What does A Marriage Story get right about divorce?

What does A Marriage Story get right about divorce?

Even if you haven’t seen A Marriage Story, you may have heard about it. Especially if you’re thinking about getting a divorce. And you may have wondered about the film’s portrayal of divorce and divorce attorneys.

For example, you might wonder: Are divorce attorneys really such “bad guys” as the movie makes them out to be? Not quite. The film gets many things right, but not everything. And there’s more to the story of its characters’ divorce than you see on the screen.

A brief summary

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen A Marriage Story, you’re about to get a brief overview. The movie follows the divorce of Charlie and Nicole, played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. They start in mediation, telling each other they want a quiet, peaceful divorce, but the mediation fails. Nicole walks out and hires an attorney.

From that point, the divorce process becomes increasingly contentious. The big sticking point for both Charlie and Nicole is custody of their son. Nicole has moved to Hollywood and wants her son to live with her there. Charlie wants his son to stay with him in New York. The couple’s hopes for a quiet, peaceful divorce explode as their attorneys wage their custody battle.

Four ways A Marriage Story gets things right

As the film’s writer and director noted in a radio interview, Charlie and Nicole start in a place of relative innocence. They don’t understand the divorce process and hope they can find a peaceful way through it. But they learn:

  • Divorce is almost always more complicated than people expect, especially when child custody is involved.
  • Mediation doesn’t always work, especially when one side, like Nicole, feels she doesn’t have a voice in the relationship.
  • Divorce isn’t just legally complex. It’s also emotionally complex, and couples can expect to go through a wide range of conflicting emotions.
  • Custody is about the child’s best interests. You may not have a custody evaluator visit you like the evaluator visited Charlie, but you can expect the court to apply certain standards to its evaluation.

Charlie and Nicole share so much pain during their divorce that you might think the lesson was that they should have stuck with mediation. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Three ways A Marriage Story reveals the value of a good attorney

By the end of A Marriage Story, the couple is divorced, and it seems they’ve found a way to move forward. Charlie has moved to L.A., and the couple have put their conflicts aside to co-parent their son more effectively. But this wouldn’t have been the outcome if the couple had stuck with mediation. Nicole needed an attorney:

  • To listen to her concerns and give them a voice. Nicole felt silenced in her marriage and didn’t believe Charlie was ready to negotiate with her as an equal.
  • To help her understand her rights and the legal concerns of her divorce. When she files for divorce, Nicole only knows her marriage isn’t working. She doesn’t fully understand her path forward.
  • To argue her case. The reason Nicole needs a powerful attorney in the film is because Charlie simply won’t agree to let their son live with her. Nicole’s attorney helps prove the move is in her son’s best interest.

When you watch the film the first time, it may feel like it’s all about the pain of divorce and the attorneys’ aggressive tactics. But that’s only one take. It’s also the story of how Nicole pursues a better future for her and her son. And as the real-life attorney on whom Nicole’s lawyer was likely based has pointed out, the depictions of the attorneys were fictionalized and missed the mark in several important ways.

Get the whole picture

A Marriage Story earned high praise for its portrayal of the human issues involved in divorce. In that way, you may find it helpful. Especially because it shows the hope at the end of the process. It’s not always easy, but a dedicated attorney may help you push through the process and find your way toward a better future.


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