“All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.”
—Steve Martin, Grand Canyon
Is there something you’re struggling with lately? Do you want a movie to help you find your way through? Chad Perman, LMFT is a licensed therapist in private practice in the Seattle area, as well as the founding editor of Bright Wall/Dark Room. If you’d like to submit a question for future installments of this column, send them our way at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Movie Therapist,
I’m 40, and after 11 years of marriage, I’m going through a divorce. I would love some recommendations regarding films to get me through this rough time. They can be uplifting, sad, angry, or all of the above—I have all of the feels over this, so anything goes. What say ye?
Annie in Seattle
I’m so very sorry to hear that. Eleven years is a long time to give your heart to a person, and rebuilding a whole new life at age 40 must seem really daunting to you. The most important thing now, though, is to really, truly take care of yourself as you move through this, being patient and gentle with the places it hurts the most.
And, as with most things, movies can help.
Oddly, though, there are surprisingly few films that deal with the awfulness of divorce directly. Which can be a really damaging thing. Because what often gets lost in a world full of love stories is the all-too-common alternate story, the one that offers up a simple, sad truth: long-term relationships are endlessly complicated, and love doesn’t always work out.
I don’t know your particular circumstances, but I’m guessing that you put quite a lot of you—your time, your energy, your effort, your love, your trust, yourself—into this relationship over the past 11 years, and now your world has been turned upside down. As Margaret Atwood once wrote, “A divorce is like an amputation, you survive it, but there’s less of you.” It’s usually a painful, scary place to be, and if you’re like most of us, you’re probably not sure how to navigate it. You’ve lost a part of yourself, and your identity in the world, and now you’re tasked with rebuilding a whole new way forward.
You mentioned having all the feels, and that sounds about right. With that in mind, then, here’s a map of sorts to help you through the forest, a kind of cinematic toolkit for working through divorce.
Start with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’m guessing you’ve already seen it, but it seems to be the type of movie that changes as we change, growing as we grow. And just as importantly, it not only gives you all the feels, but normalizes them, too. Love is beautiful and complicated and hard to sustain, and we’re all just human beings, looking for connection, trying our very best to figure it out.
Next up, try Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. I’m not gonna lie, this one will be tough, but it might also help you process some of the more complicated emotions you’re bound to be experiencing right about now. It’s about a couple whose marriage falls apart after 10 years, painfully tracking their difficult break-up, and then following what happens to each of them, and their relationship, over the next ten years. It can be both brutally honest and disarmingly gentle, but the perspective it offers on relationships and the human condition is ultimately invaluable.
After that, I’d recommend moving on to something (a little) lighter, like Paul Mazurky’s An Unmarried Woman. It’s slightly dated by now, as it came out 40 years ago this year, but at its core it’s still an enjoyable and empowering film—especially for someone going through a divorce—and Jill Claybourgh’s performance is one for the ages. Watching her navigate a world that’s been turned upside down by her husband’s sudden departure, we see a woman learning how to rebuild a life, reclaim her independence, and reconnect with the world. She’s also got a really fantastic therapist, played by Penelope Russianoff (an actual psychotherapist in Manhattan at the time, who changed many of her lines because, as she later noted, the lines Mazursky wrote “were not things therapists would say”).
And finally, you need to watch something that has absolutely nothing to do with divorce, but that reminds you why this whole silly, painful world is worth it. A divorce takes away so much of you, especially at first, and part of your work now is to find your way back to yourself. So, pick out an old favorite, an anchor, something you can count on, something that reminds you of the you you used to be (bonus points here if you choose a movie your ex-husband hated or “didn’t get”). Let something like Singin’ in the Rain remind you how wonderful it is to live in a world where musicals exist, or let The Princess Bride charm you all over again; let yourself get lost in Almost Famous, or caught up in The Philadelphia Story; cry your eyes out over Dead Poets Society, or laugh way too loudly at Step Brothers.
Whatever you choose, put it on and let it wash over you. You’re going to get through this.
—The Movie Therapist
The advice in this column is for informational purposes only, and is not intended to be relied upon, or to replace, professional medical advice, diagnosis, therapy or other treatment. If you’re in distress, please talk to your doctor or contact your local crisis line.
Lead image: Kenneth Lu