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SaraKay Smullens

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'Blue Valentine': The Difference Between Falling in Love and Falling in Need

Posted: 02/13/11 11:12 AM ET

The extraordinarily well-acted film "Blue Valentine" is being promoted as a film showing the eventual death of young marital love. Its cynical message: Marital love cannot last. This is underscored by two heartbreaking renditions of the Ink Spots' "You Always Hurt the One You Love."

Nothing is further from the truth, however. True marital love can and does last. And last. And last. One of the ways it is always destroyed, however, is when a union is based on extreme neediness not understood by either.

Sadly, the marriage of Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) never could become this type of sustaining marriage. Though neither realized it, they were each desperately "in need," not "in love." And their union was doomed from nanosecond one.

Reviews that tell the plot of a film, even when brilliantly written, drive me bonkers. So I will try not to do this to you. And anyway, this is not a review. I write as background, warning and framing for any who see authentic theater as mirror into ourselves and those we live with and care about. For I have worked with innumerable clients who have lived the heartbreak of Cindy and Dean and their sweet little six-year-old girl Frankie for exactly the same reasons. I write as a wake-up call.

Like many, Dean and Cindy did not learn about living well with another from their parents. Dean was abandoned by his mother when he was very, very young. His multitalented father was devoid of all ambition. Though Dean held a steady job, he, like his dad, had no desire to grow beyond his economic and social station in life. Cindy, however, was very ambitious, hardworking and beautifully suited for the training of a physician -- an accomplishment she yearned for. But life threw her the curve balls of a mean, cruel father and an early lover who was every bit as cruel.

Dean, dearly kind and desperately needy for the nurturing and closeness denied him, seemed, at first glance, to "save" Cindy, who repaid him with the tenderness he had yearned for all of his life. He thought his dearness and devotion to his wife and daughter would be enough.

But early in the film we see that Dean was still a child -- brutally hurt and angry about all the warmth and fun he had been denied. Though superficially always sweet, he criticized his wife over meaningless things, revealing, in doing so, his own deprivation. With no awareness of his actions or their impact, he treated Cindy like his mother; and, on an emotional level, Frankie was far more his sibling than his child.

Cindy also yearned for kindness and closeness, but from a man -- not an emotional child. She was so exhausted and disgusted by her reality that the only way she could endure physical contact with her husband was to drink. If she could get him to hurt her, a state all too familiar to her, at least she could feel something. Dean had no idea why he so repulsed the wife he clung to. The pain of the rejection he endured, and Cindy's loneliness and isolation, were heartbreaking to witness.

This type of needy union plays itself out in myriad forms, always destructively. It eventually chokes the health and joy out of every moment a couple is together. There is the fatherless woman, who insists that her husband -- to show he loves her -- must check in with her several times a day. But enough, for her, is never enough. There is the brilliant student who refuses to finish college and earn a living, even though his wife is willing to work constantly so that both are well educated, with earning power. There is the sexual addict, emotionally a child, who believes constant affairs and one-night stands will keep her safe from rejection from a marital partner, who has no desire whatsoever to abandon her. There is the teacher, who comes home to teach, preach and lecture, rather than allow give and take in the relationship and see his partner for the adult she longs to be able to become. There is the attorney, who places all of his family on the witness stand, acting out his childish rage for all he was denied on those who love him. The list goes on and on.

Everyone who marries had growing to do, and most marriages endure disappointments. But falling "in need" rather than in love is always a death sentence, leading to abandonment, hopelessness and rage -- unless both begin to understand the road taken and change it. Yes, we do hurt those we love. But in the marriages that blossom, the hurt always leads to an intimate, trusted love and devotion that two adults make possible.

 
 
 

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