Stuck in Conflict

Stuck in Love (2012) is an entirely decent romantic comedy. Not excellent, not terrible—decent. It boasts a 58% Tomatometer score on Rotten Tomatoes, with a 68% audience score, meaning that everyday ordinary people like it more than critics (perhaps: snobs) tend to. This is a score that would ordinarily cause me to skip over a film. I’m not really sure why I watched it—I think perhaps it was free to stream on YouTube, the plot involved writing, and it seemed decent enough.

As a film—as a cinematic experience of art—I would say it is just that. Decent. Resoundingly decent. Not particularly memorable, but not with any glaring faults, either.

However, from a different perspective—seeing the fictional characters as metaphors for internal parts—it produced genuinely mind-blowing psychological insights for me. I saw how how parts not talking to each other causes and perpetuates conflict, and how these immensely tangled relationships can heal very suddenly if untangled at precisely the right point, the heart of the conflict. I could imagine that these insights would be banal for someone else, but for me, it was a case of the right wisdom at the right time.

Let me take you through it. Ordinarily, now is when I would warn you about spoilers, and suggest you go watch the movie yourself first before reading on, but let’s be honest, this movie’s not 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Godfather or the newest Malick film, and if you go and watch it now you probably won’t come back and read this essay. Instead, I’d invite you to just press on, and if you really want to, you can always go and watch it afterwards, with more or less exactly the same lukewarm affect, but perhaps a bit more of a sense of what I’m pointing to metaphorically, suggestively, psychologically.

The core of the plot involves the disjointed, ruptured family Borgens: Bill (the dad), Erica (the mom), Sam (the daughter), and Rusty (the son).

The Borgens are a family of creatives: Bill is a novelist, who has encouraged (or perhaps coerced) Sam and Rusty into becoming writers, too. Erica is an artist.

Erica divorced Bill, leaving him for another man, Martin. Martin is younger, more physically attractive, but less intellectual than Bill.

Sam is furious that Erica betrayed and left Bill, and refuses to have anything to do with her. This is deeply confusing and painful for Erica, who mourns the loss of her daughter in her life. The two haven’t spoken in over a year.

Sam is having a novel published. The novel includes a scene based on her life. In the months leading up to Bill and Erica’s separation and divorce, Sam saw Erica having sex with Martin on the beach. Martin expressed concern that Bill might see them, and Erica replied, “I don’t care.”

Erica doesn’t know that Sam saw this exchange, and is thus disproportionately confused about why Sam won’t speak to her.

Meanwhile, Bill is waiting for Erica with a quixotic faith that she will one day return. Others try to persuade him to move on, but he refuses. When Sam confronts him about this seemingly irrational behavior, he explains that when she was a very young child, he left Erica for another woman. She had waited six months and then he came back to her. Bill made a promise to Erica that if she did something similar, he’d wait for her. His behavior—an apparent inability to move on—has been a reflection of honoring this promise and their past.

Sam didn’t know about Bill and Erica’s past in her early childhood, and thus blamed Erica for the dissolution of their marriage.

This revelation leads her to reconcile with Erica, who in turn leaves Martin and reconciles with Bill. The family is reunited.

The dual estrangements in the family—Bill and Erica, Sam and Erica—are perpetuated by conflict, which is predicated on unevenly distributed information.

Bill is too ashamed of his distant past with Erica to tell his children about it, which causes Sam to be too angry to tell Erica about what she saw leading up to Bill and Erica’s separation.

Only when all the relevant information is revealed can the conflicts be resolved. Sam forgives Erica, which in turn allows Erica to be willing to return to Bill, who happily forgives her.

Conflict is perpetuated by pockets of secrets, missing information, and blind spots. People keep these secrets because of shame, guilt, regret, or other intense feelings. When those feelings are felt, and the information is shared between parties, it’s possible for people to see each other’s perspectives, and then collectively access reconciliation and forgiveness.

If the right piece of information gets to the right person, it can cause dramatic change very rapidly, such that multiple layers of conflict are resolved. However, without the right context or circumstances, that information may never be accessed by the people who need it, and the conflicts may never be cleanly resolved.

These patterns apply at any scale—internally, between friends or family members, or at larger collective scales (cities, nations, the world).

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