Contrary to appearances, Netflix’s hit movie Marriage Story is not a story about divorce. It is, as its title indicates, a story about marriage. More specifically, it is the story of how a good marriage goes bad for one simple reason: Appreciation Deficit Disorder.
What is appreciation deficit disorder?
While Appreciation Deficit Disorder isn’t a clinical disorder, if it was it would be defined as something like this: a “disorder” characteristic of couples like Marriage Story‘s Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson)– who are in decent, functional relationships, but who are “appreciation-deficient” with regards to themselves, their spouses, and their relationship as a whole.
In fact, the failed marriage between Charlie and Nicole could be considered a textbook example of this as-yet undiagnosed “disorder” because it displays all the classic symptoms of this brand-new, made-up malaise.
Here are the symptoms of appreciation deficit disorder:
1. Physical and emotional withdrawal
Example: Charlie and Nicole have been living parallel lives for the last joyless and sexless year of their marriage.
Example: Nicole repeatedly criticizes Charlie for being selfish, whereas Charlie repeatedly criticizes Nicole for being… Nicole;
Example: Charlie claims that Nicole hated him during the last year of their marriage, whereas Nicole feels Charlie has been contemptuously ignoring her core needs;
4. Negative sentiment override
Example: The spouses are both so flooded with negative emotion that they each accuse one another of rewriting their shared past, as when Charlie insists that Nicole has only decided, after the fact, that she wasn’t happy with their life in Brooklyn, when at the time she was.
Fortunately, appreciation deficit disorder contains, embedded within itself, its own obvious cure: appreciation.
Indeed, the renowned couples therapist Terry Real considers appreciation not only the single “most effective” strategy for improving a relationship, but he goes so far as to say, “This one principle is equal to all the others combined.” As we will see, most of the top couples therapists in the world agree.
How to avoid appreciation deficit disorder:
Step 1. Appreciate one another
Marriage Story opens with tender and heart-warming expressions of mutual appreciation between Nicole and Charlie. At first sight, it certainly doesn’t seem like they suffer appreciation deficit.
The world’s pre-eminent marriage researcher, John Gottman, would say (with one important reservation) that Charlie and Nicole both have good “love maps,” a term that evokes the amount of “cognitive room” one has for all the little quirks of their spouse’s personality and personal history, as well as the marriage itself.
Gottman’s research shows that having good love maps is the very foundation of the seven-story “sound marital house” that constitutes a strong, sustainable relationship. His research also shows that having good love maps is a necessary prerequisite for building the next level up in the sound marital house, “fondness and admiration.”
Step 2. Be grateful for the things you appreciate
Researchers like Sara Algoe, Amie Gordon, Emily Impett, and Samantha Joel would also be impressed with the way that Charlie and Nicole express gratitude for how their partner invests in their relationship– a tendency that functions as a “booster shot” for relationship commitment and overall happiness.
For instance, even when Charlie complains about Nicole’s untidiness – “It’s not easy for her to put away a sock, or close a cabinet, or do a dish” – he nevertheless expresses his gratitude for her effort and attributes it to her fondness for him: “but she tries for me.”
Likewise, Nicole peppers her appreciations of Charlie with generous expressions of gratitude, singling out, for example:
He takes all of my moods steadily, he doesn’t give in to them or make me feel bad about them.
As the marriage historian Eli Finkel explains in his widely-praised book The All-or-Nothing Marriage, “In the long run, people who experience elevated levels of gratitude also experience stronger relationship commitment and are less likely to break up.”
But if Charlie and Nicole are so good at appreciating one another in all of these ways, then why do they break up?
Step 3. Express your appreciation
While they feel appreciation, Charlie and Nicole don’t express their appreciation out loud to one another. When we finally hear Nicole’s appreciation of Charlie articulated out loud, we come to understand that one of the main factors that causes both their marriage and their divorce to unravel is the unwillingness to give voice to appreciation.
Most of the top couples therapists in the world – John Gottman, Sue Johnson, and Terry Real – emphasize the crucial importance of not just appreciating our partners but expressing that appreciation.
For instance, Terry Real writes, ”When I speak of cherishing, I do not mean just feeling warm and fuzzy inside. I mean doing something to let your partner know what you are appreciating.”
Gottman makes the same basic point:
When you acknowledge and openly discuss positive aspects of your partner and your marriage, your bond is strengthened.
Why is expressing appreciation so important? Perhaps for the same reason that it’s so important not just to appreciate a house plant, but also to water it.
Step 4. Appreciate one another’s life dreams
Why does Nicole refuse to read her appreciations out loud to Charlie? While there are many answers to this question, they all ultimately boil down to another, more fundamental symptom of ADD.
Nicole is both hurt by and angry at Charlie because he has failed to listen for and appreciate her deepest needs and most-cherished longings.
According to Gottman, whenever there is a gridlocked conflict in a relationship the thing to do is dig down to what he calls the “dream within the conflict.”
By “dream” he means the hopes, aspirations and wishes that are part of people’s very identity and that give purpose and meaning to their lives. In Gottman’s experience, the best way to drill down to the dream beneath the conflict is to explore the underlying symbolism of the surface-level desires at play in the disagreement.
If he had taken me in a big hug and said ‘Baby, I’m so excited for your adventure and of course I want you to have your own piece of earth’ then we might not be getting divorced.
The marriage researchers Shelly Gable and Harry Reis have shown that when partners communicate and celebrate their individual successes with one another they both feel greater positive emotions and mental health, and also experience increased feelings of trust, intimacy, and satisfaction in the relationship.
As Eli Finkel explains, “Enthusiastic responses are beneficial because they convey the listener’s shared joy in the event and appreciation of the personal significance of the event for the discloser.”
Step 5. Appreciate (or, at the very least, accept) your partner’s influence
In Marriage Story, Nicole complains that all of the furniture in their apartment was Charlie’s taste. She bemoans the fact she didn’t even get to pick their apartment but just moved into his.
More generally, and perhaps most significantly, she remarks that during their marriage:
It would be so weird if he had turned to me and said ‘And what do you want to do today?’
In their long-term study of 131 newly-wed couples who they followed for nine years, Gottman and his fellow researchers found that even in the first few months of marriage, men who allowed their wives to influence them had happier relationships and were less likely to eventually divorce than men who resisted their wives influence.
“Statistically speaking,” he writes, “when a man is not willing to share power with his partner there is an 81% chance that his marriage will self-destruct.”
Step 6. Appreciate and assert your own needs and dreams
It seems fair to say that Nicole also fails to appreciate her own dreams and assert her influence in a way that Charlie can understand.
She says, “I made noises about wanting to move back to LA, but they came to nothing, but “making noises” is a far cry from clearly and insistently articulating your dreams and desires. And unfortunately, as Terry Real writes:
You cannot create an extraordinary relationship unless you’re willing to do the hard work of identifying what it is that you want and pursuing it.
It is for this reason that, out of the many possible forms of appreciation that exist, Real prioritizes the cultivation of self-appreciation.
“First and foremost,” he says, “I want you to cherish yourself. I want you to value your own wants and needs. I want you to value your voice.”
Real has a confrontational way of encouraging people to appreciate and express their own wants up front. He invites them to swallow this bitter pill:
You don’t have the right to complain about not getting what you never asked for.
Step 7. Appreciate relationality
If Nicole had discerned and appreciated her own dreams more fully, she might have been able to summon the courage to not only stand up for herself but to speak up for herself and ask for more out of Charlie and for more out of their marriage.
This is the very essence of what Real calls “fierce intimacy” or “daring to rock the boat.” Grabbing your partner by the collar and saying, ‘Such-and-such is really important to me. You better take it seriously. I’m not kidding.”
Unfortunately, because Nicole doesn’t fully appreciate her own needs, she cannot articulate them to Charlie, let alone roll up her sleeves and fight like hell to make sure he meets them.
Rather than moving from disempowerment to what Real calls “relationship empowerment,” she moves directly from disempowerment to what he calls “personal empowerment.”
In Real’s view, “traditional femininity” teaches women disempowerment (i.e. “shut up and eat it”). In contrast, third-wave feminism teaches women “personal empowerment” (i.e. “speak out and leave it”). But the next step is what he calls “relationship empowerment,” which encourages women to “stand firm and mean it.”
What is real “relationship empowerment”?
Something like this: “How are we going to be together in a way that works for both of us? How are we going to negotiate our needs? This is what I’d like. Tell me what you’d like. And tell me what you need from me to help you deliver.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee that if Nicole and Charlie had had the guts to have this kind of conversation they would have been able to work things out. But it certainly would have upped the odds. And it certainly would have been better than either staying in a marriage plagued by Appreciation Deficit Disorder, or complaining after the fact about never getting what neither of them ever asked for.
By identifying the problem and addressing it maturely with these tools, you’re well on your way from moving from “appreciation deficit” to “relationship empowerment.”
Where to go from here:
- Your Relationship is Strong Enough to Survive — but You Need Space
- How to Identify Your Relationship Blind Spots
- What is the Correct “Love Ratio” for Your Relationship?