“The Marriage Story” – A Cautionary Tale of Legal ‘Gotcha’

Thinking of divorcing or leaving a relationship, especially if you have children together? Have you seen this movie yet? If you are not dealing with a similar situation, it’s likely that you know someone who is. If so, see the movie (fine acting) and learn what not to do!

We meet Nicole and Charlie, good, caring people, loving parents, who are about to come apart in a mediation session. They intend to keep their divorce simple and reasonable so they decide on mediation, a wise decision. Unfortunately, their inept mediator was inflexible with the process – it was his way or the highway. Nicole chooses the latter. Mediation, when skillfully executed, is a valuable resource for a respectful divorce. A mediator needs to be sensitive to each spouse/partner’s needs and emotional state as well as the facts. S/he can guide a couple toward mutually agreed upon decisions.

Nicole is convinced to hire an attorney who persuades her to seek more from her husband. Charlie is forced then to secure an attorney. He selects one who articulates the benefits of alternate dispute resolution, involving kinder, gentler methods of divorcing, such as mediation. But, dissatisfied with his advice, Charlie switches attorneys to counterbalance the demands of Nicole’s attorney. The legal battle begins, way beyond what either spouse wanted. Their attorneys don’t respect the couple’s wish to have reason and peace prevail. This is a drama and there are painful moments as Charlie and Nicole are pitted against each other, at times eradicating their warm feelings in the lovely descriptions they wrote about each other in the movie’s opening. The movie does not elucidate more complicated family and personal emotions.

The divorce war ensues. A social worker arrives to observe and determine Charlie’s ability to parent. His anxiety is cringe worthy while he’s being judged by the stiff and charmless woman who comes to assess his parenting skills. Viewers witness the family evolving and ‘unraveling’ emotionally, the parents, tearing each other apart, ‘guts’ churning. Their young son struggles to adapt to changing environments, school, friends, new parental habits and loyalties… not a pretty picture.

Apart from some of the extenuating circumstances and Nicole’s lawyer’s outfits, the movie does portray the realities of what can happen when couples engage certain litigators who want to win instead of settle. Unnecessary antagonism, haggling and expensive hours can cause a family more than the usual pain of coming apart. Parents accuse and counter and their children bear the consequences.

What we did not see, in this film, was what can occur when skilled professionals offer alternate dispute resolution, a civil and respectful way to dissolve a relationship. These processes, such as mediation, not skillfully executed in this film, are available. Another method of divorce, not depicted in this film, is collaborative divorce. Collaborative attorneys respect clients’ wishes and needs, helping them through the legal process without getting the court involved. Specifically trained, licensed mental health professionals are available to attend to the emotional needs of the clients, as a divorce facilitator (this is not therapy) and to give voice to the children’s concerns (as a child specialist). Also on hand, as needed, are collaborative financial professionals who help couples assess their assets and liabilities and budgets to best move forward financially.

Had the couple in the film engaged in an alternate dispute resolution divorce, they all would have been spared much fear and heart ache. I won’t spoil it for those who have not seen the film by sharing the end. It’s a good film. See for yourself!

By: Sharon Klempner, MSW, LCSW, BCD