Marriage Story, released recently on Netflix, is a compellingly accurate, often painful to watch, account of the fallout when a marriage ends, and the damaging impact adversarial litigation can have.
As family lawyers, we are all used to scoffing at TV dramas bearing little resemblance to the reality (“did you see? They used completely the wrong court forms!? And just IMAGINE speaking to your clients like that!”), but Marriage Story really is something different.
It’s about a thoroughly decent couple, with one adored son, whose marriage ends. There are common markers: miscommunication, priority of one career over the other, adultery, the strains of parenthood, which all combine to end what had been a happy relationship. They start well, hoping to reach agreement without lawyers. They attend mediation together but the mediator isn’t the right fit. (The film leaves you with the overwhelming sense that this was a huge opportunity missed- their narrative statements about each other are beautiful. Sadly they weren’t both emotionally ready, and could each have benefitted no doubt from some therapeutic support).
Encouraged by a friend the wife accesses legal advice from a brilliantly cast Laura Dern as the legal equivalent of a wolf in Prada clothing. The die is cast. The further destruction of their relationship by the adversarial legal process is awful to watch, as is the impact on their son.
Are the lawyers the villains of the piece? No, not really. Here again the film gets the nuances perfectly. It’s the system itself which is the problem, pitchforking these two loving parents, and spouses, into a strategic and tactical fight. And all too often, this does reflect the awful reality. With very few exceptions indeed, the dedicated and passionate family solicitors we are lucky to have in this country work tirelessly to try to settle their clients’ cases at the earliest possible opportunity. But they are trapped within a process which sadly breeds mistrust.
Well for a start, separating adults are vulnerable. They are often in different places emotionally. They need to be helped, and protected from making bad choices. They are wholly unsuited to an adversarial legal process, which will encourage mistrust and break down communication. It is the opposite of what they need, which is open, honest, impartial dialogue about how to move forward in this new reality, and how to make the right choices for themselves and their children.
Family Justice is ripe for reform. Courts are overrun with many cases which should not be there. Mediation has not proved to be the answer to every case. Of course it hasn’t. There is no panacea. Separating couples need options, and plenty of them. Counselling, and therapeutic support, is a good place to start. You both need to be ‘emotionally ready’ for the big life decisions to come. And you won’t be ready at the same time. But starting the legal process from a place of fear is to be avoided if at all possible. And given that you are going to end up with a court approved, or imposed, concept of ‘fairness’, then surely for many couples a good place to start is to sit down together, and hear from an impartial lawyer about what would be fair for both of you, and your children. Not what is best for one of you, but what is fair for you both. One Couple One Lawyer at The Divorce Surgery is that service. It’s new, but hopefully we are seeing the start of a better process for separating couples, and less Marriage Stories.