Marriage Story – A Lesson on How Not to Divorce

By Published On: January 21, 2020

Netflix’s Marriage Story provides a disturbing and heartbreaking portrait of the divorce process, and of divorce attorneys in particular.

(Spoiler alert –this blog discusses key elements of the film.)

Divorce Lawyers Without Integrity

Marriage Story begins by presenting the main characters Nicole and Charlie as decent people and loving parents, who have admittedly made their share of mistakes along the way. The young couple have decided to split amicably. However, the divorce process is quickly altered when Nicole hires a slick and aggressive attorney, Nora (played by Laura Dern), who we come to learn is pursuing an agenda that isn’t Nicole’s at all.

As a settlement-minded divorce attorney, I cringed as I watched Charlie’s and Nicole’s divorce unfold in all the wrong directions. I kept thinking: It doesn’t have to be this way. But scene after scene, the situation gets worse for the divorcing couple. Nicole follows the advice of her attorney Nora and purposely conflicts Charlie out of hiring almost any divorce attorney in Los Angeles (by calling and meeting with multiple attorneys) – an aggressive but not always wise tactic to pursue. As a result, Charlie ends up with an attorney (played by Alan Alda), who has good intentions, but is ineffective.  Citing his personal experience in his own three divorces, he pushes Charlie towards a settlement position that would require him to sacrifice his highest priority – time with his son.

 Reacting from a Place of Fear

Feeling like he is “losing” and scared that his son will think he didn’t “fight” for him, Charlie ends up getting his own “scorched-earth” attorney. Soon after, in a truly horrible courtroom scene, the attorneys one-up each other in aggressiveness and distortion. After the lawyers take turns egregiously twisting the facts for their clients’ alleged benefit, Nicole and Charlie leave the courtroom more polarized and less willing to compromise than when they first entered. After a settlement is finally reached, Nicole’s attorney makes it clear that her agenda throughout the process was “winning,” rather than addressing Nicole’s priorities.

Divorce Does Not Have to Be Like This

Through this gut-wrenching and runaway divorce process, Marriage Story opens the audience’s eyes to the drawbacks of scorched-earth litigation and overly aggressive divorce attorneys.

The film, however, gives the unfortunate impression that practical, settlement-minded attorneys are bumbling and ineffective, and can’t achieve positive results for a client. While this may have been the case in director Noah Baumbach’s divorce experience (which the movie is said to be based on), it does not have to be the case for the majority of divorcing couples. Instead, when spouses utilize an approach that emphasizes problem-solving and collaboration, the results tend to more effectively meet each party’s priorities.

At the end of the movie, there is a glimmer of hope that Charlie and Nicole will get beyond their disastrous divorce process and be able to refocus on being good co-parents for their son.  However, they could have gotten to the same place – of reaching a settlement and working together as good co-parents – without experiencing such a destructive, expensive and acrimonious divorce process.

 The Two Most Important Decisions for Achieving a Healthier (Better) Divorce

There are better ways to divorce. A couple can successfully end their marriage and resolve their differences without hurting the children or their relationship with both parents along the way. Indeed, most (but not all) divorce cases can be resolved without resorting to the courts and having a Judge decide a family’s fate.

A good divorce is based on two key decisions.

First, hire the right divorce lawyer. Divorcing clients will get the best result by selecting a divorce attorney who will help them achieve a smart and cost-effective divorce that truly puts the client’s needs first. Some key questions for clients to consider when meeting with a potential divorce attorney, include:

  • Does the divorce attorney listen to what is important to you and help you to identify your priorities—or do they primarily try to “sell” you on their approach?
  • Does the divorce attorney make you feel confident that he/she has the skills and ability to help you achieve your most important goals?
  • Does the divorce attorney have experience in litigating as well as settling cases through Collaborative Law, negotiation, and mediation?
  • Are you comfortable interacting with the attorney? Does he/she educate you on the divorce process, answer your questions, and clearly explain legal concepts?

Second, research the process options for divorce and choose the best process. Divorcing clients should give consideration to a process that allows them to maintain control over the outcome and also focuses on problem solving rather than gaining leverage over the other party. These process choices can include Collaborative Law, mediation, and attorney negotiation.

A Better Ending

If Nicole and Charlie had found their way to attorneys and a divorce process divorce more in line with their initial priorities, the plot of Marriage Story wouldn’t have been nearly as poignant or darkly humorous. But in the real world, picking the right attorneys and process would have saved Nicole and Charlie a lot of pain and money. Most importantly, it would have helped them achieve a balanced settlement that protected their son, their financial resources, and their relationships, while keeping them out of the often-destructive court system.

If you are thinking of divorcing, or are going through a divorce, watch Marriage Story to learn what not to do and what pitfalls to avoid. Then find the right attorney before you make decisions that could put you on a slippery slope toward a future you do not desire.


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