View from the Couch: Blue Valentine

July 3, 2011 4 Comments


This month’s View from the Couch is provided by Dr. Charles Burch, a psychoanalyst and lecturer at the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute.  He is in private practice in Farmington Hills and Ann Arbor.  He works with individuals and couples.

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Blue Valentine

by Dr. Charles Burch

The opening scene of this compelling and wrenching film, in which Frankie is searching and repeatedly calling for “Megan”, foreshadows much that will follow.  At first, it’s unclear who is missing but we know it can’t be good.  Frankie finds her Dad, Dean, who both comforts her, engages with her in the search for their beloved dog, then uses one of primary coping skills, humor, to help Frankie calm her worry that something terrible has happened to Megan.  The empty hobby horse, the empty road, the pleading voice let us know we’re not in for a joy ride.

When we meet Dean and Cindy, they are several years into a marriage with their roles being fulfilled in ways familiar to us.  We witness a hurried breakfast scene, rushing off to work, and loving good-byes.  It’s clear early on that Dean is the “fun” parent, but also one who connects with Frankie’s needs in ways that Cindy, for whatever reason, is not in that scene.  He knows that oatmeal needs hot water, otherwise it does taste “yucky.”  He also exhorts Cindy to put her seat belt on but no avail.

In short order, we learn that Megan has been hit and killed, as Cindy discovers her lying on the side of the road. We see the devastation this causes both Cindy and Dean and it is as though the one piece of the puzzle that was holding together this fragile union is now dead.

The film mirrors a therapeutic setting in certain key ways.  If Dean and Cindy were to enter couples therapy after their disastrous night in the “Future Room,” one would meet a couple in deep despair and with little hope of salvaging such an endangered relationship.  Both parties were intensely hurt, feeling wounded beyond belief and yet Dean kept plugging on blindly, refusing to believe Cindy is done with the relationship.  In therapy, we would likely fill in their stories, as the movie does in flashbacks that make clear this was not a relationship founded on the mutual love of both parties, but on the rescue of Cindy from a dreadful mistake of passion, getting pregnant by having unsafe sex with the seductive Bobby.

The core asymmetry between Dean and Cindy is seared into us repeatedly.  Dean, a tragic clown in the Pagliacci tradition, achieves his dream in life of having Cindy, a family and a steady job.  Cindy is at the early stages of exploring her own ambitions but now is saddled with a husband she no longer loves.  His enchanting rendition of “You only hurt the ones you love,” makes his later clowning around and panic filled attempts to hold onto Cindy as painful to watch as it is to sit with a couple in the office when one tells the other that he or she is done and is filing for divorce.

My take: Cindy’s emptiness and her need for something more than Dean can give cannot be remedied in marital treatment alone.  Her life growing up in a family in which her parents appeared to be locked in a sado-masochistic, life draining relationship is the template from which she’s trying to break away.  The tragedy is that Dean truly loves her and Frankie deeply.  One wonders how he came by that capacity for love and empathy.  At the same time, he has the subtlety of a sledge hammer in trying to woo Cindy back toward him.  Drunken sex isn’t going to do it. Neither is she impressed by his tearing up the doctor’s office.   Cindy, however, cannot make this life work.  We are not privy to the core of her depression, whether it’s a marriage to the wrong man, the decision to have the child ill conceived or issues that a therapist might uncover with her.  We do know her solution: get out.

The film also makes clear, however, that while the two adults may recognize that they are not well matched, there is a vulnerable child present who needs and loves them both.  Their adult relationship is a train wreck but their divorce will bring a greater loss than that of the death of Megan into Frankie’s life.

Bottom line: they need couples treatment and individual treatment, even though it’s a long shot effort in terms of saving the marriage.

View from the Couch
4 Comments to “View from the Couch: Blue Valentine”
  1. Bruce Russell says:

    Chuck: I say that Cindy genuinely loved Dean in the beginning. You say that theirs was a relationship “not founded on the mutual love of both parties.” But Cindy did seem to love Dean in the beginning. The wedding scene is the best evidence for this. Cindy’s conversation with her grandmother shows that she is afraid that she, like her parents and grandmother, might fall in love and then see it “just disappear.” Her grandmother tells her all she can do is try. I think she does and finds herself repeating the history of the women in her family.
    The scene at the motel shows how Cindy and Dean talk past each other. Neither understands what the other means by “developing your potential.” Maybe therapy could held them not to talk past each other. Maybe their relationship is hopelessly lost, but there is a tender moment between them when Dean cries after burying Megan and Cindy comforts him. Is there am ember of love left in Cindy’s heart? And why does Cindy say that she is more of a man than Dean when they fight at the medical center? (It prompts him to start throwing stuff on the floor and to hit the doctor, like a “real man” would.) Maybe it’s because she thinks he doesn’t have a “real” job because he doesn’t have a career. That might be worth exploring in therapy!

  2. Julie Jaffee Nagel says:

    haven’t seen film, but this review is sensitive and evocative…….

  3. jwwmo4 says:

    I posted a somewhat similar comment on the Phlosopher’s POV, but I wonder if you think that the sentiments expressed in the song Dean sings to Cindy “You ALWAYS Hurt the One You Love” could be explored and worked with in a therapeutic setting…why DO they both seem to operate this way with each other?(We would guess or surmise that they both have boatloads of prior hurts dating back from chlldhood) Or is it just an inevitable part of any loving relationship that is indeed nearly(?) impossible to negociate?

  4. charles burch says:

    Bruce, you’re right that there were affectionate and tender feelings between Cindy and Dean earlier on in their relationship. My take is that it did not develop into a sustaining love for Cindy, the kind of mature love that both partners need to weather the many storms that come with marriage and family. Dean appeared comfortable and able to do that as he had achieved his dream, whereas Cindy was just awakening to her possibilities a few years into marriage and motherhood.
    We are left to so much speculation as to the underpinnings of their internal life, that it’s nearly anyone’s guess as to why Cindy “fell out of love.” Perhaps, given her miserable earlier family life, she is still searching for the ideal partner, not the ordinary devoted working guy Dean appears to be, who will provide the healing experience she longs for.

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