Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Using "Gone Girl" as a Template for Marital Success

Screen capture from a scene in "Gone Girl"
Gone Girl, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, is a thriller about a husband, Nick, who is under suspicion for murder following the disappearance of his wife, Amy. On the surface, it would appear that the demise of the once happy couple would seem to be a warning against marriage. However, ignoring the craziness of the events and suspending moral judgements on the characters for a moment, the issues and resolutions offered by the movie do illustrate how spouses can retain or regain their relationship mojo.

Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen the movie or read the book and plan to ... stop reading and come back after you are done!

If you like revenge fantasies of women who have been wronged by their man, Gone Girl might be a good flick for you. Like the recent The Other Woman, the story is about a woman dealing with a cheating partner, but unlike that comedy, the female in this film doesn't stop at humiliation. The dark nature of her complicated revenge activities can leave men in the audience squirming, much as it did with movies that feature other, over-the-top women bent on getting more than just even, such as Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Body Heat.

When thinking about what happened to Nick and Amy and then how they got back together in the end, despite the accusations, murder and mayhem, it's important to dig into what set them down their destructive paths and then what happened to reignite their interest in each other. Obviously, I wouldn't recommend anyone emulating these two, but how they lost and regained their affection does have something to offer the rest of us.

The story, at its heart, seems simple enough. A five-year, childless marriage slowly falls apart, and the wife seeks revenge against her traitorous spouse after enduring numerous injustices, including physical abuse and catching her man with a younger woman. That said, the details of how they both got to where they ended up is a bit more interesting and complex.

Nick and Amy are young writers who met in New York City. He is a transplant from the Midwest who is smooth and alluring at parties; she is the daughter of a successful mother-father writing duo that created the Amazing Amy book series that chronicles a more successful, aspirational version of their daughter. While the couple may not set the world on fire, they seem to be a great fit. But then they face some serious troubles. First, they lose their jobs. Second, Nick's mother is diagnosed with cancer and the couple returns to his hometown to take care of her.

The movie attempts to showcase the "he said" and "she said" nature of relationships. The Amy perspective is that she is continually supportive of her husband. She puts up with him playing video games and buying a laptop while seemingly wallowing in his unemployment. She agrees to accompany him to his very un-NYC hometown and pay for the rent of a large home. She even finances buying a bar that he runs with his sister, and she encourages him in his job as a journalism teacher. For all that, she finds he is drifting away, arguing with her, ignoring her and even assaulting her. He doesn't want a family, and seems to have lost interest in rekindling his writing career. Then, he shacks up for a long-term affair with a student of his. His behavior, in her eyes, is more than "biting the hand that feeds you." He is biting, abusing and humiliating that hand.

From Nick's point of view, Amy is patronizing and boring. She hounds him to do things, but doesn't seem to understand what he needs. Sex with her becomes a boring routine, and passion is non-existent. An aloof New Yorker, Amy can't or won't make any friends in his hometown, and she does not connect with the most important person is his life—his sister. With the marriage obviously dying, his wife still asks for a kid to try and salvage it. Amy even initiates the ensuing argument that ends with her flying into a wall. To him, her support feels more like a blanket suffocating him. She doesn't get him, unlike the young student he sleeps with for a year and a half.

Playing therapist, the real problem with these two is they have no ability to communicate. And by that, I mean to both talk and listen. They each have their opinions and needs, but they don't say what is really bothering them, and they do not listen or empathize with the plight of the other. The fun, engaging New York lifestyle is taken away by reality, and instead of reinventing themselves, they drift apart, embracing that marriage killer: contempt for each other. As relationship expert John Gottman points out in Blink, once that feeling sets in, everything is seen through that lens and the couple is probably doomed.

As it is for most married people, the early, honeymoon stage of Nick and Amy's relationship was easy and fun. Everything just flowed. However, when the inevitable transition occurred—that is, real life intruded—things began to go downhill. For the movie couple, the layoffs and a parent getting sick caused the issues. For many real couples, having kids or financial pressures can do the same. Who hasn't had trouble as a 20-something adjusting to date night with $20/ hour sitters after years of being a couple with little responsibilities? Becoming adults is not always fun, and the stress can be immense. Nick and Amy failed to adjust.

For couples who succeed—that is, stay together for the long term—they buckle down and do the "work" of marriage. It's not always glamorous, and there is the whole rupture-and-repair cycle to deal with, but the journey is worth it. At times they are annoyed or mad at each other, at other times they act like teenagers in love. Everyone hopes to avoid the roller coaster of relationships, but the winners accept it and try and smooth out or at least shorten the troughs.

Successful couples also learn to nourish their relationships. Each person needs to be confident and strong independently, but they also must possess a close bond as a unit and see the relationship as something valuable and worth keeping. To do so, they need to know how to interact, how to inspire, how to communicate and how to fight without generating contempt. Nick and Amy had none of those skills.

In the end, Amy comes home and Nick decides to stick with her, despite locking his door out of fear of being killed her first night back home. Why? The movie posits that the actions and reactions of the two both rekindled feelings they had when they first met and demonstrated a framework for how they could function as a couple moving forward.

Amy disliked the unmotivated Nick. Her escapades forced him to get off the couch and get aggressive. His challenge to her through the media sparked her interest. For years, she had waited for him to do the right thing. He never did. Now, her actions forced him to be active, and she liked what she saw.

For Nick, he had grown to think Amy was boring and controlling. His dire situation prompted him to act and react to her complex moves. If he was in a fog, back at home with his enabling sister and fawning mistress, Amy's attempts to ruin his life made him think, get creative and be proactive. There was no time to sit on the couch and wait anymore. It energized him, even though he did not initiate anything.

Nick relies on Amy to motivate him. He's not a zero, but he needs someone cracking the whip, and an enabling wife and sister are terrible for him. As for Amy, she is a woman of action. When she sits and waits, nothing good happens because she gets whatever comes, not what she desires. When they get back together, they both have figured out how they complement each other, how they can work together and how that can fuel the passion in their marriage.

Sure, its all fiction, but what Nick and Amy learned is applicable to all of us. Do you know how your relationship works best? Should you or your partner be the primary motivator, or is it equal? Are you complementing each other, building a stronger couple in the process? Do you know what the other wants and what frustrates him?

For us divorcees, our war story is most likely far less crazy than the movie, but if we analyzed it as I did with the movie, would we understand why it failed? Could we discover how an awesome relationship ended up in a decision to split despite the huge financial and family consequences? While most of us will not and should not get together like Nick and Amy, as we move forward we can learn from our own past and not repeat it.


  1. I think it is interesting that the real these two is they have no ability to communicate. I feel often the way people communicate is what makes you or breaks you. As relationship expert John Gottman points out in Blink, once that feeling sets in, everything is seen through that lens and the couple is probably doomed. I think it is good to look at how we communicate so that we are not doomed. adult psychiatry

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