Marriage in the Movies: Boyhood

Hopefully, some time soon, you will go out and see an almost 3 hour movie about nothing in particular, and everything that’s meaningful to being human.

“Boyhood” took 12 years to make, and followed one family over that time. And one particular boy. Mason Jr.

It is a work of fiction.

While those who work with children or adolescents can talk about Mason’s early year transitions or his teenage drug use, as a marriage therapist I’m drawn to talk about the marriage that wasn’t.

Olivia and Mason

Olivia and Mason Sr. were already divorced when the film started. Mason Sr. was in Alaska, while Olivia was struggling to get by and raise her two children somewhere in Texas. It’s 2002, and the marriage that started because Olivia got pregnant is now very much dead in the water.

At first, Mason Sr. is portrayed as any “deadbeat Dad” might be portrayed: not sending Olivia child support steadily, drifting away to “find himself,” and floating back, hoping he can start something up with her again. We watch through the eyes of Mason Jr., now 6, and his sister Samantha (“Sam”) 7, as they excitedly screech to their Dad’s promised presents, and his patient way of encouraging Mason to “bowl without the bumpers,” despite his son’s obvious disappointment at his skill level. But my feelings change as the scene shows him sitting on the floor in his kid’s room, listening intently as his children detail their “show and tell.”

 

Then his former wife shows up.

His posture changes like a dog that fought a skunk (and lost), fearful of running to its master, but so happy to be home.

To Olivia, Mason Sr. is nothing but a huge disappointment. That message comes across so clearly. We’re not given the back story, but most of us can make it up on the spot. He ran off to Alaska to make some fast cash, and play his music in peace. His child support was spotty at best. He violates clear boundaries by dropping the kids back at their home, instead of keeping his distance (as requested) and leaving them at Olivia’s Mothers, as requested.Mason Sr studies his children's projects intently on the floor of their bedroom as they look on

I was hoping beyond hope for some tender scene, as Olivia and Mason Sr. meet up again, but that’s not to be. The viewers watch, with the kids upstairs, while Olivia launches into him, (we can’t make out the words) and he walks away exasperated.

A “Demon Dance,” Sue Johnson, Ph.D. calls it. It repeats over and over, and neither can stand the music, and hate the steps. But dance they do.

We can ad lib the lines, and pretty much approximate them:

Olivia: “What are you doing? You were told to drop the kids back at my Mother’s!”

Mason Sr: “I know, but the kids wanted me to see their room…”

Olivia: “Bullsh*t. You don’t have any respect, do you? You think you can just walk in here and…”

And my heart breaks as I watch this brief scene unfold. The kids know it didn’t go well, either.

I believe in my heart that with some help, couples like this can be having a different sort of conversation. A conversation about her fury, disappointment, and crushed dreams. He could tell her that he wants to be responsible, but he also wants to be true to who he really is. And he’d tell her he still loves her, and he’s sorry, so sorry that it all turned out like this.

But they have no couples counselor, so the kids watch, and wish, from the window, and leave the window disappointed to watch their Dad walk away.

Moving to Houston and Going to School

We, the viewers, are cautiously optimistic when she moves to Houston to get a degree in psychology, and takes up with a college professor with two children of his own. Remarkably, the kids bond quickly. But something isn’t right in this new marriage. We watch as her new husband pours a lot of liquor and very little tonic, from the cabinet in the garage. And despite the fact that he’s paying the bills, there’s a mean streak in him that borders on sadism. He levels it at Mason Jr., but he’s worse with his own son. And it only grows as the film goes on.

Anyone who grew up in an abusive alcoholic family knows this dinner scene well: The questions asked that everyone is afraid to answer. The heads bowed down, hoping not to be noticed. And the arrogant, drunken rant, the broken glass, the abusive language, and the frozen faces.

 Olivia crying at the kitchen table of a friends\'s after leaving her abusive husband

Husband #2 appears to resent the fact that the children want to be kids, and play instead of clean. Olivia tries to soften his brutality, but when she gets battered herself, she quickly rallies her resources (clears out his bank accounts) and leaves.

Fast.

The children are stunned to realize that they must leave his biological children behind. And these kids are in danger, as he drove with all four of them in the car drunk.

Any woman who’s escaped a batterer remembers the moment when she realizes that it’s all gone. The big house with plenty of rooms. Money in the bank. But also realizes that the anticipation and fear of being battered again is past. Maybe not the terror. For many, that PTSD lives on. But for now, she’s safe, and her kids are safe.

Olivia is fortunate to be able to live with a friend and her friend’s children, in an overcrowded tiny house, with none of her possessions. Many women aren’t so lucky, and move into women’s shelters.

Her children complain to her about what they’ve lost in the bargain. But like so many women, she picks herself up, puts herself back together, and gets on with it. So do the kids.

Mason Sr. is Growing Up

Meanwhile, Mason Sr. is maturing, along with the kids. His artistic ambitions took second fiddle when he returned from Alaska. He was starting to recognize he couldn’t feed a family as a songwriter. We hear he’s studying to become an actuary–a business professional who deals with the financial impact of risk and uncertainty.  The irony doesn’t escape me.

Mason Sr. as an older man

 

Through it all, the movie focuses on his genuine interest in his children.

Watch this scene of his driving and trying to get a conversation going with his children:

 

He wants more than a surface relationship with them: the presents, the outings. He want to know his children. He wants a rich Love Map of their inner world. Too bad he didn’t work harder to map his wife’s inner life earlier in their relationship.

While Olivia achieved financial stability in her second marriage, she lost this investment in her children. Husband #2 lacked the deep capacity to treat his kids and step-kids as human–despite his advanced degrees in psychology. In contrast, Mason Sr. is what one would call a “mensch,” who grew up and into his sudden adult responsibilities a little too late to maintain his marriage.

Olivia should have waited for him.

Now if you think that’s just the lament of a marriage counselor, who believes that every marriage can be saved, you’re wrong. I was happy to see her leave Husband #2, because the marriage lacked any real human tenderness and connection. Perhaps it was the man’s alcoholism, perhaps his OCD, but even right after the honeymoon, there seemed to be no real passion. Perhaps for both, it was a marriage of convenience.

Olivia’s Husband #3

And she fared no better with Husband #3. He did initially hold more promise, with his tale of true interpersonal intelligence in sensitively dealing with the inhabitants of the town his troops were occupying. However, when he became an “invader” in his own house, after marrying Olivia, he seemed to resent it. Despite making most of the money, he was living with them, and he knew it. We see the “wounded warrior.” Working long hours in a prison setting probably didn’t help either. We saw very little of the interaction between he and Olivia, and we probably should be grateful.

Step-families need help, too.

Olivia went on to be a successful college professor in her own right, but continually struggled to pay her bills, as many single mothers do.

Mason Sr.’s Family #2

As so often happens in our society, Mason Sr. remarries and has a second family. His second wife seems calm and easy-going, and they have a baby. We see the entire family in a later scene at her parents’ home. Her parents are devout, politically conservative, gun-owning Christians. Mason Sr. simply keeps his mouth shut. We know from earlier in the film that he is decidedly neither, but he’s matured over the years. He knows better than to argue with his in-laws about politics and religion.

Despite this maturation, the suit he wears never really fits him, any time we see him in it. The Director is telling us something. It isn’t “him,” but he wears it anyway. But he hasn’t completely lost his dream of being a songwriter. He’s still writing songs. In one scene, new wife, baby, and the two kids now serenade her parents. It’s a song his wife and kids all know, and they sing along. The song is funny, clever and sweet, and they remind us all that he’s not given up his dream. He just devotes less time to it.

Mason Jr. Goes to College

Olivia remains single as the film ends, and Mason Jr. leaves for college. She’s selling the last home they’ve all lived in as a family, to enable her to pay for their colleges. Sam sulks and objects at this, and we can sympathize. But Olivia is clear that like so many mothers–pregnant suddenly, and at an early age–she still has years of living to do, and she can’t afford to do it, and pay college tuition at the same time, if she’s saddled with house payments.

Near the end of the movie, there is a graduation party for Mason Jr., and Olivia’s mother is talking to Mason Sr.’s Wife #2. She says: “You got him at a good time,” meaning her marriage to Mason Sr.

Sadness welled up in me hearing that, because I knew it was true.

I also wondered what sort of effort Mrs. Olivia Sr. put into supporting this fledgling couple. She, herself is never seen with a partner. Did her silent, but facially expressive sentiments (“Deadbeat!”) come across to her daughter while they were married? Was there any attempt by the extended family to figure out how to support this couple at a most fragile stage in their development as a couple?

In commenting on his life to his Dad, right before he leaves for college, Mason Jr. sums up his attitude towards his stepfathers:

“I could have done without the parade of drunks…”

Father and teenage son at his father's friend's band act.

I think he speaks for the majority of kids when he says that. Maybe not the drunk part, but most children still wish their parents had stayed married, particularly if there were “soft” reasons for divorcing.

Treating the Marriage That Died Before the Movie Started

And if Olivia and Mason Sr. walked through my door when the kids were 3 & 4, would I have been able to help them?

I think so.

I’d tell Olivia to “speak gently,” when she’s complaining. I’d encourage her to talk about the disappointments and stressors in her life, without blaming Mason. I’d want her to express her ambitions, and encourage her to see a world that still held promising; a future for both of them, beyond the hardship of just scraping by. So many young married people can only see “today,” and can’t imagine and don’t talk about “tomorrow.” I’d ask Mason Sr. to talk about his hopes and dreams of remaining an artist, while balancing his responsibilities to two small children.

I’d try to rekindle the brief symbiotic stage, (Bader & Pearson, 1988) during which they were blissfully in love. The unexpected pregnancy changed all that. The stress lead to resentments, and contempt got in the way of their early “Fondness and Admiration” (Gottman, 2011).

Attachment Styles

We get some clue, in a very early scene, that Olivia has her own attachment challenges. We watch her yell at, and tells off a date (who is upset that she canceled because of babysitting problems). This is the first tipped off to at least some of her own difficulties in intimate relationships: her history of harsh start-ups. Olivia is ambitious and impatient with the men in her life. And likely has her own internal struggles to stay even with her own emotional dysregulation.

And, she’s a great mother.

Olivia would have had to hang on to herself, calm herself, and remind herself that she had agency, and the strength to be gentle, not harsh, contemptuous or critical. She would have to learn to recognize in therapy that her attachment style was like a “Wave” (Tatkin, 2012), while Mason Sr. was like an “Island.”

“Waves” are generous, focused on caring for others, and happiest when around others, but they can run hot or cold in relationships, seeking constant reassurance from their partners, and lashing out when their needs aren’t fully met. Olivia needed Mason Sr.’s grounding, and reassurance that things would work out. Mason Sr. needed to tell her to “keep the faith,” but instead he did the “Island” thing, and withdrew in the face of her hostility.

An“Island” is an independent, self-reliant, and low maintenance attachment style, but in relationships they can be withholding and isolating. He needed to be called back by Olivia, and clinically urged to keep connection, and to stay engaged. But he also needed, like most Islands, some “space,” to recharge.

And Mason needed his art, as well as a job.

Fondness & Admiration/ Turning Toward

And in therapy the couple would learn how to “Turn Towards” (Gottman, 2011) each other in everyday life, rather than Mason Sr.’s natural tendency to distance under stress. He’s have to learn to express his appreciation and gratitude to Olivia, instead of taking things for granted. He’d have to be a mutually responsible co-partner in the exhausting work of being a parent. He’d have to give to her, when it was inconvenient for him to do so (Bader & Pearson, 1988).

Perhaps you can see the interdependence this requires: both needing to work together to help the other emotionally, as well as materially. The therapist acts as educator, guide, and cheerleader all rolled up in one.

Summary

The movie was shocking in its normality. I cried several times during the film, and my husband teared up during other scenes.

As we watch Mason Jr. begin his college life, his first day in his dorm, I doubt few of us who made it to college would not resonate with that scene, and thought back to that time in our own lives. We see in those 12 years, all of our own decades unfolding before our eyes in this story. All the false starts, the missed opportunities, and the roads we took that were the most clearly marked and well-traveled. But the movie reminds us that life is also somehow forgiving. It is a human path, nonetheless. And often those same roads were quietly walked before us, by our ancestors or great ancestors.

This is one of the profound lessons from family systems therapy.

While we never met, and will never know our ancestors, they continue to influence our very way we love others. They’ve shaped our thinking so profoundly that many of us, like Olivia, will walk without a partner, but still be connected emotionally by pain, to all her past intimate relationships. She’s still easily able to recall her hurt, and disappointment at her first husband who let her down so profoundly. We see that in her face, when he offers her money to help pay for Mason Jr.’s graduation party, but has no money in his wallet. We see her exasperation as he walks away to ask his new wife for the cash.

All of our attachments, even painful ones, live on. And they shape the lives of our children who are touched by them.

The movie touched me profoundly.

Let me know if it had the same impact on you.

Film Details:

Rated: R, Drama Richard Linklater

Jul 11, 2014 Limited

IFC Films – Official Site External Icon

Next Portrait of a Marriage – Wounds that Won’t Heal

About the Author Dr. K

Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her Intensive Couples Therapy practice on the edge of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts.

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