Marriage Story on Netflix: A Virginia Family Law Attorney’s Perspective
This past weekend marked the much-anticipated release of the Netflix film, Marriage Story, which, conversely, tells the story of the end of a marriage. The movie tells a disheartening story that, unfortunately, is all too common to family law practitioners. As I watched, I was easily able to associate each of the attorneys, portrayed incredibly by Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda, with attorneys I interact with daily. Similarly, the divorcing couple, played by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, expressed emotions that many of my clients have communicated to me over the years. It was an ugly birds-eye view of the emotional struggles and havoc that family law practitioners see in the litigation process. It is also an important and insightful directive for family law attorneys to provide better, more supportive options for their clients.
***Spoiler alerts for the rest of this article, but read on if you want to read my review and comparison of the movie to real-life experiences***
In the opening scene of the movie, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are reciting many of the positive traits each saw in the other before and throughout their marriage. When they finish, we learn that the exercise was promoted by a mediator at the beginning of the separation. While it is clear that Nicole is struggling with the emotional impact of the process, the mediator tells them of the importance of remembering the positives of the other person. He tells them, “this is a person you had great feeling for and maybe you still do in many ways.” I find that many clients walk in the door wanting and hoping for an amicable divorce, a positive relationship for the future, and the ability to co-parent with one another. Unfortunately, many attorneys quickly steer clients towards litigation tactics and other strategies that, while sometimes effective in court, immediately widen the wedge between spouses. When facing a spouse in litigation, it becomes easy to forget what each person wanted in the first place.
As a mediator and collaborative practitioner, one of the first tasks I ask the parties to complete is a joint list of “Goals and Interests.” This list often consists of the reasons the couple chose mediation or collaborative law in the first place. The following goals are quite common: to ensure that the divorce process does not negatively impact the child; to have a smooth, efficient, and cost-effective process; for both parties to be financially secure in their new homes; and to achieve a fair result. Those “Goals and Interests” are posted on the wall of every meeting thereafter as a reminder as to why they are there and what they are truly aiming to achieve, regardless of how difficult an issue or future meeting may seem. If I had to guess, even those who litigate are hoping for those same results.
Unfortunately, divorce can be one of the most stressful events in a person’s life. One’s goals can be easily forgotten. As Charlie’s attorney tells him, “You know what they say, criminal attorneys see bad people at their best and divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.” I have often used this quote in my career as it is truly representative of what I see on a daily basis. My client’s spouse is hardly ever a bad person, but whether due to the emotional stress of the situation or as a result of receiving bad advice from a friend, family member, or attorney, that person may take certain actions that make the situation all that much worse. I view it as my duty as a family law attorney and counselor to try and prevent that behavior.
The attorneys in Marriage Story often do the opposite. They are so consumed with the idea of “winning” for their respective clients that they end up pushing the couple into an aggressive divorce that impacts their relationship with each other and their child. Eventually, after finally reaching a settlement (and likely tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars later) Nicole’s attorney tells her, “And whenever Charlie is in L.A., I got the custody breakdown to be 55/45…I tweaked it at the last minute. I just didn’t want him to be able to say he got 50/50, bragging to his friends.” When Nicole says she doesn’t want to do that, after often describing Charlie as a wonderful, devoted father, her attorney tells her, “Take it, you won.” Attorneys, whether it is because they are competitive, trying to pad their own resumes, earn more money, or truly think they are getting the best deal for their clients, can do a lot of damage in a divorce.
I believe Laura Dern played the role of Nicole’s attorney as someone who thought she was doing the best for Nicole. She came off as compassionate, but only to her client. When in Court, she minimized Charlie’s role in the child’s life and argued that Charlie was neglectful in caring for the child. Charlie’s attorney accused Nicole of alcohol abuse and argued that she put the child’s safety at risk. Consequently, Charlie and Nicole appeared embarrassed, sad, and powerless. Nothing being said was necessarily untrue, which is a credit to the powerful lawyering skills displayed by both. However, it took each of those situations completely out of context in order to improve the client’s position in a custody battle. As a result, it made it difficult for the couple to trust one another, which is pertinent to co-parenting. This is one of the greatest failures of the litigation process.
At the end of the movie, as Charlie and Nicole are in the next stage of their lives, they are seen together trick-or-treating on Halloween. When their son slumps over on the sidewalk, exhausted after a long day, Nicole offers for Charlie to have the night even though it is “her” night. Throughout the divorce process, no matter how inconvenient it may have been, each refused to relinquish a minute of parenting time. Now, they were putting the child first. This is the outcome parents strive to reach. It is usually #1 on the list of “Goals and Interests.” It shouldn’t be so hard to get to that point and it should even be possible during the divorce process.
The movie did have some minor flaws and inaccuracies. It was personally frustrating to watch the jurisdictional chess match over custody when, for a short-term move, New York would have had a superior claim to the case under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act because the child had not yet resided in California for a period of 6 months.
There were other moments that I thought were overly dramatic and the attorneys, at times, a little over-the-top with their strategy recommendations. Overall, however, I believe Marriage Story accurately depicted the ugly nature of divorce litigation. I also see the silver-lining in portraying divorce in this way. Parents do usually start off wanting what is best for everyone involved, especially their children. They eventually get to a place where they want that again. It is incredibly important to maintain that perspective throughout the process as well, regardless of the reasons that led to the divorce. In other words, I saw Marriage Story as a ringing endorsement for collaborative law and mediation, which is what I believe any person going through a divorce needs to hear and needs to consider.
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