Written by Jiaming Zeng, USAScreenshot taken from Official Trailer
I watched the Netflix movie Marriage Story, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, on a lazy weekend evening. The movie, which follows a couple, Nicole and Charlie (played by Johansson and Driver, respectively), as they sought a divorce and fought for custody over their son, Henry, had been garnering attention for its Oscar nominations and was strongly recommended by Netflix, so I decided to check it out.
Although I thought I was familiar with the word “divorce”, I did not expect to have tears streaming down my face as I wrestled with the meaning of broken relationships, forgiveness, and redemption over the next two hours and 17 minutes.
Nicole and Charlie had decided to get divorced due to, “irreconcilable differences.” Charlie is portrayed as self-absorbed, takes Nicole for granted, and lies about cheating on her. Nicole sacrifices so much for Charlie, yet her requests and wishes are constantly dismissed—until she finally exploded.
As a woman, I found it easier to empathize with Nicole. But Charlie isn’t easy to dislike either. He’s a genius director, an amazing boss, father, son-in-law, and so wounded by the divorce that you cannot help but side with him too.
But as the story unfolded, I saw that Nicole wasn’t entirely blameless either. She lacks confidence, doesn’t know what she wants, and is easily influenced by her divorce lawyer, Nora. Suckered by Nora at her most vulnerable, she brought the lawyers—perhaps the only ones enjoying themselves—onto the scene.
In the movie, it seems a truth universally acknowledged that marriage inevitably ends in divorce. We see this played out in the lives of Nicole’s sister, her co-worker, and the lawyers, too. Despite everyone agreeing on how ridiculous the process is, divorce is treated as the only option and almost a rite of passage in adulthood.
Yet the truth is, there was no real victory for any party in the end. Nicole finally signed the divorce papers with her wishes superseding Charlie’s. She became, in a way, “a beacon of hope for women” as she defied the world’s gender stereotypes that a wife should be meek and accommodating to her husband. She showed the world that “she deserves something better.” But did she truly win? Did she find her joy and happiness?
Is Divorce Really the Only Option?
Marriage Story is set in a world where God does not exist; as stressed in Nora’s searing monologue, “God is the father. And He didn’t show up” while Mary watched her son, Jesus, die. In that world, there is no resurrection, no redemption, and the only option for a broken marriage is divorce.
Yet as the movie progressed, I began to realize how complicated the brokenness of Charlie and Nicole’s relationship was. Despite being married for so many years, they could not communicate with each other. There were so many moments in the movie where I thought, if only Charlie saw how much Nicole didn’t want to do this, if only Nicole read her letter in the beginning, if only they could see how much they are hurting each other . . . If only . . .And slowly, I began to wonder, were their differences really irreconcilable?
In a world without God, yes.
But in a world with God, reconciliation is possible. The gospel tells us that Nora’s incinerating speech is misconstrued. God did show up. God was there with Jesus every step of the way. In three days, He raised His son from the dead and “exalted Him to the highest place” (Philippians 4:9).
Despite our fallibilities, God still loves us, helps us, and redeems us from our sins. That same gospel also has the power to transform our broken relationships.
I’d like to believe that if Nicole and Charlie had known about this love, they could learn, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving the wrongs they have done to each other and rebuild their relationship (Ephesians 4:31-32). Both would need to go through serious change and repentance. Nicole should let go of the bitterness and anger in her heart and find the courage to stand up for herself; Charlie must humble himself and listen to her wishes, too. It would be difficult and painful, but worth it.
And why should they bother? Because one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the movie is when Charlie finally reads Nicole’s letter, which details all the things she loves about him, after the papers were signed. Because despite the fighting and yelling, they still love each other. And because they will always be tied together by their son, Henry. So why, why did it have to end in tragedy?
Why Marriage Is Worth Fighting For
I’m not married. Yet before you dismiss everything I said as idealistic naivete, let me tell you a personal story.
For as long as I could remember, “divorce” was a common word thrown around in my family. Whenever my parents would get into a fight that rivaled Nicole and Charlie’s climatic standoff, my mom would yell that she wanted a divorce.
In the midst of their battles, I would often silently and vocally wish that they should just bite the bullet and do it. What’s the problem? This is the modern world. If you are so unhappy, just get divorced. It’ll be better for everyone. If I were you, I would do it.
“You don’t understand,” mom would say, “it’s very complicated.”
“It’s only because you don’t have resolve,” I would challenge her.
As a child, I thought mom was at fault. But as I got older, I realized how much she sacrifices to care for the family, and my dad, despite being generally an amazing and kind person, often does fall short as a caring husband.
It wasn’t until I observed and experienced other relationships myself that I came to understand that when it comes to relationships of any kind, none of us are truly blameless. Our actions can inadvertently hurt others, and we all need to extend forgiveness and compassion to each other to keep it going.
Over time, God has shown me that I shouldn’t just focus on the negatives. My fear and distress over being unhappy or stuck in a conflict had clouded my eyes to the good in our family relationship. Slowly, I began to see the moments when dad does care for mom, when mom does learn to be more forgiving, and when they do work well together. I stopped letting the dark moments blot out the bright ones.
As we celebrated last Christmas together on the balcony of our Airbnb in Hawaii, and joked and gave our blessings against the warm winds from the Pacific Ocean, I was glad that my parents never got divorced. I was glad they stuck it through, whether it was because of my sister and I, because my mom wasn’t strong enough, or simply because they couldn’t afford it. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that we were able to share that moment together as a family, and I’m sorry for wishing otherwise.
And perhaps it is those moments that make broken relationships worth fighting for. It is worth it to believe that through forgiveness and change, we can rewrite the world’s narrative about marriage, find reconciliation, and mirror the love and grace of Christ to a world that desperately needs it.
In a world that tell us to prioritize ourselves and strive to gain the upper hand, let’s “be devoted to one another in love” and “honor one another above ourselves” (Romans 12:10).