The movie Blue Valentine is like a Zen koan, a paradoxical riddle with no answer which encourages us to ponder things in new ways. Ostensibly this particular koan asks us to wonder about what goes wrong in love, but perhaps a more fundamental question is what is love in the first place?
Some of the themes Blue Valentine explores is how much of what we call romantic love is about the reenactment of unmet needs, trauma and role modeling in our family of origin, and the possibility of growing beyond these patterns.
The film moves back and forth through time, showing the beginning and ending of a relationship, inviting us to look closely at our own ideas about love.
We open on the family scene as it is current day and are introduced to Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) and their 6-year old daughter, Frankie. Cindy’s cutting remarks and her put-upon manner at the breakfast table (she refers to raising two kids) are clues as to the state of this marriage. She is clearly the high-functioning partner in the pair and, from the outset, we are wondering why these two are together.
Flashbacks bring us back to the beginnings. Cindy’s father is a rageaholic and her mother appears to be shrinking and accommodating. We find out that Dean’s father was a janitor who his mother left for another man when Dean was small, setting him up for abandonment issues.
They meet at a chance encounter at the nursing home where Cindy’s grandmother lives. Dean falls in love with Cindy at first sight, which leads us to the question: What is love at first sight? Is it “real”? Is it reliable? Is it simply a matter of physical attraction, chemistry? Or is it the result of our unresolved issues and what has been modeled for us in childhood?
Talking to one of his co-workers, Dean says, “I feel like men are more romantic than women. When we get married we marry, like, one girl, ’cause we’re resistant the whole way until we meet one girl and we think I’d be an idiot if I didn’t marry this girl, she’s so great. But it seems like girls get to a place where they just kinda pick the best option… ‘Oh he’s got a good job.’ I mean they spend their whole life looking for Prince Charming and then they marry the guy who’s got a good job and is gonna stick around.” We can imagine here that Dean has learned this lesson well from his own parents’ story, which he is doomed to repeat, hoping for another outcome.
A chance encounter on a bus brings Cindy and Dean back together. They have fun, spend the night together and the next thing we know, she is pregnant (and unsure of who the father is – Bobby or Dean). It is unclear if she would have ever even contacted Dean again if not for her pregnancy. Dean marries her, despite the uncertainty of his paternity.
Flashbacks show an idyllic period while she is pregnant and before the baby is born. I believe that some viewers take this as “true love” and then lament the turn that the relationship takes as their marriage sours. This brings us back to our underlying koan: what is love in the first place?
My take is that he is infatuated with the idea of her. Not only is she beautiful, but she is from a higher class than he and aspires to be a doctor. She is someone who he can save (by marrying her), therefore redeem himself, and additionally try to recreate an unconscious scenario where his mother does not leave.
On her side, the adoring, unconditional love Dean seems to offer at first must have seemed like what she had never had before. Although she had aspirations, perhaps she too would like to be saved, to take the path of least resistance, and also marry a man who appeared unlike her father, but who would turn out to be more similar than one would have thought. We see later on that Dean, who seemed so sweet and childlike at the start, has an impulsive, violent streak when frustrated. In various scenes, he punches walls, throws things on the floor and hits Cindy’s boss.
This reminds me of people who will say that their current partners are nothing like their fathers or the profile of prior relationships, and yet it is like a special radar we have for finding those that tie into our childhood wounding. This kind of unconscious familiarity (some of it pre-verbal) can be compellingly magnetic. This “repetition compulsion” is so counter-intuitive (why would we want or choose these negative relationships?), that it is difficult for us to see in ourselves. Our patterns are very often our blind spots. Looked at it this way, the answer to “What went wrong?” might well be “How could it not have?”
Cindy, however, as the film left off, did break her mother’s pattern; instead of continuing to submit and acquiesce to Dean, she was ready and willing to end the marriage and in that way grow into her next stage of individuation and maturity.