Scenes from the new film show a Judd Apatow stand-in and his wife exchanging casual quips about killing each other. Dark comedy, or a real phenomenon?
The trailer for This Is 40, the new Judd Apatow movie, includes two conversations on the same theme: Married people who fantasize about their spouses dying. The first exchange is between Pete, whom Apatow enthusiasts will remember from Knocked Up, and his friend Barry:
Pete: This sounds horrible, but do you ever wonder what it would be like if you and your wife were separated by something bigger? Like death. Like her death.
Barry: I have given it a fair amount of thought.
Pete: Not in a painful way, but like a gentle, floating off...
Barry: Its gotta be peaceful. I mean, this is the mother of your children.
Pete: And then the new wife would be great.
Barry: God, I can't wait to meet my second wife. I hope she likes me better than this one.
The second is between Pete and his wife, Debbie:
Debbie: Why do we fight?
Pete: I don't know. You get so mad at me. Sometimes I think you want to kill me.
Debbie: I do want to kill you.
Pete: How would you do it?
Debbie: I would poison your cupcakes that you pretend not to eat every day. I would enjoy our last few months together, but while killing you.
Apatow wrote, directed, and produced This is 40. He cast his wife, Leslie Mann, as Pete's wife. He cast his children with Mann, Maude and Iris, as Pete and Debbie's children, Sadie and Charlotte. If one then concludes that Apatow simply replaced himself with Paul Rudd, it is easy to imagine we are watching a reality-based movie. Is this fantasy about spouses dying a pervasive phenomenon in marriage, and in particular, the Apatow-Mann household?
"It's not something Leslie and I talk about," Apatow assured me over the phone, going on to explain that he relies far more on Oprah and her therapist, Harville Henrix, than his own marriage, when writing. Nonetheless, Apatow directed my attention to an appearance Mann made on the Jimmy Kimmel Show that contradicted nearly everything he said. At one point, Kimmel asks Mann if Rudd is playing Apatow, and Mann responds, "I guess so, yeah, a little bit, I guess so, yeah." Mann said she was not playing herself, but described Apatow's writing process as participatory, explaining that they had a lot of "coded conversations" over a number of years during which "Judd would say things he would be afraid to say to me, his wife, that he wouldn't be afraid to say to the character, Debbie." At another point, Mann does not dispute Kimmel's assessment that this is "a real puppet master situation." Finally, Mann says, "I do feel like, you know, he's very quiet, and he holds things in, and I do feel like he may be capable of killing me." She goes on to joke that she grows suspicious when home alone.
Regardless of whether Apatow himself has ever wished his wife dead, the sentiment is not so outlandish. According to the National Marriage and Divorce Rate Trends for 2000-2010, about half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. Despite this frequency, there is still a stigma attached to divorce. Perhaps because of this stigma, Apatow's characters choose not to fantasize about divorce, but widowhood.
"There's no failure involved," said Benjamin Karney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also conducts research at the Marriage Lab. "They all have an unstated fear of screwing up, and of taking responsibility for failure." Karney compared it to people who fantasize about suicide. "People like to think, 'That person will miss me and regret treating me so poorly.'"
There are few options available for married people: Put in the work it takes to get through difficult times, don't put in the work and suffer through a bad marriage, or initiate a separation. If one member of the couple dies, however, there is no choice to be made: They can escape their partners and be blameless.
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown, said the dialogue remind her of a joke her mother enjoyed telling. When asked if she ever contemplated divorce during 71 years of marriage, "She loved to say, 'Murder, yes, but not divorce.'"