troubling aspects of divorce in some cases. Although this doesn’t (and can’t) portray all cases, it portrays some dynamics that are all too real.

    So I see the film as a cautionary tale of how the system can suck even good people into dangerous processes. I think that it’s also important to consider that the parties had opportunities to exit and made decisions to continue.

    What do you think?

  5. One of the things that I teach in Family Mediation is how mediators can describe to parties that they will be transitioning from their roles as “Wife” and “Husband” to “Mom” and “Dad.” One of the best things about Marriage Story is that it shows that transformation over the course of the movie.

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