Spoiler Alert: Some details below reveal plot points in the film, so you might not want to read this until after you’ve seen the film.

Before Midnight, in theaters now, is the third in director Richard Linklater’s trilogy, following Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). Starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who are also credited for the screenplay, Before Midnight, according to one review, “offers intelligent, powerfully acted perspectives on love, marriage, and long-term commitment.” Critics seem to love this film. It is very rare that Rotten Tomatoes will give a 98% fresh report on any film these days.

Reviewers have picked up on the realism of the film’s long conversations between Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke). You may have had similar feelings watching The Break-Up (2006) with Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston, which was widely known to make couples squirm in their seats by the realism of their ordinary, everyday fights. Commenting on Before Midnight, Steven Rea, of the Philadelphia Inquirer says the film “offers a remarkably intimate and provocative study of a marriage.” And Ty Burr, of the Boston Globe, remarks:

If the first two films belong with the greatest (if talkiest) movie romances of all time, the new film is richer, riskier, and more bleakly perceptive about what it takes for love to endure (or not) over the long haul.

Cary Darling, of the Dallas Morning News writes:

How Jesse and Celine try to rekindle that flame is what drives Midnight, a film that feels so authentic it’s like overhearing a conversation you’re not sure you should be hearing.

But it is precisely this realism that I found so depressing after thinking about the film. Now, before I go further, I want to be very clear that I think this film is brilliant: real, funny, sad, well-acted, beautifully shot, poignant. But, (and on this my husband thinks I am crazy)- I felt sorry for both lead characters because they simply do not know how to communicate respectfully with one another. They love each other, they have built a shared life together, and yet it might all fall apart because each does not feel loved and treasured and valued by the other. They have real conflict, but they can’t have a deep and respectful conversation about their conflict. They are growing apart because they can’t share their vulnerabilities with one another. They have sex but not intimacy.

I found myself thinking that Celine and Jesse could benefit from couple’s therapy with Dr. John Gottman, whose writings I use in my course on Sexual Ethics in the unit on Communication. If you are rolling your eyes already, then maybe you should not read on. But if you’ve seen the fight scene of this film, and you are trying to figure out why it bugged you so much, maybe the rest of this post will help you to sort out your own conflicting feelings about the characters and what we can all learn from this film.

The central conversation between Celine and Jesse covers heavy topics: ageing, identity, politics, family, parenting, regret, job-related stress, discernment about where to live, and how to best fulfill one’s vocation in the workplace at the same time as fulfill one’s vocation/obligation to children. These are real issues, and they deserve attention in any couple’s conversations. But in the fight scene of this film, these thorny issues are handled with sarcasm, biting criticism, personal attacks, and confusion.  It is a roller coaster of a conversation, which might work well for the drama of a film, but ultimately it shows us an unhealthy pattern of communication.

Both characters have deep insecurities. For Jesse, these relate to his job as a writer but also to feelings of regret in his personal life. His son lives with his ex-wife in Chicago, while Jesse, Celine, and their two daughters live in Paris. Jesse wonders how he can be a better father, and regrets that he lives so far from his son. Jesse says he loves Celine and is committed to her. But his primary way of showing his love is to tell her she is sexy. Celine has her own deep insecurities. She is unhappy in her job, and resentful of the work of parenting and homemaking that she does not think is shared equally between her and Jesse. She sees herself as a feminist who has fallen into the trap of playing the submissive housewife, and is deeply unfulfilled by the role. She loves her daughters, but wants something more from her life. Oh yeah, and she suspects that Jesse was unfaithful. So, the couple is on holiday in Greece, and they have a night to spend together “just the two of them.” Friends are watching their daughters, and have given them a free night at a luxurious hotel.

So what might John Gottman have to say to Celine and Jesse?

First, conflict in any loving relationship is inevitable. Conflict is not bad in itself. But conflict can be managed in healthy ways, or used in destructive ways. Conflict avoidance is not healthy in relationships and can lead to long-term resentments (because you might not tell your partner what you really feel if your goal is to avoid conflict altogether). Gottman talks about “managing” conflict instead of “resolving” conflict because conflict about both small everyday disagreements as well as big life-changing decisions is natural in an intimate relationship.

That said, there are good ways and bad ways of handling conflict. Gottman describes the Four Horsemen as four patterns of communication that are destructive of the fabric of a loving relationship. They are:

  1. Criticism.   Criticism attacks your partner’s character. You state the problem in the relationship as a defect in your partner. “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.” In Gottman’s research, he has found that women are more likely than men engage in this unhealthy behavior (and are sometimes unable to recognize it in themselves because they tell themselves they are just being “honest” with their partner). Gottman says that in this pattern, person might see herself as diagnosing her partner’s personality defects. And she thinks she should be appreciated for this! She might think she is doing her partner a favor, hoping her partner agrees, and says something like “You are so wise, thank you for pointing out this major flaw in my charcter.” Instead, criticism most often leads to defensiveness.
  2. Defensiveness. Defensiveness is how you protect yourself by denying the problem your partner has described. You say, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” You counter-attack instead of recognizing any complicity in the problem. Another pattern of defensiveness is whining. “You don’t really love me, you don’t listen to me…” You set yourself up as the pure victim in the relationship.
  3. Contempt. Contempt is communicated by statements that make you seem superior to your partner. You talk down to your partner. You use sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, mockery, or hostile humor.  Gottman and his research team say that contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce (bad news for Celine and Jesse!). Gottman uses an example of contempt: correcting your partner’s grammar during a fight. Your partner says “I could care less…” And you interrupt, saying, “Honey, actually, that doesn’t make sense. What you should say is “I couldn’t care less…”
  4. Stonewalling. Stonewalling is withdrawal from the conversation, checking out emotionally. In Gottman’s research, he has found that men are more likely than women to engage in this unhealthy behavior. Gottman also labels this as a “turning away” from bids for emotional connection, which is an unhealthy pattern in an intimate relationship. The stonewaller does not give cues that s/he is listening. No eye contact, no head nodding, no verbal vocalizations like “yeah,” or “uh-huh.” Gottman says that the internal monologue of the stonewaller usually goes something like “Just calm down, don’t react, wow did he really just say that, settle down, this will be over soon…”

Can you recall examples of these patterns of behavior in Celine and Jesse’s fight? The good news, for Celine and Jesse and other couples who recognize these patterns in their own relationships, is that there are antidotes to the Four Horsemen. Gottman calls these the “master” relationships in contrast to the “disaster” relationships. He suggests:

  1. Complain without blame. Take about your feelings using I statements and then express a positive need. Thomas and Kathleen Hart offer similar advice: Instead of saying “You never do anything around here. You never help with the kids, or the laundry, or the dishes!” You can say “I feel overburdened with the household chores and sometimes I resent it.” The benefit of this approach is that it lets your mate in on your inner world, and does not pronounce judgment about who is wrong, but leaves the question open.  There are four basic I-statements: I think, I feel, I want, and I need. Thomas and Kathleen Hart explain that these I-statements are positive steps in self-assertion and indicate an underlying self-respect. “All of them make me vulnerable to you. They do not state what is right, nor do they make a demand. They simply tell you who I am and what is going on with me right now. If you are willing to make similar self-revelation, we have the materials for really learning to care for one another.” Gottman suggests that couples raise issues in a nonconfrontational way by pretending that the issue is an invisible soccer ball that they will kick around for a few minutes. If you think of a problem in this way, you are externalizing the problem and can raise it gently, without placing blame on your partner. You can de-personalize the conflict.
  2. Accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict. Instead of getting defensive in order to protect your own feelings, or going on the counter-attack, try really listening to your partner’s complaint, and accept responsibility for the part of the problem that is really your responsibility. Or de-escalate the conflict by saying, “Interesting. Tell me more about how you see the problem.” “I’m sorry for the hurt I’ve caused.” “That didn’t come out right, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” “It was insensitive of me.” “I misunderstood you.”
  3. Build a culture of appreciation. The antidote to contempt is gratitude, practiced daily. When  your relationship has a foundation of respect and appreciation, you can better weather the times of conflict. This means telling your partner every day what you appreciate, even little things. It means giving genuine compliments. It means not taking your partner for granted. Gottman gives examples like telling your partner “I love watching you play with the kids.” “I’m proud of the way you handled that teacher conference.” “Thanks for doing the dishes.” “It helps that you are so organized.” “I wish I had your patience.”
  4. Take a break when you are flooded. Many people stonewall when they can’t handle the present experience of conflict, but they don’t want to explode in anger. If you find yourself feeling physically flushed, with a racing heartbeat, you are flooded. Practicing physiological self-soothing through deep breathing and other techniques can be very helpful. But it can also be good to just take a twenty minute break. In that twenty minutes, don’t brood and obsess over the argument. Try to calm down by taking a walk, doing something that distracts you, or something that you know is soothing. The benefit of this practice is that you can return to the discussion with a significantly lower heart rate and a greater sense of calm.

Gottman counsels his readers and listeners to understand that healthy patterns of communication are not just about following rules like the ones above, but that the foundation of a healthy relationship is a life of shared meaning.  He says that the quality of friendship is the most important.

In the Catholic Rite of Marriage, couples on their wedding day pledge to one another:

I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.

I will be true to you. I will love you. I will honor you.

The hard part, of course, is living out this commitment in the midst of everyday stresses. But I would suggest that any couple who takes their vows seriously should at least want to learn healthy patterns of communication. Depending on our own family backgrounds and the patterns of communication that we have witnessed in our parents or friends’ relationships, we might fall into patterns that are unhealthy but we might not recognize them as such because they seem normal and natural. If you watched Celine and Jesse fight, and like the reviewers above simply thought it was a good dose of realism, maybe this post can help you think about another, more positive way of communicating with your partner, even on the heavy issues or difficult topics.