Got relationship issues? You’re not alone.
This is 40, director/writer Judd Apatow’s fourth-feature film, provides a glimpse into an aging Generation-X couple dragged kicking and screaming into middle-age. Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd) have been married around fifteen years and find themselves faced with a series of successes and disappointments as the titular birthday approaches: two healthy children, a luxurious home, impending financial trouble, and unresolved parental resentments. Sometimes it’s easier to watch other people struggle with their marriage on film, isn’t it?
I’ll leave it to the professionals to parse out the cinematic merits of the film—it has received a mixed reception from most critics— but I thought it useful to examine Pete and Debbie’s relationship as it relates to the struggles I encounter in my work with couples.
It’s worth mentioning that Pete and Debbie are remarkable in ways that rarely exist outside of a screen-writer's pen. Both are distractingly attractive and are currently pursuing their dream job without much struggle—Debbie oversees her own boutique while Pete runs an independent record label. Yet over the course of the film, the two find themselves struggling with recognizable conflicts common when couples begin counseling: ineffective communication, parental disagreements, triangulation, sexual difficulties, and impending mortality. While the characters reference attending couples counseling (“that’s pricey!” is Pete’s response to Debbie’s suggestion of weekly meetings), it is never shown on screen. Given what we do see, Debbie and Pete’s relationship and their work in therapy is decidedly a work in progress.
We all come to relationships having amassed a lifetime’s worth of expectations about who we’d like our partner to be and how we believe they should act (the reality of these expectations is another conversation). Much of what comprises this internal checklist relates to exposure. What types of relationships did we grow up around? Did the adults in our life properly model how to treat a spouse (and ourselves) with dignity and respect or did they normalize aggression and hostility? This is 40 does a nice job demonstrating the cyclical nature of behavior; how what we witness in our parents’ relationship affects us and how those traits are, more often than not, reflected in the next generation. On the surface, Debbie and Pete’s lives are (mostly) unrecognizable to that of their fathers (mothers are neither seen nor heard from)—played by Albert Brooks and John Lithgow— but both struggle to break the same maladaptive patterns they witnessed during childhood.
If Pete and Debbie came to see me for couples counseling, I would expect our work to be challenging yet fruitful. The couple has developed a caustic tone when arguing so learning to de-escalate their language would be important. Both characters lean on familiar resentments and broad generalizations that allow minor disagreements to become bruising, spiteful attacks. As the film progresses, this causes conflict-adverse Pete to hide things from Debbie, resulting in a decreased level of trust and puts her in a position to constantly play the heavy. Both leave each disagreement feeling exhausted, dissatisfied and ignored.
Does this sound familiar?
Identifying this behavior—and recognizing how it fails to achieve their mutual goals—could be the impetus toward constructing new ways of relating.
When I left the theater, I was struck by how inattentive Debbie and Pete were to each other’s interests. Pete, an avid music lover, is shown attending a financially important concert alone. He and Debbie, a character whose personal interests are unknown, seemingly share no hobbies, activities or similar comforts. It left me questioning whether these two had drifted from what initially brought them together or if these commonalities had ever existed. What did they see as the cause of their growing apart? Without identifying what they’d like to be different within their relationship, it’s unlikely they’d be successful instituting any substantial changes.
The couple’s brief vacation left me more hopeful, since it provided a space where Pete and Debbie could take themselves out of their everyday roles—small business owners and parents, to name a few—and re-connect with parts of themselves they had neglected. That this re-connection was hinged upon medical-marijuana and binging on room service likely warrants a blog post of its own.