A therapist’s take on “The Notebook”

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The movie The Notebook is meant to be a touching story following the life of a young couple who meet, fall in love, break-up, find each other again and ultimately grow old together. In the movie, we are shown that in old age the woman develops Alzheimer’s which, sadly, prevents her from remembering anything about her life.  Consequently, her loving husband spends all his time reading to her from his notebook about the story of their young courtship and romance from years past, in the hope it will spark her memory so that they can reunite again in the present,  if only for a few short minutes.

To be fair, the movie is well-done theatrically and the actors are very good in their roles. Also, I really enjoy seeing a movie that at least in part highlights a love-story between two people well into their golden years, since love stories in the movies almost exclusively depict young people.

However, it is amazing to me that a movie with such sentimental and tender themes is also a movie that I find so full of classically unhealthy messages about relating, and I question the impact these common Hollywood romantic themes have on people’s expectations and beliefs about real-life love relationships.  I grew-up watching many movies with similar themes over the years, and it certainly set me up as a young adult to have some very unrealistic expectations about love and relating. Some of these themes are so well worn that even today I have have to question what is realistic, and what is a deeply embedded cultural fantasy that feels good but isn’t healthy or sustainable.

The following are six myths about love and relating that I see depicted in The Notebook, though this one movie is certainly only one of many Hollywood movies that highlight similar themes.

Myth #1 Real Love is a Roller Coaster

In the movie The Notebook, this couple’s romance is a roller coaster ride from the very beginning. Indeed, it’s on a Ferris Wheel at an amusement park where her husband-to-be first pursues a date with the movie’s leading lady, as he hangs precariously from a dangerous height,  refusing to take her repeated ‘no’ for an answer and he keeps it up until she finally gives in and agrees to go out with him. When they reunite toward the middle of the movie it’s only because he orchestrates and manipulates his reappearance in her life. Also, there are key scenes showing the young couple arguing and fighting with one another with great intensity.  They seem to either love  each other or hate each other.  It’s all or nothing. This is dramatic entertainment at it’s best, and it looks great on screen, but real love is not a roller coaster ride of dramatic ups & downs. In real life, all indications point to this kind of dramatic, topsy-turvy relationship as being indicative of emotional immaturity.  The results of which do not lead to Happily Ever After for a couple, but to long-term dysfunctional relationship patterns unless they do a lot of growing-up.  Hollywood is expert at making romantic angst and drama look appealing, but in real life, drama has very little to do with sustainable love and healthy relating.

Myth #2 Romantic Love Can Fix Serious Mental Health Issues

In The Notebook, pressure is put on the young lovers  to break-up and go their separate ways. Later, the now more mature young man is shown returning from his tour of duty in the war. He is edgy and obsessive, and at times irrational and even threatening in his interactions with others. He is unpredictable, and struggling with what appears to be serious depression and alcoholism.    Having just returned from the war, where he witnessed horror and suffered great loss, he is likely suffering with symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. And yet the movie story-line would have you believe this young man’s erratic behavior and drinking is simply due to the fact that he is love-sick for his long lost girlfriend whom he hasn’t heard from in years. His mental health issues are attributed to a broken-heart.  Hollywood loves this theme! As this well-worn story-line goes, once he gets his girlfriend back, all these serious mental health symptoms just…POOF!…disappear.  We are led to believe this couple will then live happily ever, raising a family and growing old together.  As a practicing therapist I can tell you that young and old alike come into my office crushed and shocked to find that a romantic love affair didn’t cure their partner’s mental health issues, or their own!  People really believe  that a love affair will fix serious  mental health issues.

Thanks, Hollywood.

In real life, a love affair, no matter how intense, does not fix or cure mental illness, addiction or emotional immaturity. In most cases, when closeness is attempted while a person has these kinds of issues,  once the honeymoon phase wears off, the demands of intimacy will acutually trigger and exacerbate underlying mental health issues. That is correct, not only does romantic love fail to fix mental health issues, it often makes the symptoms worse! That is not to say someone with mental health issues can’t get better. Of course they can! The leading man in this movie CAN get better, and having the loving support of many different people can assist his healing, but he would have to first recognize that he has a problem and want to get better for himself.   Serious symptoms will not just go away because of a love affair, though they may be masked for a short period of time during a honeymoon phase.  The problem is, a honeymoon phase is not sustainable, and eventually the symptoms will come roaring back only with the added pressure and responsibility of an intimate relationship.

Myth #3 All’s Fair in Love And War 

In the movie, when the couple is shown going their separate ways, as time goes by the leading lady eventually becomes very happily engaged to another man for whom she has much more in common with because they come from similar backgrounds.  In deed, she and her ex-boyfriend were separated in part due to family tensions because their socioeconomic backgrounds were vastly different.  With her new beau, her family is fully accepting and delighted about the pairing, and she is shown happily planning her wedding to her fiancé…that is until her ex-boyfriend (our leading man) suddenly reappears in her life. Overnight, she has a change of heart and her upcoming wedding doesn’t prevent her from lying to her fiancé and heading over to see her ex-boyfriend in a distant town where the two of them promptly end-up in bed together. Prior to this manufactured reunion, our leading man is drinking too much and sleeping with an attractive young war-widow, though he makes it clear to the young widow that he has no feelings for her and insists he has nothing to offer her.   At least he is honest. These two leading characters are very self-absorbed, exhibit poor emotion management, poor impulse control, and show a striking lack of empathy or concern for the impact their actions have on others.  Hollywood packages all of this in a way that makes it seem reasonable and even endearing, but in real life these actions speak to a person’s underlying value system and character.

Myth #4 Love and Chemistry Are One And The Same

What this couple shares most prominently is a very strong sexual chemistry.  Unfortunately, a relationship is not sustained by sexual chemistry alone.  Relying on sexual chemistry (a very intense biologically driven feeling state that comes and goes) to sustain a relationship is like showing-up for a party but taking off as soon as there’s some work to be done.  It takes very little effort to fall in love, that is why it’s called ‘falling’. Sexual chemistry and the sex drive is nature’s way of making sure we bond and procreate, it makes sure we show-up to the party.   In real life, falling in love or experiencing the feeling of sexual chemistry is super easy as we are wired for the experience as it taps into primitive attachment patterns we have since birth. But sustaining love is not just about a feeling-state; it takes thought, conscious choice, effort and practice to sustain real love.

Myth #5 Abusive Behavior Between Couples Is Passionate And Sexy

In a break-up scene the girl ends-up hitting her lover and slapping him repeatedly with impressive force, and she does this while switching wildly back and forth between screaming in anger at him, then sobbing and begging him not to break-up with her. What we are viewing here is physical and emotional abuse.  I doubt very few people view this scene as domestic violence, but that’s exactly what it is.

By watching this scene, girls and young women learn that if you really love a man, the way to behave when experiencing conflict is to loose complete control of your emotions, scream at him and attack him physically.  This girl is so out of control in this scene, and she rails against him and hits him so forcefully, that in the real world, this young man would have very likely lost his temper and eventually hit her back or at least try to defend himself.  In real life, if he lost his temper and hit or restrained her,  she may very well get injured. In real life, these kinds of exchanges usually lead to injury and police involvement. This is a Hollywood movie, so our hero keeps his cool and no real life consequences are shown, but in real life, this scene is a huge red flag for this couple.

The movie also leads us to believe that this is just a one-time incident, but in real life, this kind of volatility usually happens repeatedly between couples and escalates into more extreme violence over time.  In real life, verbal and physical violence toward a loved-one is not sexy or passionate, it is unhealthy and it is dangerous. That Hollywood packages such a scene as romantic and passionate is truly frightening.

Myth #6 Real Love Means Isolating Yourself 

At the end of the movie when the couple has grown old, we are shown their grown children coming to visit their parents at the care facility where they live together.  Of course their mother doesn’t recognize her adult children because of her dementia, so in a sense they have already lost her, and if that isn’t difficult enough, they have lost their father, too.   In this scene, his children and his grandchild are shown asking him to please come home.  But our leading man’s response is “no, my place is with my sweetheart.”  Instead of spending at least some time with other loved ones, he sits and reads to his sweetheart who doesn’t recognize him anymore, day after day.  In all likelihood this man has been missing from his own life, and his children’s lives, for years.  Again, the intent of the scene is to highlight how genuinely committed this man is to his wife, by highlighting what he is willing to sacrifice for his sweetheart. His devotion is touching and it is meant to pull at our heartstrings, and it certainly does.

Indeed, I will probably anger some readers in what I have to say next.

In real life, love is about balance.  This man’s continued self-involvement with reliving his big “love affair” has resulted in a sacrifice he is not even aware of and it involves others in his life that love him and want to share time with him too, including his own children and grandchildren. It is heartbreaking to see this man say no to his children and grandchildren.  This man could be spending at least part of his time with his family and grandchildren, who love him and miss him.  His wife is a very important person in his life, but he has lost balance and has made her the only person of importance in his life.  This man could be spending some time not just with other family members who love him, too, but also with his own friends (does he even have any?) or participating in endeavors that give meaning to his life. He could be spending at least part of his time volunteering or mentoring or teaching or otherwise passing on his wisdom to the next generation, as well as sharing time with his beloved wife.

Instead, he chooses to sit day after day and read to a woman who no longer remembers him, reliving over and over again an adolescent love affair that took place decades ago. For this he cannot give-up some time for his own children, grandchildren, or strike a balance that would allow him to participate in a full life?  This is not healthy, and when or lives are out of balance, it’s not love, though Hollywood would have us believe it is.  If what we are doing is grossly out of balance, it is more likely dependence, addiction, obsession, or self-absorption, and none of those things are love.

It is usually this movies final ending that leaves people crying, but the scene where he say’s no to his family is by far the saddest scene in the movie to me. 

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