Popcorn Therapy: Top 10 Divorce Flicks

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The other afternoon, I got pulled into watching a poignant movie about a broken man locked in a bitter custody fight with his ex-wife, a single mom attempting to regain some semblance of normalcy at home while learning to navigate the dating world again. Through the turmoil, both parents try to prove their merit and do what they believe is best without fully realizing the negative effect their discord has had on their kids.

It was moving. It was heartwarming. It was Mrs. Doubtfire.

Surprised? So was I. I’m pretty sure that it was the first time I’d sat down and watched the 1993 classic in its entirety since my own divorce, and  I saw it through different eyes. It wasn’t just about Robin Williams pulling off a convincing disguise as a grandmotherly nanny – it was about a family’s transformation following the trauma of divorce. Watch it again and you will see that the comedy is actually a multilayered story about how love prevails. It’s much deeper than a latex face mask.

It also got me thinking about the other great divorce-themed movies out there – and how a breakup not only drives some great cinematic conflict, it is often the catalyst for a better second act for our beloved characters. Here are 10 titles that I enjoyed before my divorce, but really came to appreciate in a new way afterwards. What are some of your favorites?

enough-said1. Enough Said

Cleverly insightful with a heart is the best way to describe this witty, charming film. Divorced Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) hits it off with Albert (James Gandolfini) around the same time she befriends Marianne, who complains about her ex-husband’s faults a great deal. When Eva suddenly realizes that Albert is Marianne’s ex, all of the criticism she’s soaked up about him begins to sour her feelings just as a potentially great romance blossoms. A great movie for anyone dipping a toe or taking the plunge back into the dating pool.

tuscan2. Under the Tuscan Sun

Frances’ divorce just may be the best thing to ever happen to her! After discovering her husband’s affair, leading to the darkest, most depressing period of her life, Frances is prompted by her friend to take a holiday in Italy. While there, she impulsively buys an abandoned Tuscan villa in need of restoration. Of course, it’s a metaphor for her life and starting anew. Although the sumptuous backdrop is a travelogue, the real theme here is that home is not a place – home is the people you love.

stepmom3. Stepmom

I didn’t like this movie at first sight, but it has certainly grown on me over the years. What I appreciate about it is that depicts both the mother (Susan Sarandon) and stepmother (Julia Roberts) as imperfect – it doesn’t shy from the mistakes they each make and in doing so, creates empathy for both parties. It’s rare that you can have compassion for both the protagonist and the so-called antagonist and end up rooting for both. This is totally a “walk a mile in her shoes” story. Oh, and bring Kleenex.

breakup4. The Break-Up

Okay, so this is technically not a “divorce” movie per se, but I’m including it because it’s about the Mine vs. Yours mentality, the manipulations, and the general mindf*ck at the end of a long-term relationship. After deciding to break up, Brooke and Gary wage a nasty battle of the sexes over who will keep their luxurious Chicago condo by trying to drive the other one out. It’s only when they are both too tired to fight do they realize how much was actually lost – but by then, it’s too late.

complicated5. It’s Complicated

Writer and director Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, Something’s Gotta Give, Baby Boom) can do no wrong in my eyes, and this rom-com about an unconventional love triangle is another winner. Meryl Streep plays a successful, middle-aged divorcee caught between an affair with her remarried ex, Alec Baldwin, and moving on with a sweet new romance with Steve Martin. Consider it a cautionary tale of why sex with an ex is like ramen noodles when you’re drunk – it may hit the spot but let’s face it, it’s never anyone’s first choice.

squid6. The Squid & The Whale

It could be because they both star Jeff Daniels, but this one always reminds me of Terms of Endearment: messy, quirky characters who display raw human emotion. Rotten Tomatoes said it best: “This is a piercingly honest, acidly witty look at divorce and its impact on a family.” It also has Laura Linney, who is pretty much a goddess in everything she does. I’ll warn you, it’s harrowing and hard to watch, especially how torn up the kids are, so if your own divorce is close to the surface, skip this one for the time being.

crazy-stupid7. Crazy Stupid Love

I’m tempted to call this the ultimate chump movie because no one plays chump better than Steve Carell. His character, Cal, is living the perfect life – until it suddenly comes undone when his unfaithful wife announces she wants a divorce. Lovelorn and sinking quickly in the quagmire that is dating over 40, Cal turns to smooth ladies’ man Jacob (Ryan Gosling) for advice on how to be a player. Multiple storylines about finding The One are expertly woven together in this script by Dan Fogelman (This is Us).

twister8. Twister

You probably weren’t expecting a disaster flick to make the list, but here it is. The tornadoes may be the scene stealers (“we got cows!”), but the plot is driven by an estranged couple on the brink of divorce. Just as an intense series of weather systems roll through Oklahoma, meteorologist Bill shows up with his perky new fiancée and the divorce papers that stormchaser Jo has managed to avoid signing. A staticky clash of immoveable fronts causes chaos to ensue – and the storms are pretty wicked, too.

something-to-talk9. Something To Talk About

There are two things you gotta love about this movie: 1) Grace finds out her husband Eddie has been cheating, and finds refuge with her sister, Emma Rae (who delivers a well-placed knee squarely to Eddie’s groin). Sisters rock! 2) Grace calls out Eddie in front of his bar buddies (who hasn’t entertained that revenge fantasy?) and later, stands up at a meeting and asks who else among the tightly-buttoned chin wags has slept with her husband – before revealing the skeletons in others’ marital closets.

first-wives10. The First Wives Club

You know I couldn’t complete this Top 10 list without including screen queens Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn. After having been recently dumped for someone younger and hotter, our heroines unite and begin plotting their retaliation by hitting their ex-husbands where it hurts: in the bank account. In the end of course, the women pick themselves up, dust themselves off and and think better of payback, realizing instead that the best revenge is, indeed, living well.

 

Naked and Unafraid

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Ever had that dream of being out in public, say at the grocery store, at work or at school, when you suddenly look down and are mortified to realize that you’re stark naked?

Let’s face it, we’ve all had that dream at one time or another. It’s a metaphor for our innate fear of being vulnerable, stripped of our defenses. But have you ever noticed that in the naked dream, the people around you aren’t the first to notice your state of undress? Quite often, they barely react – it’s our intense embarrassment that is so jarring. Being caught naked reflects our shame of being exposed.

Most of us learn at a young age to disguise our weaknesses. We’ve learned from experience what happens when we let our defenses down and show our true selves too soon: people find our Achilles heels, exploit our frailties or break our hearts. So we learn to hold back in order to protect ourselves. I can’t imagine a time this is more prevalent than following divorce.

It’s especially frightening to let yourself be vulnerable again after healing old relationship wounds. After my divorce, the scar that I carry with me is that I am not enough. When I put myself out there only to be rejected – that is the message that haunts me. As a result, I often hide my vulnerability by moving into overachieving superwoman mode to compensate or cover any weakness.

Last week, I was in a situation that forced me to be vulnerable. I had my wisdom teeth removed. It was not unexpected, as my dentist had been cautioning me for years about the increasing health hazards of holding on to them for too long. But after the divorce, I was without extensive insurance coverage and only had my kids at home, enabling me to put off the procedure. This fall, I had no longer had a choice in the matter as a possible tumor had developed alongside one of the troublesome teeth.

One of the most difficult aspects of being sick or injured, for me at least, is being vulnerable. I am not comfortable with being the patient, even under doctor’s orders to take it easy. I struggle with asking for help. I’m usually the caregiver, not the one being cared for, so it was really hard for me to rely on my partner for the first couple days of my recovery.

Lying in bed, scooping yogurt and watching Food Network, gave me a lot of time to think about why I shy away from being vulnerable. I re-watched Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability. Once again, I was struck by how important it is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable in order to engage and to build connections. Without it, we risk missing out on some wonderful and important things: Trust. Healing. Intimacy.

“Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it,” she says. “Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

I’ve thought about times when I have been vulnerable and was rejected – leading to that all-too familiar feeling that, once again, I am not enough.

One that came to mind was an experience I had while post-divorce dating. I remember going into it thinking that the best defense against pain was a smart offense. But it’s never been my nature to not want to build a connection with someone, even if it’s only over coffee. In order to do that, I had to risk being vulnerable.

My date asked me about my divorce, and in that moment, I was faced with whether or not to open up to him. So I chose to reveal how I’d been dealing with the grief of betrayal. His reaction? “No big deal. It happens to everyone these days.”

My story was met with crushing apathy when I needed empathy. I shared my truth and he brushed it off like I had suffered an emotional hangnail. My guard went back up.

Going forward, I minimized my pain by pretending divorce had been nothing more than a mere bump in the road and not the threatening sinkhole it felt like. Of course, it was exhausting to put on a happy face and it certainly kept me from building any type of genuine connection with anyone. The opposite of being vulnerable is a closed heart.

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Fortunately, things were different when I met my partner. We’d both had our own life-altering struggles and were in our own unique stages of healing. There was comfort in that. It was like we’d finally found a safe place to share our experiences and show ourselves fully to one another. After holding things in for so long, it was okay to be vulnerable with him because he was willing to be equally vulnerable with me. Letting ourselves be seen and known was the key to cultivating love.

And that took courage. Of all things.

“To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen – to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee – that’s really hard. Vulnerability is the courage to show up and be seen when the outcome is unknown,” Brené Brown says. “It is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”

She explains that vulnerability coerces us to be comfortable with uncertainty (and how I do love well organized, square-cornered certainty in my life). We risk rejection when we put ourselves out there, whether it’s sharing our story, saying “I love you” first, admitting when we are weak or scared, or asking for help when we are sick.

Being in a state of limbo, uncertain how the other person will respond, causes us discomfort. Yet it’s only by taking that risk that we learn to tolerate the tension. Vulnerability stretches and expands us, making us more resilient in other areas of risk in our lives.

Brené reminds us that while we are in limbo, we need to “just stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, say, ‘I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.’”

I am presently struggling in my relationship with someone who has all but completely blocked me from their life. When I attempted to reach out to them recently, my gesture was shunned. It hurt. Without an explanation of what is wrong, I could only deduct that I must be the reason – who I am is not enough.

But then this timely message (there are no coincidences!) made its way to me: “Staying real and vulnerable in a world that’s doing its best to tell you that you’re not good enough is true courage. Have the strength to show up and be seen as the imperfect human you are today.”

Although I am tempted to close my heart so as not to be hurt again, I know I must summon the courage to remain open if we are ever going to rebuild a connection. So I will take the risk to stay real, and yes, naked, remembering that to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.