“Divorce,” my grandmother told me, “is unnatural. It’s like erasing history.” My grandmother witnessed this erasure firsthand—two of her five children are divorced.
Our society has tried to make divorce easier and more comfortable, with legal changes like shortening trial separation periods or creating no-fault divorce. Some have even tried to soften the blow by rebranding divorce as “conscious uncoupling.” But ending one’s marriage will never be easy or simple. Even if you feel completely justified in your reasons, and years later you look back on your divorce as a great decision, there’s still an unavoidable somberness to it. And even if you have no religious framework for understanding marriage as a covenant, divorce will always mark a conclusive end to an era, and that is no small thing. It’s something to lament. That’s the thesis of Noah Baumbach’s new film, Marriage Story (out now on Netflix).
Marriage Story is arguably the pinnacle of Noah Baumbach’s filmmaking career. Baumbach—a New York auteur known for making introspective films about verbose, educated urban individuals—brings a season-of-life pathos to each of his projects. His first feature film, Kicking and Screaming (1995), identified the cultural significance of postgraduate Gen-X cynicism in the face of vocational discontent and the growing pains of becoming an adult (themes revisited in 2012’s Frances Ha). The Squid and the Whale (2005) was Baumbach’s looking back at the influence of his parents’ divorce on his own childhood. With Marriage Story, Baumbach reflects on his marriage to, and subsequent divorce from, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. With a personal and tender touch, Baumbach deftly directs the cast to portray the heartbreak and emotional violence of divorce—something he, his parents, and his friends have all experienced.
From start to finish, the film’s stance toward divorce is one of ambivalence and regret. The drama of Marriage Story unravels slowly, like a Greek tragedy. Early on the couple, played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, discuss an amicable separation. Later they begin meeting with their respective lawyers to develop a winning strategy. Eventually they’re rehashing a record of wrongs and screaming at each other, like a scene out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Ultimately, the couple only decides to get nasty when the legal system encourages them to do so.
Tragically, the football at the center of the battle is not their Brooklyn apartment, money, or furniture—it’s primary custody of their son (Azhy Robertson), reminding us that divorce always has ripple effects beyond the couple. After all the papers are signed, Marriage Story leaves us with a lingering, unmistakable sense that divorce is both unnatural and undesirable. The audience is left with the question, Was it really worth it? Baumbach, a divorced man and a child of divorced parents, recognizes that divorce is not ideal.
What God Has Joined Together
Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to Christians, for Scripture doesn’t view divorce favorably. We know “it is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18) and that, in marriage, a man and a woman “become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24; Mark 10:8). We know divorce is not God’s design. Moses’s instructions for divorce exist, Jesus tells us, because of our “hardness of heart” (Mark 10:5). We know from Paul that divorce is not even advised when we’re married to an unbelieving spouse (1 Cor. 7:13). Though Scripture gives us some reasonable grounds for divorce (e.g., infidelity, desertion), biblical wisdom implores us to preserve marriage whenever possible. Divorce feels unnatural because it is unnatural. It’s a tragedy, which by common grace even the most irreligious person recognizes. But the Christian sees it’s more than just a tragedy; it’s a violent mutilation, a ripping asunder of a “one flesh” entity—akin to having a limb amputated or being sawed in half. “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate,” Jesus said (Mark 10:9). Those are not words to take lightly.
Divorce feels unnatural because it is unnatural. It’s a tragedy, and by common grace even the most irreligious person recognizes this.
It’s fascinating that both popular culture and also biblical wisdom identify the significance of marriage and the pitfalls of divorce. Marriage is no minor thing; it’s sacred and metaphysical, something that mysteriously points beyond itself, to God himself (Eph. 5:32). There is no casual way to “uncouple” a marriage, just as there is no way to cut off part of your body and expect it to be bloodless. Trying to undo “what God has joined together” (Mark 10:9) is like cutting out a chunk of reinforced concrete and trying to refashion it for some other purpose.
It doesn’t matter how much society tries to minimize or redefine marriage, or soften the process of divorce. Humans will always know instinctively that marriage matters and divorce is awful. We find this truth in Scripture, but we also find it in the books we read and the movies we watch. When films like Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story come along—which grasp the importance of marriage and render the trauma of divorce in vivid relief—Christians should welcome them. Even if it’s hard to watch, the film offers a necessary, sobering, unflinching look at a horror society has tried to say is not always a horror.