This article contains spoilers about Marriage Story.
It’s a rare achievement for an intimate, quietly heartbreaking film about the dissolution of a relationship to light up social-media feeds with impassioned debate. But Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, released this past weekend on Netflix, has done just that. In the days since its release, several aspects of Noah Baumbach’s semiautobiographical film (about a marriage between a New York theater director and an actor that crumbles when the director has an affair and the actor moves to Los Angeles to star in a television show, taking their son with her) have become fodder for online discussion: whether the party at fault for the divorce is Charlie (played by Adam Driver) or Nicole (Scarlett Johansson); whether the film is more sympathetic to one spouse than the other; and what kind of message the movie sends about the very institutions of marriage and family.
Perhaps one reason viewers hold such fervent opinions is because so many have recognized elements of themselves and their partnerships on-screen—as Ian Kerner, a marriage and sex therapist based in New York, can attest. In his inbox at present, he has emails from “half a dozen” patients he works with who have already gotten in touch to tell him they want to talk about the film in upcoming sessions. This week, I spoke with Kerner about the central marriage in Marriage Story—what makes it both typical and unusual compared with what Kerner sees in his practice daily, and at which point in Nicole and Charlie’s marriage a couples-therapy intervention might have saved it.
The conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Ashley Fetters: Did you like Marriage Story? Or did it feel like work to watch it?
Ian Kerner: No, I really liked it. Some things I do have a hard time [with], like I had a harder time watching that show Couples Therapy on Showtime. That felt like going to work. This was just so amazingly acted and complex, but also really funny.
The one thing I did find myself thinking a lot was, God, I’d love to work with them as a couple. Or, I’d love to get them into my office. Because I think they’re smart. They’re empathetic. They each have a story to tell, and they remind me of a lot of the couples I’ve worked with who have reached a point that’s a call to action—to look at the marriage and its values, and recalibrate. Those couples often get better and stronger.
Fetters: So you saw this marriage as one that could have been saved, not one that necessarily had to end in divorce?
Kerner: I’ve sat with couples like that, and given them a chance to really air their inner experience, learn, and mobilize from that. So I just felt like, why are they getting divorced? Do they really need to be getting divorced right now? They’re able to go to vulnerable, tender places. They’re able to like each other; they each have their subjective experiences of what occurred in the marriage. But I felt like there was a real potential for them to hear and learn from each other. They had the capacity to learn.
Fetters: So let’s imagine that this couple, Nicole and Charlie, do come into your office—before Nicole has decided to file for divorce, but after there’s been a disagreement over Nicole’s TV-pilot offer in Los Angeles, and an affair on Charlie’s part. Where do you start with them?
Kerner: I always begin with, what’s front of mind? What’s happening right now that you’re thinking about? And maybe it would be [Nicole’s] offer to go to L.A.
When I talk to couples, I have a simple metaphor, which is that our relationships are kind of like houses that have a main floor and then a basement. And most of the time we’re up on the main floor, running around and waking up and dealing with our kids and going to work and dealing with family and coming home and arguing with each other and making love, or not making love. We’re often just kind of getting through one day and the next on the main floor of life. But underneath the main floor there’s a basement. Some of our more primal emotions and vulnerabilities and frailties and injuries are down there in that basement, stowed away in a quieter, more vulnerable place.
So with Nicole, I feel like this opportunity to go to L.A. is something that’s happening up on the main floor that requires a decision. But there’s a real basement there for her around this. This feeling that she has spent her 20s, as I recall, kind of searching for herself, and felt that she became a passenger as he was driving. And as she said in that scene with Laura Dern, she just got smaller and smaller.
I don’t think he intentionally did that. He didn’t seem to me to be a malignant, intractable narcissist who couldn’t hear anything that wasn’t validating him. I think, for her, there was really this basement under this opportunity of having felt really lost herself, and felt really small and really lost her sense of purpose. And when he made a joke about [the TV-pilot offer] and its bad script or something offhand, that joke was something that really penetrated down into her emotional underground. I don’t know that he really understood the meaning of making a slight joke about the bad script. I don’t know that he understood her history, or the mental image that she carried around of him in her mind. I think it would’ve been great to talk about that opportunity to go to L.A., to talk about the feelings underneath it. But those are the kinds of things that people come in [to my office] and communicate every day.
Fetters: It sounds like this is the kind of thing that you often see in couples therapy, and instead, in this movie, they go to a divorce lawyer.
Kerner: Exactly. The couples who come into my office who really are getting divorced, often there’s been an affair or multiple affairs; or there are just core pieces of their personalities that are incompatible; [or] they haven’t slept together in 10 years and one partner has no interest in doing so. The impasses seem more irreconcilable. This couple, I felt like there’s a real opportunity to talk and learn. She was 20 or 21 when she met him. At this point [it’s normal that they would be] entering a new phase of the life cycle together, learning how to recalibrate. It sounds banal, but I also wondered about sex and intimacy, wondered about whether they were getting any quality time together, going on date nights—having this busy theater, having a child, they’ve kind of lost each other as a couple. I probably would have drilled down a little more on their sex life, and maybe given them some sort of assignment that helped them to intimately reconnect.
I wondered about why Noah Baumbach put in the infidelity. It’s not really dealt with, and it almost felt to me like, Wow, this couple likes each other so much, and with a few couples-therapy sessions could get back together. So maybe it was like, Let me throw in something that really makes this more irreconcilable.
Fetters: What this movie really illustrated to me was that sometimes even when spouses want to part ways amicably and supportively, the technicalities of the American legal system can turn their divorce into a bitter, black-and-white, zero-sum kind of conflict. Is that something you’ve seen often in your work?
Kerner: Well, this divorce introduced not just a custody issue but a geographical custody issue. And that’s huge. Money and custody can be big sources of contention. But I’ve worked with couples who have done what I think are amicable divorces. And let’s be honest, I’ve worked with a lot of couples who are better as co-parents than they ever were [as] spouses. I’ve absolutely seen divorces have very happy endings and be the best for everyone. I think a lot of [whether a divorce is amicable or bitter] just has to do with the anger going into the divorce, and the extent to which kids and money are going to be used as pawns. This couple, she’s tying his shoe at the end [of the movie]. She’s calling him “honey.” They have reserves of enormous empathy. And I think the message at the end is that they’re going to make this all work and be good co-parents together.
Fetters: There’s a theory, espoused by the sociologist Eli Finkel, that marriage, over time, has become an institution that people expect more and more out of—and the most recently added expectation is that a spouse should help someone grow and self-actualize. Marriage Story struck me as a distinctly modern story about marriage in that regard; Nicole feels so unhappy that her husband hasn’t supported her ambitions that she ends the marriage.
Kerner: Their relationship was also really modern—and very typical of the couples that I work with—in that it’s pretty egalitarian and everyone is really contributing from their strengths. There were certain gendered elements in this, in that he’s dictating where they’re going to be. When it came to staying in New York, it was a decision [because that’s where his career was based]. When it came to the question of whether to move the family to L.A., it was a conversation [because it was for her career]. So even in the most egalitarian relationships, there are probably vapors of patriarchy.
But in general we definitely saw a modern, egalitarian relationship, and one where they did have a lot of growth and support needs fulfilled. The problem is, they weren’t talking about those needs with each other.
Fetters: Do you anticipate that lots of couples will watch this movie and want to talk about it in therapy?
Kerner: I definitely think it’s something couples are watching and seeing themselves in—and I hope it will be a call to action. Like, “Let’s talk about our marriage a little bit. Let’s talk about where we are and what our story is.”