One of the biggest awards-buzz films released in late 2019 is Marriage Story, a drama directed by Noah Baumbach that’s available on Netflix. The film is the story of what happens after the marriage is over, and a title like Divorce Story may have been more apt. (Please note: This article contains plot spoilers.)
The film opens with Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole in a divorce mediation session, about to read letters they wrote about one another. The pair live in New York City and have a son named Henry, and seem to be headed towards an amicable divorce. They wish to co-parent Henry and still feel warmly toward one another, even though they’ve realized their marriage story is over. The mediator explains that he likes to begin the process on a positive note, reminding each of them why they married the other. However, Nicole doesn’t want to read her letter aloud and angrily leaves. Later, when she is staying in Los Angeles, someone suggests a divorce attorney who “saved her life.”
What’s key about the decision that Nicole makes to visit the divorce attorney Nora (Laura Dern) is that it really isn’t an informed decision. People get divorced. People hire lawyers. Right?
When marriages end, most couples have no roadmap for the next part — the divorce — and poor decisions made during divorce can follow you for the rest of your life. In the case of Marriage Story, what could have been an amicable divorce turns very ugly and very expensive — very quickly. Nora is in it to win, no matter what Nicole desires or the cost to Nicole’s future relationship with her ex.
Charlie searches for a lawyer who will talk to him like a human, rather than a pawn in a battle, and finds Bert (Judd Hirsch). However, he quickly realizes that Bert cannot compete against Nora, and the couple is no closer to resolving their main issue: Charlie’s desire to stay in New York City and Nicole’s desire to live in Los Angeles. He must hire a much more expensive and bloodthirsty attorney. The couple end up in court where their stories and words are twisted by the attorneys so that their client can win.
Nora exemplifies this approach. As she tells Nicole the agreement is near final, she mentions that custody, when Charlie is in LA, will be 55/45 in Nicole’s favor. Nicole replies that she thought it was going to be equal. Nora’s response: “I tweaked it at the last minute. I just didn’t want him to be able to say he got 50/50.”
The Price of Winning vs. the Benefits of Agreement
Marriage Story is, of course, a fictional drama. Are all attorneys as ruthless as Nora? No, you may find a Bert or someone between those two extremes. However, if your spouse doesn’t also hire a more humane attorney, you may find yourself at the losing end of a battle you never envisioned happening even when you decided to split.
There is another way.
While Nicole rejected divorce mediation, a better course would have been to try again. Divorce is painful. Resentments and anger have built up. It can be difficult to walk into a mediation session without many chips on your shoulder, but it’s important to try to do so. The agreements the divorce mediator will help you come to can affect your life, children, and finances for many, many years. It is worth taking the long view.
Before you hire an attorney for your divorce, contact South Bay Mediation to set up a free consultation to discuss your needs. If your spouse is hesitant, read “How to Discuss the Pros and Cons of Divorce Mediation” to help you convince them to try this alternate path.