Could This Marriage Be Saved?
If Yes, Then How?

It’s a very sad Marriage Story. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) haven’t stopped loving each other. But, Nicole doesn’t know how to do their marriage anymore. The only answer seems to be divorce. Yet, is it? Noah Baumbach’s film, in all its unearthing of the many deeper questions not yet answered, shows us the complexities of what a couple brings to a marriage. Along with the tangles their individual emotional worlds and early family histories create (and weave around them) when not fully understood. Or, worked out. What would it take to save this marriage? Especially since, as Nicole says, “It’s not so simple as not being in love anymore.”

How To Save A Marriage

Simply put – it takes three. Both parts of the couple. Plus another pair of eyes. A well-trained therapist who knows how to understand what’s being lived between them. If we’re talking about Nicole and Charlie – the first ingredient is for both of them to want it. But, it seems, for Nicole, things have gone too far. She’s given up.

Yet, what if they’d gone to therapy before things got so bad? Before Nicole saw no possible way for Charlie to make room for her to be herself? Perhaps they might have talked it out with an objective witness. Heard each other. Made the needed changes. Yet, those changes aren’t as obvious as they seem.

Here’s the obvious: Nicole’s ability to hide. Charlie’s need for control. Both are very competitive. Yet, it’s important not to take things at face value. How did these traits develop? Are Nicole and Charlie just a poor match? Or is it something else?

Nicole says: “All the problems were there in the beginning. I just went along with him because it felt so damn good to be alive.”  Here’s the thing: “going along with Charlie to feel alive,” or his need for control, are the problems that come into a relationship from the past. Our childhoods are alive in us (even if, like Nicole, we feel dead.)

Saving a marriage means seeing how those childhoods are lived between two people. Nicole wasn’t just feeding Charlie’s aliveness. She was dead for a reason. And, we have to ask – was she feeding her mother’s aliveness too, as a child? Is this where it started? Perhaps she never really came alive. Or, could know what she wanted.

It’s not Charlie’s fault. Nicole’s either. These not-conscious “transferences” onto our partners can’t be seen without help. 

Yes, The Past Comes With Them

Charlie had a lot of alcohol and violence in his childhood. Moved to NY with no safety net. In their theater group, he made everyone feel included (which he clearly didn’t feel, as a child.) Nor did he have a dad that loved everything about being a dad, even the hard parts, like he does. And, as Nicole says: “He’s very clear about what he wants.”

With his childhood, he had to be clear; to get out; to fend for himself. What about Nicole? Her mother didn’t see her as separate. As in:“Can we take it back (after papers are served), in case we change our minds?” She seems to be more of a sister/competitor/playmate than a Mom. A pollyanna. Something of a child herself.

Yet, it’s her way or no way: “In this house, we go by my rules until you know what you want to do.” Probably hard to stand up to as a child, quieting her feelings, with no help knowing what they are.

This is Nicole’s template for love. No wonder she so easily gave in to Charlie. He’s her mom. She says she had a good mom. In many ways, she did. Charlie was good too. But, she was trapped in pleasing both of them. And, she ran. What else could she do in self-defense, but begin walling off? Now, rejecting him. 

No question, Charlie feels sensitive to being unwanted from his past. Not being good enough. We see it in their fight. So, he looks for love elsewhere. And, this makes Nicole feel even more hurt, unseen and controlled.

Could this marriage have been saved? Maybe. If someone helped Nicole find what she wanted and give it a voice. And, also helped Charlie not be too threatened to listen.

Why “Giving In” To Love Is A Threat

As Nicole says: “When the pilot came along if he’d just said, baby, take it, I want you to have a piece of earth that’s yours, then we might not be getting a divorce.” He couldn’t. Because it’s not so simple. Yes, we see they are competitive. But, why? Both feel they’ll either disappear or be rejected if they give in to love. Love is a threat to them both.

The result? Nicole cries the “real-not-fake” tears when she says goodnight, closing the door to their room. Shutting him out. The gate closes between them. After he helps her. After she cuts his hair. Rituals. Theirs. Gone.

Staying cold, removed, seems the better bet. Nicole’s safety net. Afraid to get drawn back in, when love (to her) means coming in second. Never knowing what she wants and doing what others want instead, she has to fight hard to stop from disappearing.

Afraid she’ll lose. Won’t read what she loves about Charlie. Hires a lawyer behind his back. Wants to hurt him out of years of pent up anger that doesn’t really have to do with him. Trying to get the “piece of earth” she feels he refuses to give her.

For Charlie, not disappearing means having the control he didn’t have as a child. Always fighting for his own “piece of earth” because no one fought for him. Now, on the other side of the gate, with nowhere to go or call home, he feels unwanted. Again.

The question is: what’s led up to this? The clue to some divorces is in what Nicole says about Henry: “he quits too easily when things aren’t easy for him.” Yet, what is it that’s too hard? What seems non-negotiable, when they don’t really even know what it is?

How Their Fight Reveals It All 

It’s the stuff that every couple brings into a marriage. Being “like” their parents and child selves. It’s what silently affects how they relate and see each other (if it’s not worked out.) That’s what spills out in Nicole and Charlie’s fight. Not what they love.

The fight starts with Nicole trying to be helpful. But the picture she offers for Charlie’s walls has her in it: “You could cut me out, she says.”  The problem is – she’s felt cut out for too long. And, she learned, with her well-meaning but overbearing mom, to cut herself out; to put her feelings away. Then, of course, not knowing what they are.

And, Charlie. We know he has no family. Abusive and alcoholic, he had to cut them out and go it alone. But, that meant he had to focus on himself when no one else did.

Neither are to blame. It’s not their fault. What lives silently can’t be known – without someone who can show them what they’re living out. And, because they didn’t have that help, they also don’t have a chance to understand, to change it; or grow together.

The fight deteriorates – but also reveals the past. Nicole accuses Charlie of not wanting to be a father to Henry: “You’re fighting for something you don’t even want. You’re being so much like your father.” “Don’t compare me to my father.” “I didn’t, I said you’re acting like him.”

“And, you’re like your mother. Everything you were complaining about, you‘re doing. Suffocating Henry.”  The fight ramps up. “How dare you compare my mothering to my mother. I’m not like my mother.”

“You are! You’re like my father and … my mother. You’re all the bad things about all of these people, but mostly like your mother.” 

Old Resentments & Mostly Hurt

It’s true. Ghosts of the past live inside us. We are our mothers, fathers, child selves; the ones who were hurt; the ones who had to find ways to adapt.

And, when you don’t know this is happening, you blame the other; and all the old resentments turn horribly vicious. We watch as this happens to Nicole and Charlie.

Feeling unwanted and unheard, they attack each other. She’s a slob. He’s too selfish to be a great artist. Her best acting is behind her. Back to being a hack. He’s a villain; she’s a victim; she doesn’t want a voice, she just wants to complain about not having one.

Hurt, they do everything to hurt the other back. Charlie rages: “You chose this life. You wanted it until you didn’t. Used me so you could get out of LA – and then you blamed me for it. Always made me aware of what I was doing wrong.”

Feeling used, blamed, always falling short, never good enough are the spoils an abusive childhood. Voices of the past. Hers – are never feeling heard or seen for who she is as separate; as not who her mom (now Charlie as surrogate) wants her to be.

He hits the wall and makes a hole. The irreparable hole in their marriage. He’s been blindsided. When he least expected it. And, now he wants her dead. But, really, he wants all the hurt GONE, past and present. He sobs, head in his hands.

Ravaged by it all, Charlie collapses on the floor, stopping Nicole in her tracks. The damage that’s been done. She comforts him. Both say they’re sorry. Seeing something now (the pain) in the other that later helps them be more giving and accepting. Too late for their marriage, but not for their child. 

When & Why It’s Gone Too Far

“Nora says there’s no coming back from this.” As we see, that’s not necessarily true. But, Nora (Laura Dern) is a ball-buster; a lawyer who knows what it means for a woman to be taken down by a man. She isn’t going to let any man win.

She’s the voice of Nora’s resentments, giving them the air time, but not the understanding Nicole needs. She doesn’t hear Nicole either, “knows best” (like Nicole’s mom), and uses her own old unprocessed anger to push Nicole into going farther than even Nicole wants to go. Getting nastier and nastier.  Not caring if it ruins love.

Something neither Nicole or Charlie wanted. They were friends. “I fell in love with him 2 seconds after I met him and I’ll never stop loving him, even though it doesn’t make sense anymore.” (Henry reading what she wouldn’t read to the mediator.) Charlie’s crying. Nicole, listening at the door, is crying too.

It’s too late for them. Maybe because they didn’t know how not to give up when things weren’t easy. Yet, by the end of Marriage Story, they’ve let go of their competitiveness. For Henry. But also because they’ve changed and grown.

Could it have been different if they’d had some help; or known they needed it long ago? Or did Nicole and Charlie need to come apart in order to see themselves and each other more clearly? It’s impossible to know.

The truth is: love is complicated, to say the least. You have to be able to ride the scary waves of love and life when they hit. Like the song Charlie sings at the end: “I’ll always be there as frightened as you to help us survive … being alive.”  And, that takes two.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.

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