Marriage Story and the Disease of Selfishness

[Spoiler Alert: This article discusses major plot points from the film Marriage Story]

Director Noah Baumbach’s sympathetic and moving look at divorce, Marriage Story, is one of the best movies of 2019. Nominated for six Academy Awards—including Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Picture—the film has captured the attention of critics and audiences alike. Adam Driver plays Charlie, a talented New York theatre director; Scarlett Johansson plays Nicole, a budding actress and aspiring director. Together, they turn out some of the best performances of the year.

While the movie opens with this husband and wife recounting all the things they love about each other, it seems that there is not much love left between them. Their marriage has been crumbling and divorce is immanent. The remainder of the film is heart-wrenching, as we watch Charlie and Nicole walk through the process of getting a divorce, with all its legal, emotional, and relational complications.

Initially, they decide to settle the issue without lawyers; but as complications arise, both Charlie and Nicole get their own combative lawyers as they vie for where they will live, how they will share custody of their son, and how the money and assets will be split up. Their relationship disintegrates even further, as cordiality turns to malice and indifference turns to selfishness. All very painful, all too real.

One question that is often asked in a divorce scenario is, “Who’s to blame?” It is all too tempting to choose sides, and the film does a masterful job of making us feel sympathy for both Charlie and Nicole. And while focusing on the details of the divorce process, the film also manages to imply a lot about what makes for a good marriage and to warn against some dangers associated with it.

A Selfish Streak
Charlie, though a brilliant director and a loving father, seems quietly self-absorbed. He never asks Nicole what she wants or needs, but instead, drags her along on his quest for fulfillment until Nicole no longer knows who she is. She thinks of herself merely as an extension of Charlie. It is clear that her hopes and dreams of growing as an actress and directing her own plays have been mostly subordinated to supporting Charlie and raising a son. To further complicate matters, we learn that Charlie had a brief but damaging extramarital affair.1

This is all a great tragedy. Instead of focusing solely on his own desires, Charlie ought to have helped Nicole to be the best possible version of herself. Ironically enough, in the Christian process of sanctification (becoming more like Christ), God has made it such that in the giving of ourselves to others (and helping them become who they were made to be), we somehow become more like the best version of ourselves.2 In this giving, we are following the example of Christ and becoming more like him (1 John 4:9-11). So in marriage, giving to the other person, putting their needs before your own, and seeking their good helps each spouse to be more themselves. C. S. Lewis famously said it this way: “Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.”3

However, instead of this mutual giving to one another, Nicole’s desires were suppressed and ignored, and with them, a part of herself was suppressed and ignored. That said, one never gets the impression that Charlie was maliciously putting her down. It seems more a case of failure to pay attention to what Nicole really needed. This ought to serve as a clear reminder that marriage involves intentionality in mutual submission, sacrificing, and seeking the good of the other person above yourself, loving them as you love yourself. Unfortunately, we are naturally bent the other direction. We need God’s transforming grace to help us.

That said, loving others as you love yourself implies that you do love yourself. Therefore, while love includes sacrifice, it cannot exclusively be sacrifice. To suppress who you are or bury your giftings, skills, or aspirations for the sake of another person is not necessarily sacrificial or even loving to the other person.

This is a crucial point because some Christians would argue that Nicole was right to put away her desires and ambitions in order to follow Charlie’s dreams. They might use a verse like Genesis 2:18, where God says that Eve was a “helper” for Adam. Therefore, it is argued, the man leads and the woman supports him solely in his mission. However, this is a catastrophic misreading of the text. The word “helper” in this text is the Hebrew word ezer, which is also used to describe God’s relationship to Israel, as seen in Psalm 33:20. Clearly, no one would argue that since God is our helper, he should just come along for the ride with whatever we want to do!

The marriage relationship was designed by God to be a relationship of mutual love that involves caring about what the other person needs and desires. It is unfortunate that Charlie shows very little willingness throughout the film to give up any of his own desires for the sake of Nicole.

However, Nicole is not without her own streak of selfishness. She, too, has become self-absorbed in her quest to “be herself.” In modern culture, it seems that “being yourself” trumps nearly everything else. Instead of seeking to become who we were made to be by reflecting our Creator, “being yourself” has become a narcissistic quest for self-fulfillment. No one is to get in the way. While Nicole may not be that extreme, there are shades of this disease in her words and actions. She expresses an unwillingness to listen in counseling and she is the first one to go to a malicious lawyer. Clearly, selfishness has frozen the love between Charlie and Nicole.

A Tragic Story
As Nicole recounts her marriage problems, her lawyer tries to comfort her by telling her that getting a divorce is an “act of hope.” To this, we can only say “rubbish!” Getting a divorce is not an act of hope; it is among the worst things that can happen to a person. The film itself demonstrates this. Both Charlie and Nicole continually turn to brutal lawyers to do their dirty work; they waste enormous sums of money on stupid legal fees; they struggle to maintain a good relationship with their son; and they endure tremendous emotional heartache. No, divorce is not an act of hope.

Of course, it needs to be said that not every divorce is necessarily preventable or unjustified. Many people know the pain of a spouse simply walking away (no-fault divorce laws make this all too easy); others find themselves in an abusive situation that they need to get out of. We’re not talking about those cases here. As we have said elsewhere, those who have gone through divorce need our compassion, not our condemnation.

A true act of hope would have been for Charlie and Nicole to listen to one another and to ask what the other person needed. But this never happens once in the course of the film. The closest they get is a shouting match, in which their turbulent emotions obscure and distort reality. It is tragic, because both Charlie and Nicole seem like perfectly good people who might otherwise have gotten along. Their divorce was not the result of a single moment; rather, it was a long process of quiet selfishness come to fruition.

There is a lot more that could be said, but we’ll conclude simply with this. No one says that marriage is easy. As Christians, we ought to wisely consider that God, if we will let him, will use marriage to sanctify us, to make us more who we were made to be; and in turn, to make us more like himself.4 This is a difficult journey and we must be prepared to make it if we want to be married. If marriage is going to work, we must submit ourselves to God, and to one another. Marriage Story is a sad story, and it resonates because it is the story of so many people, Christian and non-Christian alike. But it’s time for a better story, and it’s time for Christians to lead the way in telling that story.

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.