"THE STORY OF US"
MOVIE DISCUSSION GUIDE
© Jana Staton and Lisa B. Hawkins*

This discussion guide was created to help you as a couple watch The Story of Us together,
and then have an interesting and helpful discussion about your reactions and
insights, as a self-directed educational task.

We suggest that you watch the entire movie first and then talk about it, using the
questions in the guide.  The movie is an hour and a half long, and it will be more fun
for you if you have time to talk immediately afterward, so you might think about
watching it early enough that you aren't too tired.  Included with the questions are
brief descriptions of specific scenes, with the running time in minutes (from the
opening Castle Rock logo), to help you locate a particular scene to replay if you wish.

After you finish the movie, each of you might read over and pick two or three questions
you find interesting and that are important to discuss for your relationship - skip the
ones that don't stimulate discussion by either one of you. The one question you should
definitely discuss is #18, the last one.  Remember, there are no right or wrong answers.
The two of you may have different opinions and see the movie from different perspectives.
This is an exercise in combining your different perspectives to come up with a more complete
understanding of each other and of your relationship, using the movie events, characters,
and actions to help you do so. You may dislike or disagree with the movie, but if it stimulates
you to have a good conversation with each other, the guide will have accomplished its purpose.

"The Story of Us"
A Rob Reiner Film, with Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer
©  Castle Rock Entertainment, 1999

Katie has decided they should separate as the movie begins.  Her reasons seem
to be that they fight a lot, and that she is tired of being responsible for Ben's life as well as the children.

1.   Does Katie's unhappiness seem sufficient to justify a divorce for this
couple? Can either of you understand/explain her reasons for wanting to
separate?  What do you think are sufficient reasons for a couple to
decide to divorce?

At the beginning, the movie shows small or everyday events "escalating"
into fights, such as Ben's comedy routine in the car when they're late for the bus
[7:30 min.] or Ben's phone call to Katie in the midst of chaos & an overflowing
washer [16:30 min.].

2.   Are there everyday or recurring events in your relationship that
trigger blowups or escalating arguments like those in the movie?  Do you
ever take time to talk  with each other respectfully about your different
points of view, and therefore different responses, to the same event?

Early in the movie, there is a collage of scenes showing arguments they have
had over the years, in which they criticize and accuse each other using phrases
such as every time, nothing I do, you always, and you never. [6:40 min.]

3.   What happens to Ben and Katie's relationship when terms such as these
are used? What reactions are triggered when those terms are used in your
communication?

Katie describes her passion for Ben because he is like Harold and the Purple
Crayon, "everything I wasn't."  Most couples seem to have some perpetual
differences - often their basic personality traits or preferences, which are
unlikely  to change.  Couples may come to resent in each other exactly the traits
which were initially so attractive to them. [8:50 min.]

4.   Should Ben and Katie try to resolve all their differences and
disagreements in order to have a happy marriage?   What differences in each
other's personalities have you learned to accept and live with, rather than
expecting change?

Ben calls her up one night after they separate, and they both have things
they want to say, but can�t. There are long silences, evident yearnings, but
neither says what seems to be on their minds. John Gottman stresses how
important it is that couples repair conflicts and pay attention to each other�s
attempts to connect and re-connect [23:25 min.].

5.   How does their physical separation help and/or hinder their efforts to repair
the relationship? How would you try to repair a breach in your relationship if
something like this occurred?

Katie casually invites Ben to come over and stay for dinner one night. During
dinner, they begin to reconnect and get romantic. When they go upstairs, he
seems nervous, then leaps onto the bed, sprawls out and says "I�m ready" [34:00 min.].

6.   When Ben and Katie become romantic, what would have been a more
effective way for Ben to continue the process of reconciliation and
restoring intimacy?  How do you, as a couple, understand intimacy - all the
ways you nurture each other's needs and keep your emotional and physical
connection?  Do you understand it differently from each other? (Hint:
couples often differ.)

Katie meets her daughter's orthodontist in the bookstore and is excited and
impressed by his interest in cooking. In her dissatisfied state, she is ready for
infatuation, falling in love with someone totally different from Ben, and much
more like her - organized and focused. (Note: Infatuation as a physiological state
lasts from six months to two years, then tapers off, as the work of forming a
permanent relationship begins.) [40:00 min.].

7.  How do you each guard against physical and emotional attraction to others?
Is this something you have ever discussed?

Katie recalls that "Over the years, there were less and less moments in the
course of the day when Ben and I made real eye contact.  Maybe it was the
stuff of life. Who's going to take Erin to school? Who's going to take Josh
to his clarinet lesson? But after a while, there's a disturbing comfort in
not having to deal with each other. You just get used to the disconnection.
And even at night, when we could come together, we wound up facing forward.
But I think we were afraid that if we faced each other, there'd be nothing
there" [45:00 min.].

8.   Has the "disconnection" this couple portrays ever characterized
your relationship? What are you doing now to avoid feelings of disconnection,
and how do you plan stay connected when the "stuff of life" separates you?

When Ben and Katie go for Parents' Weekend at camp, they are determined
"not to burden the kids with our problems" and try hard to act normal [47:00 min.].

9.   How does the parents' unhappiness affect the children?  Do you think
Katie and Ben are right to try to keep their difficulties from the kids?
If you have children, do they notice when you aren't getting along as a
couple?

Ben hoped the trip to Venice would "jump start our marriage." He hopes a
romantic setting can help them rediscover why they fell in love, but their patterns
of criticism and defensiveness go with them. [49:00 min.]

10.  What might have helped them make the getaway to Venice a greater success?
What have you learned to do (or need to do) to make your getaways a success?

Back from Italy, still with a honeymoon glow, Katie decides they  should write a letter
to the kids first; Ben wants to make love first; they start to argue again.  Ben says,
"In Europe you would have made love first,"  and Katie says "Does that mean I'm not
spontaneous?" Then Katie says "Just because I wanted to take 3 minutes to finish a
letter to our children whom we haven't seen�" and Ben responds, "What does that
mean? That I don't care about our children?"  Both of them are "mind-reading" and
creating negative interpretations of each other's comments. [54:00 min.].

11.   What might each of them have done differently when they came home from
Venice to avoid a setting off a new destructive cycle?  Do you find
yourselves responding quickly with negative interpretations of each other's
statements/actions?  What happens when this occurs?

Toward the end of the movie, Ben and Katie begin to understand the relationship
through each other's eyes, and begin to change, even as they plan for a divorce
At the restaurant, Ben mentally revisits his marriage, and begins to see it through
Katie's eyes for the first time. [1:15:00]. When Katie visits Ben's new house, she
notices that he has food in the refrigerator, is wearing a watch, and is worried about
an appointment [1:17:00 min.].  During the ride to pick up the kids, Katie reacts
differently to events such as no washer fluid, taking the wrong turn [1:20:00 min.].

12.   What does Katie do differently on the ride to pick up the kids? Are
these changes important ones for their relationship?  Do you view each
other as capable of change?  What small, positive changes or growth do you
notice in each other right now?  Throughout the movie, the family plays the
game of reporting their "high" and "low" for the day, and Ben and Katie use
this ritual with each other at times. 13. How does the high-low game help
the couple through the difficult times?  You might want to discuss your own
family or couple rituals, and how they help connect - or re-connect -you.

On the ride, Katie goes through a series of flashbacks of their marriage history,
remembering the good and bad times  - everything from "chicken pops" to
"my father is dying," from "I hate you" to "I love you."  Their shared history creates
what Fowers, in Beyond the Myth of Marital Happiness, terms loyalty to the marriage itself.

14.   Is loyalty to your marriage itself a characteristic or attribute you
value?  How does your own shared history - the highs, the lows, and the
everydays� make you an "us," something larger than two individuals living
together.

The PREP�  program, developed at the University of Denver by Scott Stanley
and Howard Markman, emphasizes that couples need to become aware of basic
human needs - recognition, caring, control, integrity, acceptance/rejection,
commitment -  that often are "hidden issues" and underlie conflict.

15.   Which needs do Ben and Katie have, that they (apparently) felt weren�t
being met in their relationship?  Which of these needs are most important
to each of you?  Do you know and respect each other's needs?

Research on marriage has identified protective factors in relationships that
help couples get through difficult times:  commitment, friendship, having fun
together, intimacy/sensuality, and shared spiritual or core values.

16.   What values or positive characteristics in Katie and Ben's marriage
may have helped them in their effort to re-unite?  Which of these are
particularly strong in your marriage right now?  Which ones do you need to
work on and strengthen?

In the opening shot, Ben says, "They just can't bear to live without each other�.
that's how I always thought things would be for Katie and me, that we would be
together forever and ever." He dreams of writing "the greatest love story ever
told" about his grandparents' marriage, and then realizes that they stayed together
mostly out of fear. His friend [Rob Reiner] explains to him that there is no 'perfect
marriage.' At the end Ben says "And they lived mostly happily ever after," and Katie agrees.

17.   Is Ben's change from a romantic to a more realistic view of marriage
giving up, or growing up?  What do you think this couple needs to do to keep
their marriage "mostly happy" from now on?  If "mostly happy" characterizes
your marriage, is this a good-enough goal for you?  What would make it even
better?

18.   On the next page is the original script for Katie�s final monologue.
Which lines do each of you especially like, or object to, as a statement
about marriage?
*******
 Katie's Closing Monologue for The Story of Us
by Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson, © Castle Rock Entertainment, 1999

BEN:    Are you saying Chow Fun's because you don't want to face telling the kids?
Because if that's why you're saying Chow Fun's, don't say Chow Fun's.

KATIE:    That's not why I'm saying Chow Fun's.
I'm saying Chow Fun's because we're an "us." There's a history, and
histories don't happen overnight. In  Mesopotamia or Ancient Troy or
somewhere back there, there were cities built on top of other cities, but I
don't want to build another city. I like this city. I know where we keep the
Bactine, and what kind of mood you're in when you wake up by which eyebrow
is higher. And you always know that I'm a little quiet in the morning and
compensate accordingly.

That's a dance you perfect over time. And it's hard, it's much harder than I
thought it would be, but there's more good than bad. And you don't just give
up.

And it's not for the sake of the children, but they're great kids aren't
they? And we made them - I mean think about that - there were no people
there and then there were people - two of them. And they grew. And I won't
be able to say to some stranger, "Josh has your hands," or "Remember how
Erin threw up at the Lincoln Memorial?" So what if that stranger listens to
me? I mean, Lucas Adler listens but then he always says "between you and I"
and it should be "between you and me", because "between" is a preposition.

And it's not that there's not a charming part about you not remembering the
washer fluid - which I don't understand why you can't - but that's not
ultimately important. I'll try to remember that those things can be mildly
endearing at times and really not worth not having sex over. And I'll try to
relax. I mean is it the end of the world to have sex when you don't totally
feel like it? There are all kinds of sex, aren't there? Comfort sex, tender
sex, relief sex, "I'm not in the mood, but you are" sex.�And let's face it,
anybody is going to have traits that get on your nerves, why shouldn't it be
your annoying traits?

I'm no day at the beach, but I do have a good sense of direction, so at
least I can find the beach, but that's not a criticism of you, it's just a
strength of mine. And you're a good friend and good friends are hard to
find. Charlotte in Charlotte's Web said that and I love the way you read
that to Erin - when you take on the voice of Wilbur the pig with such
commitment even when you're bone tired. It speaks volumes about character.
And ultimately isn't that what it comes down to? What a person's made of at
the end of the day?

Isn't that the paradox? Haven't we hit the essential paradox? Give and take,
push and pull, yin and yang, the best of times, the worst of times- I think
Dickens said it best. It's the Jack Sprat of it, he could eat no fat, his
wife could eat no lean, but that doesn't really apply here. Does it? I mean
I guess what I'm trying to say is - I'm saying Chow Fun's because I love
you.
************
For the Marriage Educator: A Summary of the Lessons from The Story of
Us (This summary is for marriage educators who may not be familiar with The
Story of Us. The movie guide seems to work well for couples without
commentary, but this summary can be included, omitted or re-written, as you
see fit.)

Jana Staton, PhD, LCPC
Marriage Works! Learning Center of Missoula, MT

Katie and Ben were in love when they married, like most couples. They were
passionate about how their differences -- her organization, his spontaneity
and playfulness -- completed them and made them both feel "whole."  As
with many couples, however, her humor and free spirit remained hidden, and his
sense of responsibility remained undeveloped as the marriage went on.

They began their marriage with shared values, with joy in their physical intimacy,
with friendship and with a commitment to each other and to marriage. All these
are protective factors that helped them during the crisis we see in the movie.

They had children, became totally focused on the kids�and they lost the
connection to each other. They began to lead parallel lives, connecting only
over the kids. Without the intentional connection, they criticized and began to
see each other's behaviors in a more and more negative light. Fighting over the
little things became a way of life.

What is worth observing about their fighting -- and a major reason that they could
reconnect at the end and have us believe it -- is their avoidance of open contempt,
open personal attack.  But they do have the other "danger signs" of marital distress:
escalating criticism, negative interpretations of each other's behaviors, withdrawal,
and threatening the marriage commitment by bringing up the idea of separating
as a solution.

What Katie and Ben didn't know, and learned only through the miracle of Hollywood
scriptwriters, is what research on marriage has to say, and what marriage education
programs are now teaching couples like the Jordans:

- Fighting, even having shouting arguments, by itself isn't going to destroy a marriage.
What will destroy are continual personal criticism and contempt, failure to repair
arguments by apologizing and reconnecting, and retreating instead into silence.

- Those "annoying" personality differences and lifestyle preferences are relatively
unchanging, and unchangeable. The more Katie focuses negatively on Ben's carefree,
spontaneous reactions to events, the less she appreciates his good traits. The more Ben
focuses on her need for order and precision, the angrier and more defensive, and less
responsible, he becomes.

- There are valid differences in the way men and women experience physical and
emotional intimacy.  Knowing and understanding those differences helps couples
maintain intimacy. Ben is unaware of the importance of talking with and listening to Katie,
and of helping her with daily tasks of family life, as a path to greater affection and intimacy.
Katie doesn't understand that Ben, like many men, experiences intimacy most directly
through sex. She withholds sex unless she feels passionate. At the end, she catches on,
at least in the script for the final monologue, saying "There are all kinds of sex�.comfort sex
�.relief sex�.'I'm not in the mood but you are' sex."  (These lines were cut from movie).

- Infatuation is the initial and temporary state in a long-term relationship of attachment.
The state of constant high arousal and elevated testosterone levels in both partners which
marks infatuation tapers off and ends as partners live together.  Infatuation is replaced by a
long-term attachment bond, based on shared goals, values and commitment.  Just knowing
the difference between infatuation and attachment is helpful information for couples in
long-term, committed relationships.

Ben and Katie didn't feel they got much help from the zany marriage counselors they went to.
But during the painful trial separation documented in the movie, they discovered important
lessons that couples need to know in order to make a marriage work:

1)  There is another reality, and another valid point of view on every event -- equally true,
but no more true -- than my own.  Ben, at the restaurant with his friends "gets it". He finally
"sees the relationship through Katie's eyes". As he becomes aware of the self-centeredness
of his own behavior, he begins to change up in small, but significant ways.

2)  A good marriage has lows as well as highs, and these are all necessary to write the lifelong
"story of us".  Katie at the end begins a mental review of their highs and lows, and gets the
lesson she needs: that she and Ben are an us, with a history. No infatuation can being to match
the strength of their connection. Their differences, or "annoying traits", are simply part of their
attraction, the Yin and Yang she must accept as part of what attracts them to each other, rather
than change.

***************

* Presented at the CMFCE Smartmarriages 2001 Conference, Orlando FL. by Jana Staton, PhD, LCPC,
  Marriage Works! Learning Center,  Missoula, MT;  Lisa B. Hawkins, JD, Brigham Young Univ., Provo, UT.
*************
Books referenced in this guide:

Blaine Fowers, Beyond the Myth of Marital Happiness: How Embracing the Virtues of Loyalty,
Generosity, Justice and Courage Can Strengthen Your Relationship. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2000.
click to order on amazon - $17.50

John Gottman and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, New York:  Three Rivers Press, 1999.
click to order on amazon - $10.36

Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Blumberg, Fighting for Your Marriage, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994.
click to order on amazon - $12.00

******************

Back to "Story of Us" award page

Smart Marriages Home Page