Intimate Re1atioDShips iD Movies
"The Story of Us"
Interpersonal Communication
Barbara CaIltisallO
December 3, 2009
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"Isn't this the moment when one of us is supposed to say, look, this is ridiculous, we love each other, all couples go through this, let's give it another by?" he asks. She gets out of the car without saying a word... In "The Story of Us" after 15 years of marriage, Ben (Bruce Willis) is still the free-spirited person he has always been, while Katie (Michele Pfeiffer) is left to handle life's little problems. When their two children go to summer camp they face their most important decision - do they end their story or begin a new chapter? Their first step is to separate while their children are away, which is marked by the dialogue described above. This paper will look at their relationship by tracing the different developmental phases, the types of love each person uses, and how they deal with the Ten Commandments of Clean Communication. It will also highlight a few aspects from the textbook chapters that deal with the Dynamics of Interpersonal Communication and Communication Climate that I felt related to the story the most. "People change; people don't change" Ben and Katie met while he was working as a writer and she was hired as a temp. As part of the attraction theory aut the matching hypothesis, I believe that they seek out each other for being in a similar attractiveness range (we're talking about Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis herel). I do not think that they changed a great deal through the years - she starts out as a perfectionist Cantisano 2
and he is more of a free spirit, but it seems that those things that attracted
them to each other are now the same things that are pushing them apart. Ben
is very playful and fun, but his behavior can also be seen as irresponsible.
Katie likes things orderly and, in a way, perfect. She wants to fmd work as a
crossword puzzle writer; she feels that crossword puzzles give her a sense of
completion and perfection "on half a page».
Harold and the Purple Crayon
There was quite a lot of reference to and evidence of compllmentarity. They
are very different from each other (if not completely opposite), and they
defmitely do not possess the characteristics that the other one has. Katie
describes an episode in college when she had to write a report on her favorite
book, "Harold and the Purple Crayon». She felt that Harold was everything she
was not because he kept painting the world any way he wanted. I feel that she
was attracted to Ben since he was like Harold, the only problem was that after
some time she felt she could not get him to put the crayon down...
The paper clips
One of the signs of escalation is a funny interaction: their invitational
communication resembles that of teenagers (at least it reminded me of my
teenage years..•), when he throws paper clips at her while she is typing. She
does not respond at all while he keeps increasing the number of clips he throws
at her. When he fmally throws a handful of paper clips, she gets up and puts
on a hat with a big flashing light on top and smiles. He smiles back. The
connection between them is obvious.
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Except for this interaction, I did not see much more evidence of escalation. I
did not see clearly marked scenes showing "Invitational, Explorational,
Intensifying or Revising." However, it was obvious that they looked at the long­
term viability of the relationship during the escalation period and determined
that they would be together; they initially decided to make a commitment and
get married.
"We were just talking:
Part of me feels that Davi.atioD and deterioratioD went hand in hand because
of how it was presented in the movie. Through snapshots I feel that they have
obviously developed routines, especially since they have two children and both
seem to have great interactions with them. An important one that is seen the
most is "high and loW» during dinnertime and throughout the movie, even when
the children are not around. They talk to each other about what were their
high moments and their low moments during the day.
In their first dinner together while the children are gone, he describes his "high"
as that particular moment when he is with her. She makes it funny and light,
by describing her high as the new Cuisinart she bought. This strikes me as a
shift in her (apart from other efforts she has made, from dressing up and
making dinner). She seems to be going back to the attractioD ph_ and she
is using everything she has. Also, and without trying to over-analyze the
interaction, I felt that there was evidence of what I am calling "reverse
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placemaking": while he moved out she bought kitchen appliances for her
kitchen, without him.
I believe that things do clearly spiral down when Katie hears Ben talking to a co-worker about their relationship problems and feels that he has been unfaithful. They have a terrible fight because, more than anything, he has broken a rule of their relational culture, "Once you establish anything truly intimate with another person, even talking, it has to affect the person you're supposed to be the most intimate with," (Katie) "The wear and tear of the job' "The diapers, the tantrums, the homework, your mother, his mother, [,',] and placing the toilet paper roll over the empty cardboard one...does he NOT see itl?"(Rachel: Rita Wilson) Their dyadic breakdoWDa are very well represented throughout the whole movie, especially during a series of scenes when they have their children, his father passes away, even "funny» references to the children's pets dying. They also show a rich history and love story. "72 hours. 4 weeks. 5 years, depending on when you start counting..." Their lntrapaychic phue seems to have been fairly long but there's no description of the actual length. They have been seeing several counselors Cantisano 6
"The thought of you guys not being together...You guys were our Fred and Ethel
During the social phue, they go out with friends and talk about relationships
in general terms. Their friends have very funny views of marriage and
relationships in general. What was interesting to me was that out of the 3
couples, Ben and Katie were the ones that had probably developed the best
relational culture, which should have led them to a successful marriage. Their
friends' relational cultures were quite dysfunctional. They fmally tell their best
friends, Stan and Rachel (Rob Reiner and Rita Wilson) that they are separated
and getting a divorce; Katie also tells the children's dentist, whom she's taking
Thai cooking classes with. A certain connection starts to develop between the
two of them. At different times in the movie, both Ben and Katie think that they
would be the ones to "make it", but that does not seem to be the case.
They fmally decide that once the children come back, they will tell them that
they are getting a divorce. They meet to discuss how they will tell them, and
decide that they will not go to Chow Fun's, the family's favorite Chinese
restaurant, because even though they love the food, the place is not conducive
to talking about something like that. During this interaction, I thought that she
might have some doubts about their upcoming divorce. Ben mentions the fact
that she is seeing someone else (the dentist) and Katie responds that she is not,
that they are just talking - the same response he gave her when he questioned
his relationship with his co-worker. The way their eyes connect at that moment
says it all.
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Finally, when they are driving to pick up the children I feel that there seems to
be a glimpse of arave dre_DI, mostly on her side, on what the relationship
meant, why it failed... They are both very upset, but she catches glimpses of
their whole story as a couple and as a family, their highs and lows, and decides
that there is too much history to let it all go. They go to Chow Fun's for
Types of love
I believe that they are both Eros. They start out as having a very romantic and
sexual relationship. He describes their relationship as feeling an instant
connection, "'simpatico - she got me'" he describes to one of his counselors.
Ben also believes in the ideal, the soul-mate, and looks up to his grandmother
and her relationship with his grandfather - she stayed with him through thick
and thin. When he starts writing about the love story of his grandparents, he
realizes that it was all a lie. "'Ive been idealizing my grandparents marriage'" he
tells Stan. "'Fear's what kept them together - fear of loneliness, fear of failure"'.
He fma1ly tells Katie that he has seen the relationship through her eyes and
I believe she is an Eros too - however, she is very much "'a mom'" and seems to
have some Agape tendencies. This also leads to communication problems and
some insight into their different love languages, since she criticizes him of
always having to have his needs met and not caring about other people's needs.
In one of their fights Ben says: "'I'm not a third childl I'm talking about a
connection, something that says that we're on the same side...'"
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Communication "I think the loudest silences are the ones filled with everything that·s been said. said wrong. said 300 times. until fighting becomes the condition rather than the exception and it turns into the language of the relationship.· (Katie) It was interesting for me to see that even though they had had so much therapy. Ben and Katie still did a horrible job at communicating and breaking the Ten Commandments of Clean communication. They use judgmental words and global labels: "You·re so God Damn critical'''' They constantly use "you· messages: "You·re not really hearing me!; you never listen!" And bring up old history: "You should be disciplining your children instead of talking to your girlfriend'· They both have copitlve distortioDS and there is evidence of tUDDel 'risioD
from her part. She only focuses on the bad things. the ones she is upset about
and leaves out the good ones. He is better at trying to show her that there are
also many good parts to their history.
I think that he·s responsible for assumed intent: "You want to know why I don·t talk to you. because you treat me like rm some pain in the ass that gets in the way of what otherwise would be a perfectly normal. organized life!" Cantisano 9
She also magnifies: "I have to take care of everything around herel" And contaminates her message by disguising it with a question: "Why should you be responsible for anything?" Ben uses cognitive distortions through control fallacies, mixed with irony and "you" messages: "So I guess it's all my fault that you hang on to every little things; it's all my fault that you can't let go of anythingl" Katie uses calibrated communication: "In Europe we would have made love first" ...said Ben "What's that supposed to mean, that I'm not spontaneousl?", asks Katie. A dance you perfect over time Why do we form relationships with some people and not with others? Once we form them, how do we maintain them? Some researchers have suggested that in addition to coming together and coming apart, any model of relational communication ought to contain a third area, relational maintenance ­
communication aimed at keeping relationships operating smoothly and satisfactorily. Ben and Katie's relational maintenance seemed to be through counselors, but they could not keep it up during their heated fights. "There are some hurts that you never completely get over" There are different sources of problems: outside forces, differences and disagreements and relational transgressions, with several kinds under these transgressions. The commonsense notion is that a first step to repairing the Cantisano 11
transgression is to talk about the violation, by sending clear and assertive "I
messages". Specifically, and in order for transgressions to be repaired, they
need an acknowledgement, a sincere apology and some type of compensation.
It might have been the way the movie was presented, but in the several heated
interactions between Katie and Ben I did not see apologies of any kind. The
only "I'm sorry" uttered in the whole movie was when Ben tells Katie that he has
seen the relationship through her eyes. When writing the song for the movie,
Eric Clapton noticed this same thing and decided to write a song full of
~/;#" ~~ ~ ~.A' I
When it comes to communication climate, 1 feel that Katie and Ben did not
seem to know how to create a positive and non-defensive climate. They were
evaluative instead of descriptive and controlling rather than problem-solving.
Most negative climates have a high level of defensiveness: when individuals
perceive that their presenting self is being attacked by face threatening acts.
This is exactly how Ben and Katie interacted.
In conclusion, all marriages go through peaks and valleys and it is important to
know that relationships take work. Dyadic breakdowns will happen, but
through communication we can bring our relationships back to navigation
rather than allowing them to get to the intrapsychic phase. Relationships form
part of a couple's histozy and "histories dontt; happen overnight".
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