Whatever hurts you through the night

Warning: Some spoilers for ‘Scenes from a Marriage’

Occasionally, I watch something that moves me in an almost primal, instinctual way. Back in 2020, it was probably the three-part movie ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’. Yes, it was dismissed by most as pretentious drivel, but for me, it drew me into the tangled lives of its two protagonists, encouraged me to invest into both their narratives and have me dangled by my ends on the fate of their story.

At the start of 2022, it was ‘Scenes from a Marriage’.

Again I was drawn into the tangled lives of its two protagonists, encouraged to invest into both their narratives and was dangled by my ends on the fate of their story. I know how it looks. The common denominator of both being Jessica Chastain. Perhaps she is just drawn to playing characters in brooding relationship dramas that have just the perfect quotient between strength and vulnerability. The type of female protagonist that just lures me in like an idiot.

‘Scenes from Marriage’ revolves around the lives of Jonathan and Mira. Through the five-episode miniseries, we get impressions from Jonathan and Mira’s marriage taken from selected moments of their union and it paints a messy picture of betrayals, sexual attraction, and selfishness, ultimately coming to a place of queer peace by the end. It is the English-language remake of the 1973 Swedish television miniseries by Ingmar Bergman.

I found so many scenes from the show poignant and powerful from an emotional standpoint. The one that comes to mind immediately was the scene where Mira was feeling the full weight of her guilt after dumping the revelation that she had been unfaithful on Jonathan and is looking to leave immediately. She haphazardly pulls a luggage bag out of the closet and starts forcing clothes with the hangers on into the bag together with her shoes and the bag wouldn’t close. Jonathan tells her to stop, moves her aside, and proceeds to remove the pieces of clothing from their hangers and start folding the clothes and placing them neatly into the bag. The scene lingers on for longer than scenes of these sort normally does, with each passing second more excruciating than the last. With each piece of clothing folded and tucked neatly into the bag, I felt a sharp pang of pain. It’s a powerful scene that tells the story of Jonathan’s dutifulness towards the marriage and how he thought that by excelling in this, that would be his gift of love to his wife. Yet, it meant so little to her because she was hurting so much more because of other things he was doing. That after he was done tucking everything neatly into the bag, she still took it and left. I sometimes think we invest a lot into the idea that a marriage functions on a single narrative line and everything branches from that, when the truth is a lot more complex than that. What we see as a line is actually a whole world of intricate narratives pulling each other to and from each other, each with a story that is screaming to be heard.

The other, perhaps a little more controversial scene that I personally found poignant was the one in the fourth episode where in the midst of a house move and Jonathan trying to get Mira to sign the divorce papers, they have sex in the living room. As a scene on its own, it would not be very meaningful except you realise later on in the episode that Jonathan slept with Mira to confirm that she no longer had a primal hold on him and that Mira slept with him because she had already lost her job, her relationship with her boyfriend and just wants to ‘come home’ to what she had with Jonathan before by using the one thing she thought she had over him, her sexuality. More specifically, his sexual desire for her. Both parties turned to that primal corner of the relationship and manipulated that to their respective benefit.  It firstly shows that people are at their core incredibly selfish when it comes to self-preservation but it also speaks to a larger narrative – that for a marriage to work, like truly work, it requires two people to sacrifice so much and be constantly at the top of the game. That if we turn in 5.5 performance too often, it can all collapse from under you. Before you know it, your marriage is a walking carcass, shuffling around meaninglessly without any purpose other than the simple wish to die with some dignity.

Which brings me to the point I wanted to make with this post. As much as popular media right down to the gossips of your social circles will try and have you believe that all marriages die by the force of a single blow, I’ve come to realise through my own experiences as well as the experiences of the people I know, to confidently propose the hypothesis that this notion is not true for most relationships or marriages. From the outside, observers and commentators prefer the cleanness that a ‘single blow’ provides. That the marriage died because of the infidelity of the wife, the financial tardiness of the husband or the meddling of their respective mothers, etc. It just makes for a snappier conversation, a soundbite that we send into the gossip ether and not have it return with more questions than we are prepared to negotiate.

Every scene was intense

That is blatantly irresponsible though. Not just because speaking of these ills should not be done even of your most mortal of enemies and is mostly in poor taste but also because such a superfluous closing paragraph to a complex and intricate entity such as a marriage does it a great disservice, given how important that union was for both parties at some point in their existence.

Instead, I’ve come to realise that a marriage almost never dies because of a single blow, but instead from a thousand cuts. An infidelity is admittedly a large, large cut and is often a fatal blow but is only so because of the hundreds of cuts that came before that.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not exonerating people who commit infidelity nor am I downplaying the act in itself. Marriage is a commitment between two people and no matter how crisply contemporary you want to spin your story, infidelity is a huge violation of that commitment. What I am saying that there are times where infidelity is merely the byproduct of a broader disease and in those cases, if there was a greater effort placed in avoiding cuts, things may have turned out rather differently.

Jonathan and Mira had many smaller cuts before Poli came along. There was Jonathan’s inherent judgment of Mira’s poor performance as a mom which he constantly hangs in front of her in the form of how good he is with Ava their daughter. There was Mira’s obvious misgivings about Jonathan’s religious upbringing and how that had affected him as a person which probably began as something cute and interesting about him but eventually grew into an ugly crutch that she despised. There was probably some judgment on Mira’s part on Jonathan’s career choices and how she enjoyed hanging that over him in the form of her meteoric career.

Some cuts in a marriage can be avoided and are at times, completely unnecessary. We just have to be a little more proactive in reading the signs and recognising the dangers. Do I have ‘cuts’ in my marriage? Of course. No marriage is without these cuts but I have placed more effort in recent years to being more concerted in my efforts to avoid them. Sometimes I find myself doubling back to assure my wife after I’ve said or done something, just to dispel any doubts that might linger because of an act or statement. The war in marriage is almost never fought and lost on an open battle field but in dark silent corridors. Be very wary of what is not said as much as what was said.

I also make more of an effort to ensure I don’t take my wife for granted on anything she does for this marriage and family by thanking and appreciating her for the most menial of tasks from washing the dishes to watering the plants (although she should do this cause she’s the one who brings them back always). Lately, I’ve been telling her how proud and appreciative I am of her for carrying our unborn daughter.

The way I’ve learned to look at it is that each cut I can prevent, is one less cut that can kill my marriage. And each passing day I have no additional cuts is another successful day for the happiness of my marriage in this life. Yes, it’s a little cynical but not all forms of cynicism is bad. I’ve found some to be quite handy in difficult times. In any case the institution of marriage, in regards to the collective human species, has gone past the ‘forever yours pretty cards’ phase a long time ago. It’s been under attack for a while now. A lot, if not most, seem to end either in bloody acrimony or aimlessly shuffling around as a living dead. So perhaps trying to adorn pretty veneers is no longer the best way forward. Perhaps it’s time to hunker down, keep your heads low and to finish this race well.

After all, we are only tasked with stewarding this marriage in this lifetime so every good day is a step towards a good end.

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