What Makes Relationships Work? My Husband and I Try to Find Answers in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story

Love and Sex

What Makes Relationships Work? My Husband and I Try to Find Answers in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

Watching a Noah Baumbach film has always been an absolute delight. And yet, this time around, I found myself nervous as I was about to start Marriage Story, the director’s 11th feature, now streaming on Netflix. You see, this time, it was more than just watching a movie, it was about scrutinising it, comparing it to my life… my married life. Just before my husband and I were about to hit on play, I put an idea in his head. “What if we pause the movie any time we relate to whatever’s unfolding on screen,” I asked. He regarded me with suspicion. I continued, “We talk about it and only then resume watching.” He nodded in agreement.

As we were about to start watching Marriage Story, I thought about this thing I had brought upon us. What if I’d just botched up the viewing experience of a movie we’d both been excited about by unnecessarily introducing a plot twist? What if we find something so disturbing that we don’t survive the next two hours? What if one of us realises what they want is something completely different? What if at the end of it, one of us wants out? And more importantly, why did he agree to this “analysis” of our marriage without asking any questions? My husband sensed my apprehension and nudged me. I started the movie.

A few minutes in, I felt as if I knew Charlie and Nicole. My husband echoed as much when he paused the film, mid-montage, for the first time. He told me that he saw a little bit of both Nicole and Charlie in me. I told him that the feeling that the film’s opening scene (where Nicole and Charlie recount the things that they love about each other) evokes is what I’d like our equation to be, that sense of completely knowing a person like the back of your hand. Nicole and Charlie were far ahead in their marriage than us – we’re only in our second year – so maybe it’ll take us some time to get there. But the pieces for the jigsaw called marriage were right here. Like Nicole, even I remain in awe of my husband’s clearheadedness the same way I am thankful for the fact that he too, takes my moods without making me feel bad about them.

The opening sequence resonated with me, especially because this is also how I try and remember people and moments – noticing the little things that matter. At the same time, it also dawned on me that the stories about people that I store inside me wouldn’t matter if I don’t find a way to share them. I paused the movie a second time to look at my husband and thought that this was all that is there to relationships. That if we push ourselves just a little bit more to share what we really think of each other, maybe we won’t be sitting in front of a “separation mediator” someday. That maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that unlike Nicole and Charlie, we aren’t heavily involved in every aspect of the other’s lives – we don’t work together and I don’t cut his hair. As the true nature of the montage was revealed in the next few minutes, I couldn’t help but think that it’s probably good that we don’t want children.

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Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that unlike Nicole and Charlie, my husband and me aren’t heavily involved in every aspect of the other’s lives.

Netflix

As the film went on, we reached the scene where two women, Nicole and Nora, a divorce lawyer, discuss their marriages and what the men in their lives took out of them. I paused to talk about all the things Nicole sacrificed, like her self-worth and her dreams. My husband was quick to point out that I once did the same – fed someone’s aliveness instead of my own. As I took the time to process what he just said, he admitted that he did it too. It’s something that I think people tend to do to service their relationship. But this is what relationship manuals gloss over: In order for the romance to sustain, each of those involved must work on themselves.

My husband was quick to point out that I once did the same – fed someone’s aliveness instead of my own.

In the eight years that we’ve been together, we’ve learnt, during different points in our journey, that abandoning your individuality doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. It just leaves you more confused. In Marriage Story, Nicole and Charlie spend two hours discovering this. You see, sometimes, in accommodating each other, what seems to happen is that though two people are pushing the same vehicle with equal force, they seem oblivious to the fact that they are pushing it in opposite directions. My husband agreed. This is it, I thought to myself. This is the ultimate takeaway from the film for us. I felt as if I’ve struck gold with my experiment.

But there was something else, still. I felt bad for Nicole – horrid, really. I cried with her, for her, and maybe a little for the past me? Surely Nicole had always known the lesson I was trying to extract from her mistake and sure enough, as the movie went on, I got my answer. Marriage Story essentially argues that there aren’t any real mistakes in a relationship. Sure, there are “could have beens” and “should have beens” but none of them can be branded as failures, especially in a marriage where there is so much love, respect, and admiration.

I paused after Charlie and Nicole have their one and only fight in the film. My husband and I were both shaken up. We’d seen these people be so good to each other that this seemed wrong, almost like a misdirection. He admitted that if this scene had arrived before our “joint lesson”, he would have freaked out. But now, he gets that losing love and the dissolution of such a significant relationship is (sadly) just what happens sometimes.

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In order for the romance to sustain, each of those involved must work on themselves.

Netflix

Toward the end, Charlie breaking into “Being Alive” drove home the feeling of loss that perhaps all couples feel. Sometimes the love is not enough; we could fight tooth and nail and we could be here too. This only made us feel more lucky to have someone to hold us too close, someone to ruin our sleep. When Charlie reads how Nicole remembers him, what she thinks of him, and why she’ll never stop loving him, we surprisingly didn’t pause. Instead, we simply smiled. And then, Baumbach delivered an ending so perfect and beautiful, that somehow eked out the hope in hopelessness. It made it all okay. It also made me glad that my husband and I watched Marriage Story together.

It wasn’t particularly warm or breezy the day we watched the movie, but that is how I will remember it in my head. Everything felt golden. Glasses and plates were empty, and our minds, hearts, and stomachs were happy and full. I will remember it so because after all the advice of the wise is heard and all the work on self-improvement is attempted, something might still slip, even break. But if we choose to remember well, in time, we will find our way, just like Charlie and Nicole.

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