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Blue Valentine: the Unmaking of a Marriage

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I recently saw Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as Cindy and Dean, a couple whose relationship starts out happily enough, but ends quite painfully. I liked it very much; thought the acting was naked and honest. Although the deterioration of the marriage was agonizing to watch, it was authentic.

Stephen Whitty summed it up aptly in the Star-Ledger: "It's a painful, pathetic, gruesomely fascinating exercise--like coming back from that final session with the divorce lawyers and making yourself watch your wedding video." The only adjective I disagree with is "pathetic." There's nothing pathetic about the characters or what happens to them, at least in comparison to humanity as a whole. Each of us can relate in some way or another to Cindy and Dean. Their stories are terrifyingly real. That's what makes Blue Valentine so "gruesome."

As a forensic psychiatrist who frequently conducts custody evaluations, I often encounter litigants who expect me to see things only from their perspective. But I can only rarely oblige them; I don't believe in easy explanations for failures of intimacy. In my experience, the distinction between victim and perpetrator, or guilt and innocence, depends on your point of view. Blue Valentine illustrates this perfectly. The most obvious explanation for what happened is that Dean victimized Cindy-- with his drinking and general irresponsibility. This certainly makes sense, but...

Dean's personality traits were pretty clear from the outset, so why did Cindy choose him as a partner? All of us enter into relationships with the hope that our needs will be met. Perhaps Cindy--unexpectedly pregnant, with an abusive father and a passive mother-- thought that Dean could help her. He wasn't perfect, but maybe she thought she could change him. Then, when Dean didn't change--and Cindy's short-term need for stability was satisfied--she dumped him.

From Dean's perspective, he stepped up in Cindy's moment of need, and she dropped him when he was of no further use to her; she didn't appreciate the sacrifices he'd made, and she refused to accept him for who he really was. Dean might even say that if he'd been with someone who'd been more willing to accept him, he might have turned out "better."

I know this explanation seems to let Dean off the hook, and of course I don't really think he should get a pass. Remember, no innocent victims here. But if you step outside the individual characters' perspectives and look at the relationship system as a whole, it's obvious that Cindy and Dean were a bad fit from the beginning. Had they been together longer, and not been forced into a hasty marriage, they might have figured that out, and would likely have broken up before the wedding took place. Dean and Cindy loved each other, whatever that means, but their "love" wasn't sufficient to sustain their relationship.

Ira Reiss's "Wheel Theory of Love" focuses on love as a developmental phenomenon that involves four interpersonal processes that continuously interact with each other. Love starts with "rapport," the ability of two people to feel at ease together. That one came easily enough to Cindy and Dean. The next process is "self-revelation," the disclosure of more intimate and personal issues. Like most other people at the beginning of a relationship, the characters in Blue Valentine revealed the "good" parts of themselves but not the "bad." Cindy never let Dean know how desperate she was for stability, and how she expected him to provide this; he never informed her of his drinking or lack of ambition. But since they kept these less attractive qualities to themselves, Cindy and Dean were able to move into the next process, "mutual dependence," at which point they began to rely on each other so as to become a "couple." Dean agreed to help raise a child that wasn't his; the two moved in together; they got married.

Reiss's final process is "fulfillment of personality needs," the ability of partners to satisfy each other's needs. That's where the relationship really faltered, because Dean and Cindy, due to their failures of self-revelation, didn't really know what the other needed. Dean's abandonment issues made him almost pathologically romantic; he needed to be loved and in love. Nothing else mattered; not his personal development nor the needs of those around him. He was, like Cindy's father and ex-boyfriend, willing to coerce her, as exemplified by the scene on the bridge, to meet his needs.

Dean's need (to be in love) was benign, but in his own way he was just as selfish and insensitive as the other two men in Cindy's life. His neediness and selfishness were ultimately unacceptable to her. Her past experience taught her to be wary of becoming too dependent. She needed a stable, reliable, loving partner. In the end Dean was incapable of meeting this need; he couldn't understand how she might want more from life than his affection. But intimacy takes place within a dense psychosocial context, and love is just one aspect of that milieu.

Go see Blue Valentine. And don't give up on marriage; just be smart about who you marry. Get to know the person really well. Don't have unrealistic expectations; remember that what you don't like in your partner doesn't always get better. And don't rush into marriage.

Alan Ravitz, MD, is a pediatric psychopharmacologist and senior director of forensic psychiatry at the Child Mind Institute. For Dr. Ravitz's take on everything from Bieber Fever to Miley Cyrus' possible run-in with the hallucinogen salvia, visit childmind.org.