In the new movie, “A Marriage Story” (which came out on Netflix recently), it is the lawyers who seem responsible for the hostility between the divorcing Nicole (played by Scarlet Johansson) and Charlie (played by Adam Driver). These well-paid sharks are the ones encouraging each party to make all-or-nothing demands on the other—all the money, all the custody, all the blame. But the lawyers not only represent the now-common idea that the legal system makes breakups more contentious. They also represent a kind of tragic chorus, explaining what the characters themselves cannot.
The first lawyer the husband, Charlie, hires is Bert (played by Alan Alda), who explains the mechanics of divorce, how Charlie ended up in this situation, how his wife and child seem to have moved to Los Angeles without his permission, why he will be writing large checks for legal fees, and how the plan to divorce amicably has fallen apart.
But Nora (Nicole’s lawyer, played by Laura Dern), seems to be explaining to Nicole why she is divorcing her husband. Sure, Nicole believes Charlie is selfish, that he looks down on her desires to return to television after years spent working for his avant-garde theater company, and that they haven’t spent time in Los Angeles as he said they would. But Dern is the one who eggs on her on, telling her client that she can never admit to any flaws as a parent because society doesn’t accept flawed mothers: “The basis of our Judeo-Christian whatever is Mary, mother of Jesus and she’s perfect. … you will always be held to a different, higher standard.”
What’s odd, though, is that notwithstanding this feminist diatribe, Charlie and Nicole actually have a fairly egalitarian marriage. In flashbacks, we see that Nicole takes care of their son Henry more. But Charlie does most of the cooking and cleaning in the house. Charlie gets up with Henry in the middle of the night. Charlie and Nicole work on the same plays (he as the director and she as the actress), so the amount of time spent working seems similar. But when it comes to looking back on their relationship, Nicole has convinced herself that she has been oppressed, and that Charlie has gotten in the way of her dreams. In fact, it is this “narrative” as Nora describes it, that seems to upset her even more than Charlie’s extramarital affair.
Nora says to Nicole at one point: “We’re interested in what you want to do. What you’re doing is an act of hope.” It’s as though she is saving Nora from some kind of patriarchal oppression. But how exactly has Nicole been trapped?
This is a question that extends beyond this fictional account of divorce in “A Marriage Story.” Why, after all, are women more likely to be unhappy in modern marriages than men? According to a 2017 study by Michael Rosenfeld of Stanford, 69% of divorces in this country are initiated by women. He notes that women on the whole seem to have lower satisfaction rates with their marriages than men. This is not true, however, of nonmarital relationships where satisfaction is about the same among men and women and where men and women are equally likely to end things.
When it comes to women’s unhappiness in marriage, maybe men are not doing enough. But maybe it’s that society has created unrealistic expectations for women, for whom marriage not only means finding a soulmate and a helpful father and a breadwinner, it is also an exercise in self-fulfillment.
As Nicole complains: “I never came alive for myself. I was only feeding his aliveness.”
Even after decades of men doing more housework and more childcare and women spending more time on their careers, many women seem no happier than women from a half century ago, and maybe even less so.
At the end of “A Marriage Story,” Nicole gets an Emmy-nomination for directing a television show, and the audience sees that her divorce has allowed her to flourish in her career. Whether this accomplishment will ultimately make her feel more “alive” than her marriage and family seems to me an open question.