“The Descendants” An Award Winning Coupledom: What Can We Learn?

A Family Going To The Dogs Hits A Wall: “The Descendants” starring George Clooney is nominated for best picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, aka Oscar. At the Golden Globes last month, the film won for best drama, Mr. Clooney for best actor in a drama. It is ranked amongst the top ten films of the year for many critics ranging from The New York Times to Rolling Stone. Based on a novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, “a young female novelist”, the film clearly resonated for many though it has nothing cinematically novel or audacious about it. In fact the plot rests on a fairly mundane story line of a family going to the dogs that is suddenly faced with a great tragedy. You ask, how can that be mundane? Well, it happens every day in our communities, though if we are lucky, we don’t usually get to view the detritus of emotional misery this close up.

A Bewilderment of Pain: Folks may differ over the quality of the film or Mr. Clooney’s portrayal of the beleaguered dad descended from Hawaiian wealth and aristocratic lineage, but something powerful was rendered here. This film condensed a familial process in two hours that takes years to achieve: alienation from emotional connectedness amongst all four members, with the core of the disorder in the relationship between husband and wife, the broken heart of the home. And something else that is so familiar to me as a clinician: the bewilderment of pain that Clooney convincingly portrayed throughout much of the film.

Years In The Making: It takes years for couples to descend to the point of alienation that is capably rendered here, yet Clooney’s character appears surprised and bewildered as he stumbles across the inescapable evidence of the marriage’s decay when he learns that his now comatose wife had an affair, news to almost no one else but him. I have seen that look of “How did we get here?” on the faces of many couples, yet, one asks, weren’t you a part of the getting there, and still they are stunned, stunned. And not necessarily because an affair has been revealed. Sometimes it is just because someone is done or both are waking up to a huge void in their nest, a hollowed-out space between them left behind by kids growing up, moving out and taking what is left of the family glue with them.

The Unattended Coupledom: There is an energy captured in the Descendants that matches my observations of couples in real life, real-time, an energy of action over observation, emotion without attention, reaction without wonder. Lives laced together and seemingly propelled by a sensibility based on the belief that doing is everything, “running” is the metaphor for emotional powerlessness, while the action of paying attention to what we are doing, saying or feeling with each other, has no home here. The powerful spectacle of the comatose mother of two, whose breath of life is mechanically managed, stands for all that remained unspoken and unattended to in the marriage, in the family. A suitable metaphor for what is now no longer retrievable. And as Clooney bends to say his final goodbye to his wife, there seems to be a shallowness in his grief, something ultimately hollow, perhaps a flaw in the acting, yet consistent with the suggestion of a marriage that never deepened, a marriage neglected and unattended to.

The Observant Coupledom: Attention paid in real time to the thoughts, feelings and actions of oneself with one’s partner is fundamental to a healthy connection. Hindsight is better than no sight and when couples learn the importance of taking note of moments with motives other than to judge good or bad, who was right, who was wrong, blame or defend, a real dialogue of intimacy can occur. The Descendants hinted at reasons for the couple’s divide that seemed to stem from a typical Coupledom neglectfulness: no one was really listening to the other, or to themselves, and solutions were sought in distractions, fast boats, professional ambition, money and social life. This is a no-fault tragedy. This couple did not have the tools to make it different. No one ever taught them how to be real with their own needs and real with another’s. Hurts were suggested, apparently not read as hurts but as demands. Folks just don’t know how to talk the language of emotional longing or need and their listeners don’t know the code needed to decipher the communication. The conversation “drops” and the line of communication goes dead.

Clueless No More: Clooney’s character Matt King showed only half of the King Coupledom but you get the sense that these were not people who stopped, listened and learned. The marriage devolved into the parallel play of each doing their own thing with joint public appearances at parties and or kids’ stuff. Even the daughter’s obvious acting out was not enough to alert these two to the rot of their relationship. No one should ever let that become their marriage. Awaken your partner to the absolute fact that unless “we learn to share some feelings, and try to understand each other better and ourselves” we are going to “descend” too. Clooney’s character had the typical wake-up call of an affair which might have forced them into couples therapy. But for their Coupledom it was too late. Don’t wait for a “wake-up” call in your marriage. If you need help to learn how to be that “observant couple” seek out a couples therapist and learn the language of intimacy now.

If viewed properly, The Descendants could be curative. 

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

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