I watched Marriage Story yesterday, which is a movie about a divorce and the subsequent brutal custody fight over the couple's young child, and it gave me so many intense feelings.
My parents split when I was five.
I've seen lots of movies about divorce and relationships ending but I don't think I've ever seen one that captured the subjective experience of the CHILD in the family quite as well as this movie does.
When it begins, the couple is on pretty good terms, but there's a lot of resentment and hard emotions roiling just under the surface that isn't explored until later, which felt very real to me.
As distance grows between them, and they start disentangling their lives, that all comes up and they both start drawing back and trying to protect themselves from increasing aggression on both ends even though neither of them wants this.
I felt the best scenes were the ones where there's a lot of push and pull and veiled aggression toward each other over who gets to spend time with the child they both love. They're trying to shield him from the nastiness while having a knock-down drag-out fight over custody. It spoke to me because I remember experiencing some of these dynamics as a child after my own parents got divorced and it created so much guilt and tension and anxiety for me for YEARS, and it still gets triggered sometimes.
The dad is bouncing between NYC where he works and LA where mom and kid are living and he doesn't get as much time with his kid as he'd like to. There's a lot of resentment because he perceives that they had a deal about coming back to NYC and she's planning to stay. And when lawyers get involved it gets expensive and messy and time consuming. He's flying out to LA to see his kid but also talk to lawyers but still trying to use the time to build quality memories with his child, which is tough since he's in a hotel and time is limited.
The lawyers get expensive and they end up spending a ton of their money they had never intended to because they can't reach a settlement on their own, ending up doing things like dipping into the kid's college fund, borrowing family money, and sacrificing work opportunities.
The net impact of all this, of course, is that the child ends up being a casualty of the parents' battle even though they eventually reach a settlement and it's presented as a reasonably happy ending.
I'd bet the long term impact of all this is less happy for the kid.
I want to talk about a few scenes that really got to me and that I thought were brilliant:
Dad comes to pick kid up and mom puts him in the car with a kiss, telling him she has a present for him when he gets back. Dad, annoyed: "I'm not the fucking dentist."
My parents used to do this all the time with me and my brother. Dad would tell us about all the cool things we'd do when we were out visiting him. Mom would call us while we were there and tell us about all the cool things waiting for us back at home: bunk beds, a puppy
I want to make it clear I'm not blaming anyone for their behavior. I think it's natural to want to fight for the affection of your child, and they were basically kids themselves, but this dynamic is SO toxic and creates a proxy war that your children FEEL. Because even if the kids are just like "oh cool, stuff to help me feel less bad about what's happening in my life" the parents both are aware on some level of what they're doing to each other and it's hard not to boil with resentment.
"I'm his dad, not the fucking dentist."
My brother and I got so sad and homesick after one of these calls home one time that my dad, in a not so great move, sat us down and explained his perspective on this dynamic explicitly. I think I might have been like 7. My brother would have been 5.
He said something like, "Your mom is trying to win your affection and make you homesick by telling you about all the things you have waiting for you at home. It's not fair and I'm not going to do that, so be aware of that and be here with me, please."
That was almost 30 years ago and I've never forgotten that moment. I felt so guilty and confused and upset.
And the thing is that he was totally doing it too. They both would have denied it. They both also denied shit-talking each other in front of us but couldn't help it.
When you become an emotional pawn in this way it really sticks with you. I spent the next 15 years trying to play referee and manage their emotions on both ends and make sure that neither of them perceived that I was "choosing" one of them over the other because I loved them.
When either of them would say something negative about the other I'd gently try to defend them. If anyone voiced frustration at feeling like getting the short end of the stick I'd try to reassure them and make up for it somehow by being extra affectionate. And it never stopped feeling like I was in the middle of this weird push and pull game between the two of them.
There were fights about money and shared custody and broken agreements under the surface, and they were both trying to hide it and I still picked up on most of it. Mom would drop vague angry comments about missed child support payments (that later turned out to be much more complicated than that) and Dad was obsessed with the idea that she was turning us against him by coloring our perceptions of him.
Both of them felt justified but as a child standing between the two of them, I just loved both of my parents, missed my dad DEEPLY, and didn't want either of them to be hurting. I felt so much of their hurt and because of the push-pull game I felt like an active participant.
When you're ten years old and you've spent HALF OF YOUR SUBJECTIVE LIFE trying not to hurt either of the people who are most important to you in the world and feeling like they're scheming and lying to you, it fucks you up. I'm never going to play the victim as an adult but I do think it was wildly unfair of them to put 10-yo me in that position, whether they intended to or not.
I feel like this had permanent impacts on how I saw the world and my beliefs about cynicism and selfishness and lies. Because when people you're supposed to unconditionally love and trust are gaslighting you about the game they're playing with you in the middle, it makes it difficult to trust anyone.
I never thought about it before but this probably contributed a lot to my authority issues.
Another scene that really got me was a Halloween where they both wanted to take the kid out but the mom didn't want the dad along because she was angry at some of his behavior and creating distance to protect herself. She takes him out with his cousins by herself, and then drops him off at Dad's hotel around 7:30pm where he's been waiting to go out a second time with his child, because he also wants to be able to create happy memories with the kid.
Their son already has a bunch of Halloween candy and is exhausted from trick or treating all night, but his dad has been waiting for him for hours in a costume he put all this effort into to delight his son, and he makes the kid go out a second time to a different area.
It's rough, and hours later they come back to the sad hotel room where the kid dumps like seven pieces of candy out of his bucket onto the floor and goes to bed. This was obviously not the joyful memory dad was hoping for and he's sad about it too. All of the feelings on the screen were so real and raw and familiar to me.
Everyone is trying to create happy, "normal" family memories with each other and instead it's exhausting and broken and nothing like what you'd hoped for.
There's another scene where the kid is in the backseat of the car, driving with his dad, and he's complaining that he's tired and uncomfortable and wants to go home. This hurts dad deeply because he's doing his best to be there for the kid and making major sacrifices to do so. His frustration spills over and I think he ends up yelling a little or at least implying that his child shouldn't feel that way.
But it's such a real feeling. Kids need some stability. It's hard not to miss your routine and your regular comforts.
My dad spent some time teaching school in Mexico when we were young, and the summer when I was 9 we went out to visit him there for a few weeks.
It was exciting and interesting and a cool experience but also scary and foreign to me. My brother and I would hang out at the college where he worked and play computer games on an Apple in the lab while he was busy all day at his job.
When you're 9 this is only entertaining for so long and I got really bored of having to occupy myself all day. I was afraid to tell him that I was homesick and wanted to go home so I asked my brother to do it for me on our behalf, which he did because he was a saint and I begged.
My dad got really upset for the same reasons as the dad in the movie. He was trying so hard. He yelled at us and told us how hard he was trying and that he only got to see us a few weeks out of the year and we both cried and felt awful about the feelings we were having about missing our routine and our home. We would only see him summers by this point and a Christmas here and there because of the geographic distance between our parents and he felt (correctly) that the emotional gap was widening.
I still loved him and remembered a lot from before but my brother barely knew him. So of course he gravitated toward me, the child that he knew better and had spent more time with and who felt a closer connection to him, but this was both a very difficult burden for me and very damaging for my brother, who didn't feel very loved by this guy he hardly knew. I think he spent a lot of time feeling awful about this and working hard for my dad's affection because he felt like he was supposed to love him and just didn't have much of a connection.
He did things my dad really valued like getting into football. Dad was big into sports and always used to tell us if we got involved he'd make trips up to see us play.
I was never very good at sports and was a techie/drama kid, but when my brother spent years playing football he never made a trip up to come see him. The growing distance and hard feelings and emotional baggage was hugely damaging for all of us.
When I was 13 we had just moved to a new city and I was busy adjusting and making new friends, but I flew out by myself to see dad that year. My brother didn't want to go anymore.
It was actually really nice to have some 1:1 time with my dad, and it was a good visit. I watched Disney movies with my little half sister, who was 6 and adorable, and my dad built me a computer and taught me about hardware which later helped me get a tech job in college. He was trying to share something he was passionate about with me and also encourage me to get into computers, which were still pretty new commercially. I think he was working as a perl developer at the time. I would hang out at the record store behind his job while he worked.
But that trip was also tough in other ways. I missed my friends, and I was in a VERY intense relationship for only being 13 (which is a story for another time), and dad got mad at how much time I spent on the phone instead of with him. This was the summer before freshman year of high school, and dad felt like this was one of our last chances to connect before I grew up too much.
He wanted more from me than I could really give him at 13.
And the trip was ugly in other ways too. I don't have any firsthand recollections of it but my mom left him because they had an explosive, violent relationship, and my dad always had a temper and was very controlling.
When my mom would allude to this, I didn't know how to respond because I hadn't seen that. But I was growing up, and some of the ways that he would interact with his new wife and his kids (and me to a lesser degree) made me VERY uncomfortable.
It didn't feel violent but it did feel super controlling and there was some unspoken menace in how he'd react sometimes. I didn't like it and didn't know how to deal with those feelings, so that was the last time I went to visit him until I was 18. I was busy with high school anyway and as a rebellious teenager out with my friends a lot, I had better things to do with my summers at this point.
We kept in touch here and there over email and occasional calls, but I was as self-absorbed as any teenager and he had built a whole new family and life by then, so we both just kind of faded back into our own lives for a while. By now he'd basically written off my mom and my brother, who both had a lot of anger toward him that was an order of magnitude more intense than any negative feelings I had toward him. It was hard to navigate whenever he'd come up, but I still loved him and thought about him. When I was 18, the summer before college, I went out for one last visit with him. It was the last time I saw him in person. It was a weird visit.
It was hard to connect with him and we were strangers to each other in a lot of ways. I was playing EverQuest online with my brother a lot at this time, and we were obsessed with it, and it was the primary way that he and I connected--I installed it on dad's computer and spent a lot of time in my bedroom on that visit hanging online with my brother.
Again, this made dad really mad because he'd paid for my flight out there and saw this as our LAST opportunity to build some kind of meaningful child-parent connection before I went off and got busy living my adult life.
We got into a huge fight about it. After we screamed at each other and I sulked in my room for a while, I came out and apologized and acknowledged that he was right and agreed to spend the rest of the trip trying to hang with him. We talked about his favorite books and watched TV and I hung with his family.
He knew I drank sometimes, so he let me share a few beers with him and showed me his high school yearbook. I think he got a little buzzed and started bragging to me about HS football and parties. I think he wanted me to see him the way he saw himself and those were really fond memories for him--he was popular, on the football team, out partying a lot.
But the stories veered real uncomfortable when he started talking about some of the girls he dated. The subtext along with some of the yearbook quotes wasn't impressive so much as more than a little shitty. I got the impression that he did not treat his girlfriends well at all and didn't realize he was coming off that way.
It sucked a lot to see him in this light.
And his ways of interacting with his wife and kids were even more uncomfortable for me than they had been when I was 13. I'm not going to judge him for that, since I didn't live there. He was just very strict and held them to very high standards. This also made me sad.
He took me out on the town with an old college buddy of his and I soon realized the game plan was to try to talk me into coming to college down near him instead of MN, where I was planning to go. They pushed me hard on switching to AZ instead, because again, he saw this as his last opportunity to build a relationship with me. It makes me sad to realize how right he was about that in retrospect. And he even offered to help me pay for school, which was a big deal considering that none of us had a ton of money and he had a whole other family to support.
But that was conditional. He'd only help pay if I switched to AZ. It wasn't the first time he'd proposed AZ but this was his last-ditch pitch to try to persuade me. My mom was moving to Texas at the time (Air Force) and she really wanted me to come to school down there.
Once again I was torn between parents fighting for my affection. Not only did I resent that the offer was controlling and conditional, but my mom was going to help me out wherever I chose to go to school.
I had decided on MN because it was neutral ground and I had friends there, even though it was far away from everyone in my family. I told him I wasn't going to switch even though I appreciated his generous offer and I went back home. I think he was really hurt by my rejection of something he saw as a huge sacrifice that he would make FOR ME, but I just saw this as one more gambit in my parents' war.
We didn't talk for a long time. I had a great time at the University of Minnesota, and made lots of amazing friends an deep relationships that I still have to this day.
But I went there because I couldn't bear to let either parent "win," not because I really wanted to. The deep emotional damage from this decade+ long battle hasn't ever really fully healed.
As an adult, I've learned new, really uncomfortable things about both sides of my parents relationship and shady battles that make me sad for both of them. I've forgiven both of them. But I never did build any kind of real relationship with my father. And some part of me will always remember being a scared, confused, deeply conflicted child feeling torn between the emotions of her parents.
Losing my dad abruptly when I was 5 years old was so hard, especially considering how much I loved him and didn't understand why it was happening. I spent two years after that with an intense fear of other things that might happen to my parents--I read stories about kids whose parents died in accidents and worried about this all the time.
I'd learned that people leave your life unexpectedly and you can't control it. And unfortunately this was a model I carried toward all my relationships (and still do a lot of the time), that I kept reinforcing for myself by pointing to friends and exes I fell out of touch with for whatever reason, because I felt damaged from losing my dad.
But even more painful than the abrupt loss and the baggage was the slow falling away of one of the most important relationships in my young life because of how contentious my parents' relationship was, and the emotional impact of their battles on my psyche.
I think the fact that they couldn't (or didn't) shield me from this and find a way to protect me and my brother from their own hurt and their own loss was deeply, deeply impactful on my development and my ability to trust and make strong attachments.
Over the years I've tried to reconnect with my dad here and there but it's so hard for both of us. There's so much anger and resentment and misunderstanding that it's difficult to pierce through now that we're both adults with our own lives. He was right about that.
And I understand why both of my parents made most of the choices they did. Neither of them wanted to lose. Neither of them wanted to have the terms of their life dictated by their own terrible tragedy that they wanted to put behind them.
I think they both love me and my brother deeply and will always mourn the vision of the family and the relationships we might have had. It's the kind of wound that doesn't fully heal. But if you ever find yourself in the position of going through something like this, please know that your kids see and perceive so much more than you might think they do.
And try your very hardest to be The Better Person even if your spouse can't for whatever reason. Divorce is so horrible for everyone and everyone involved becomes a victim of the tragedy, so if you love your children remember that they're the ones you need to protect in all of this.
It's not worth winning if you lose the relationships you're fighting for in the process.