Marriage is work because it’s a very tricky business for a marriage to get things right for BOTH people. That’s why marriage is hard work. The movie A Marriage Story gets a lot of things right. You watch how both Charlie & Nicole have responsibility for the demise of the marriage.


Partners Who Take Up Too Much Space in a Relationship & A Marriage Story (The Movie)

Marriage is work because it’s a very tricky business for a marriage to get things right for BOTH people. That’s why marriage is hard work. The movie A Marriage Story gets a lot of things right. You watch how both Charlie & Nicole have responsibility for the demise of the marriage.

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I love the opening of the movie with both partners describing all the specifics of their love for each other; though the therapist made the mistake of requiring it too early on. (When one partner has 1 1/2 of their 2 feet out the door this is a premature move of false positivity.) In the film it’s beautiful to learn all the specific things they’ve loved over the years. A divorce so often erases the beauty of the beginnings.

Yet even in his monologue you hear echoes of how she has fit into his life……and how well that has worked for him. Adam Driver as Charlie gets 65-70% of the responsibility because he is the one who has taken up all the space. He ignored her desire to return to live in California. He did not make a deal with her & she did not demand a deal. I’m sure she spoke up several times in the past. He remained oblivious & she did not demand he pay attention until it was too late.

This is a pattern I see often in my office. Couples often arrive 3 to 6 years too late. She has a part in what happened maybe only 30-35%. Nicole acknowledges this when she says “I became his aliveness & not my own.” She participated in his needs being the center of the universe and allowed herself to get lost in the process.

Nicole needed to find her own voice & define her own wants. She needed to locate her anger to set boundaries. She needed to scream “I’M SICK OF HOW LOPSIDED THIS RELATIONSHIP IS…..” instead she retroflected, swallowed her wants & desires & they slowly built up into this GIANT pile of resentments. She was like a squirrel gathering nuts for the winter, starving for real contact & connection.

She leaves him & then becomes more herself. She allowed herself to get lost in his fame & his needs. He recognizes his son needs him to be nearby & he “the New Yorker who is more a New Yorker than those who are born there” learns he must sacrifice for someone else. He on the other hand takes a long time to realize he had too much only on his terms, without recognizing the “US”.

It’s very sad they both had to leave the marriage in order to learn these lessons in growing up. As I’ve said before, real love is all about loving somebody enough to grow up & honestly face painful situations about how your dark side is crowding someone else (in his case) or how you need to learn to shout & be angry to get your needs met instead of swallowing & putting on a false smile (in her case). You can see how the problems are a pattern created by the two of them.

Another ordinary pattern is the way they both hint about their problems with each other, I don’t believe there were more than 2 sentences ever strung together by either Charlie or Nicole. They both are very curtailed in their sharing. Clearly the partners have zero ability to really talk at length about hard things. So what happens is that the lawyers dump out all the ugliness that has gone unexpressed for them. What the lawyers say about each other just makes you flinch. The lawyers help the ugliness to bloom.

The scenes with the attorneys being so ugly and the husband & wife allowing it to go on are fairly typical. The marriage is a massive loss, a hole in your heart that will never be totally repaired. It’s so easy to fill that void with rage & blame. That’s how most of us are able to go on, THEY did this to me, How dare THEY.  The emptiness has to be filled with something so why not with a sense of betrayal & self righteousness?

So what if they had arrived 3 years sooner you may be thinking. The truth is that repair might have been possible. 

The person who has the affair is usually taking up too much room in the relationship. Charlie could figure out how important her wants were & learned to compromise. He might have been afraid of losing her enough to take things seriously & to recognize he’s been taking up all the space. It would have been painful for him to give up New York but giving up her would be worse. Fear often drives change.

If he was willing to recognize she had compromised herself too much, it’s entirely possible that they could have repaired their relationship. We only can learn about ourselves from the truths offered by those who love us about our dark sides. Love is about swallowing & recognizing an ugly truth about yourself & then taking actions to do something different. Not too many people are able to do this because it’s hard. 

Repair won’t work if you are stubborn & unwilling to confront the truth about yourself.

Your relationship in the beginning years is all about your illusions, your imagination at work about how wonderful the other person is & how lucky you both are! The movie clearly depicts that the work required would be learning how both partners in a marriage need to share center stage……Think of famous artists like Picasso & Charlie Chaplin & how they burned through women because it was impossible. Charlie Chaplin seemed to figure it out with Oona later in life when she didn’t seem to mind his taking up most of the space. Kevin Bacon & Kyra Sedgwick  seem to solve it by taking turns starring in TV roles.

The rewards if you can learn to do this are enormous. It is trusting your partner’s honesty that can stir you towards change. Then you both can evolve into being better people and you have greater amounts of respect as a bedrock foundation for the relationship. 

We moved to Pittsburgh for my husband to start a business & I gave up a job I loved at an inner city settlement house. I remember making him promise there would be a sacrifice for me in the future which never ended up being necessary because Pittsburgh worked out to be great for both of us. When you both are individuals you are able to build greater authenticity in the relationship because the more respect there is for differences, the more room there is for truth.

BOTH people in a marriage require room to continue being individuals. It’s not a 3 legged potato sack race. This means both people need to believe differences are desirable & struggle is beneficial. Those are values that are really hard to embrace. That’s why deep down we all really want a clone for a partner. We want someone to feel the same way we do, have the same values & priorities. “Why can’t you be more like me?” we secretly think to ourselves.

Successful marriage & success in any relationship is all about respect for the differences, not how we are the same. This is not an easy path when you want the people you love to be more like you. It’s very hard for me to accept that neither of my children read books very much & yet, accept it I must or it will drive a wedge of distance between us.

The reason taking each other for granted in marriage is so dangerous is because it means we stop seeing each other as having unique traits. We start making assumptions instead of having honest conversations. “Oh, I’m not going to tell them that because then they’ll be upset” You have to decide to risk the struggle of a real conversation, this is what Nicole fails to do. She has given up & resents catering to him. It’s a pattern that contributes to destroying the relationship. 

So this podcast episode is a campaign to decide that struggling is a good thing. I wrote a blog many years ago “Couples Never Fighting=Not A good Thing”. I took a lot of flak from all the happy couples who were proud of never fighting. If there is no fighting then there is no struggle. If there is no struggle then someone is swallowing their differences & catering too often to their partner. Struggle means the differences between you are fresh & alive & you are paying attention to both of you. 

My Challenge for you today: Sit down & make a list of 20 things that are true about you…..then list how your partner is different. You certainly are allowed to be annoyed by the differences. The real question is do you respect those differences? Ask yourself who takes up too much room in your relationship & who caters more often? Are there ways you both could improve sharing center stage? How much do you struggle so there is room for both of your priorities? Share this episode with your partner & have a conversation about how you both might contribute to improvements.

I’m adding a webinar course on overly generous people in lopsided relationships for 29.95 on my website to raise money to support the podcast. Soon I will add two more on dating & manipulation.

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About the Rhoda Mills Sommer

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