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5 Lessons We Can All Take Away from Malcolm & Marie

Last weekend I, along with just about everyone else I knew, watched the long-anticipated film, Malcolm and Marie on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it yet, please stop reading this and come back later, as I will be sharing some spoilers. If you have seen it, I am curious to know if you will have the same takeaways as I do. As a couple and family therapist watching a film that clearly depicted common – and sometimes abusive – relationship patterns, I had so many thoughts and reactions while watching. So much so, that I had to watch it again to gather my thoughts. It was a beautifully created film; Zendaya and John David Washington did an amazing job at bringing these two characters to life. There were many scenes that I found to be relatable, whether from my clinical or personal experience. So here are a few of my takeaways from the relationship depicted in the film, not the film itself. Because as Malcolm said during the movie, “cinema doesn’t need to have a message, it just needs to have a heart.” 

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Two words can go a long way

The most salient message I took from the film is the importance of acknowledging and appreciating those we love. Had Malcolm stated the two magic words at his movie premiere, this argument probably would not have happened. Or at the very least, would have been delayed. Throughout the entire film, all Marie was asking for was some gratitude, some acknowledgement that his movie would not have been as successful if it weren’t for her and her input. According to well known marriage therapist and researcher, Dr. John Gottman, “fondness and admiration are two of the most crucial elements in a rewarding and long-lasting romance.” When it feels as if your partner does not appreciate what you do, or how you contribute to the relationship, it can lead to built up emotions of resentment and frustration. Those emotions were clearly present in both of the characters. One of my favorite scenes was Marie sharing examples of what Malcolm could have said to express his appreciation. Most of her examples were simple, which goes to show that it doesn’t take much to show gratitude. As she expressed them, you could tell how much she wished those words would have come out of his mouth instead. Malcolm apologized profusely, but it took the man one hour and forty minutes into the movie to finally say what she needed to hear all along: thank you.

As Zendaya stated in her post on Instagram, “If there’s anything to learn from this year, and I hope from our little movie, it’s gratitude for every moment and every person we get to love. To stop and acknowledge the people in our lives who make it possible to do the work we do and honestly, make life worth living. It comes in many forms and sometimes it’s just a thank you.”

Nothing productive comes from speaking out of anger

Before the argument even began, it was clear that Marie was upset. However, she specifically stated “I promise you it’s not a good idea. Let’s just talk tomorrow…nothing productive is going to be said tonight.” She was completely right! Throughout the entire film, both partners continued to intentionally state destructive and disrespectful things to hurt each other. Granted, one partner said far worse than the other in my opinion. But, the fact remains that both of them began to cut the other with their words. 

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When emotions are extremely high, nothing productive can be said because you are not able to hear your partner over your own pain. Everything they say may be clouded by your judgment and misinterpreted. In Malcolm’s case he was so busy focusing on this being his night and how he was being seen as a filmmaker, that he didn’t care to recognize how his lack of appreciation or fight for her was making Marie feel. Since he felt attacked, he in turn went on the attack, and added to her pain by saying things out of anger. The worst part is when we are angry, we may say things we don’t intend to. But once our anger subsides, that doesn’t mean the words we spewed do as well. What we may have said out of frustration, is now stuck with our partner. Even if we didn’t mean what we say, words can’t be taken back nor are they easy for the other person to forget or let go. 

The common cycle of toxic relationships

It didn’t take too long into the movie to recognize that Malcolm and Marie’s relationship patterns are unhealthy. Gaslighting was the first red flag that I noticed. Marie had already acknowledged that though she was upset, nothing positive would come from discussing her emotions that night and it would be best to let it go. Malcolm continued to push the issue, and once she finally told him what was bothering her, he ended up calling her the unstable and delusional one. Another red flag was that he proceeded to not only throw her mental health challenges and history of substance abuse in her face, but her suicide attempt as well. Having a partner who makes you feel guilty for your mental health experiences is never a good sign. This is not to say that Malcolm was the only one contributing to their toxic cycle. It seemed as if both partners did not know how to use time outs, or regulate their emotions without making their partner feel guilty. It felt as if they were purposefully deciding to not choose peace, and keep the argument going. After moments of volatility, they would act as if nothing happened or ignore what the other person had just said. 

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Malcolm told Marie that she just needed a reason to be needed, and that’s why she would tear him down. But it seemed to me that he did the same. He suggested that she can’t accept the fact that there is someone on the planet that loves her, despite her not loving herself. Yet, I questioned if he truly loved her due to his actions. He often stated “I love you Marie” throughout the movie, but his actions seemed to show otherwise. I was reminded that love is not merely words, but choices and actions as well. 

The “what-if” factor

In the film, Marie defines the “what-if factor” as what supports the tension of a relationship and forces partners to be the best versions of themselves for one another. In a sense, the thought of “what if my partner leaves me, or finds someone else?” sometimes pushes us to remind our partners how much we love and care for them. Esther Perel, a well known couples therapist and expert in intimacy and infidelity, often discusses the paradox between how what is needed to build a long-lasting relationship differs from what keeps a relationship passionate and desirable. She argues that mystery and the threat of infidelity can strengthen a relationship. When we begin to take our partner’s presence for granted, or become blind to our flaws, then we assume our partner will always be there, or thinks we can do no wrong. Like Marie stated, “as a result of never doubting yourself, you never stop to ask yourself how can I be a better partner.” In order to grow, especially in relationships, you have to be open to the fact that there is always room for improvement. 

Music can expresses what you can’t find words to say

It is no secret that music is often a tool used to express our emotions. I noticed it had a substantial role in the film, after both characters used a song to express their feelings. When Marie first expressed her disappointment from the night, Malcolm played “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” by William Bell. That was his way of apologizing for being so focused on himself and his work, that he forgot to be there in the way she needed. And when it was Marie’s turn to attempt to break the tension between them, she played “Get Rid of Him” by Dionne Warwick, to remind Malcolm that even though there are reasons she should get rid of him, she doesn’t want to let him go. While playing the songs didn’t necessarily resolve anything, it was a reminder of how much art can be representative of our inner thoughts and emotions. The end of the film leaves us with the song “Liberation” by Outkast. Though you are left unsure of the status of Malcolm and Marie’s relationship at the end of the movie, it makes me wonder if the song choice symbolizes the freedom that they have found. Whether it is by getting all of their feelings towards each other out in the open, so they are now free to be their authentic selves, or being free from each other, liberation seemed like the perfect word to describe the moment. In any case, it seemed that their one night of arguing can either lead them down a path of recognizing they are not the one for each other, or what they need to do to be better for one another.