Each holiday season, many of our therapy clients reflect and prepare emotionally in an effort to make the most of their upcoming visits with family.   Family visits can be psychologically intense experiences that are especially meaningful for those who are in therapy and hoping to break out of long standing patterns and dysfunctional family dynamics.

Why are holiday visits so passionately charged?  Why do people put such effort into the holidays only to find themselves annoyed, frustrated or even in battle with their loved ones?  Embedded in the answer to these complex psychological questions is the very reason that Hollywood makes so many films about the holidays in general and family visits in particular.  Family visits set the stage for an endless well of dramatic material.  We all grow up — at least on the outside — launch the nest, and make adults lives.  We function in the adult world with our grown-up jobs and grown-up homes.  And yet, there is something about being under the same roof as family members that can lead even the most emotionally mature adults to revert to old patters and function as hormone raging teenagers.  In tandem with this phenomenon is the tendency of our family members to do the same.  Siblings are also likely to act like teenagers, and parents can easily slip into treating grown children as if they are unruly adolescents.

Edwards Burns’ 2011 film Newlyweds was chosen as the final film shown at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.  It’s documentary-like account of newlyweds Katy and Buzzy is raw and uneasy viewing; the film’s use of visiting family members is at once realistic, psychologically compelling, and unsettling.   Katy (Caitlin Fitzgerald) and Buzzy (Burns) are both young, in love, and embarking on marriage for the second time.  This time, they are determined to get it right.  Their chemistry is believable and their marriage appears promising until the arrival of their respective sisters.  Katy’s sister is suddenly divorcing, and Buzzy’s sister is adrift, broke and unlucky in love.

What this film does well is communicate the complexities of balancing family loyalty and marriage.  For a marriage to work, each partner needs to make their spouse their most important psychological person.  Nevertheless, families  and newlyweds alike will consciously and unconsciously resist this transition.  The tension between a person’s family and their partner is one of the most common reasons that people seek therapy.  As Katy and Buzzy fight over the many boundaries that each sister is crossing, they are simultaneously loyal to their sisters but outraged by their respective sisters-in-law.  It is reasonable to assume that their dual difficulties setting limits with their sisters may be a window into the challenges of their prior marriages.   It is reasonable to assume that their dual difficulties setting limits with their sisters may be a window into the challenges of their prior marriages.

Writer and director, Burns, refuses to answer to the question of how to balance the conflicting needs and desires of families and spouses.  Instead, he presents a meaningful, gritty story in which one takeaway is clear:  if Katy and Buzzy choose their sisters over each other, the marriage will not survive.   Newlyweds who are struggling to navigate their first holiday season as a married couple may benefit from this thought provoking film.

Newlyweds is available to stream on Netflix.

Elisabeth LaMotte

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