What Lake Bell’s Film ‘I Do … Until I Don’t’ Gets Wrong About Marriage

The actress and director also is clueless about open relationships

“For life. No one wants anything ‘for life.’ It just reminds us of our impending death.” So starts Lake Bell’s new movie, “I Do … Until I Don’t,” which explores the sorry state of marriage and the promise of a seven-year marital contract.

I was incredible excited to learn about this film — its premise is what I’ve spent the past five years of my life researching and writing about. I am a huge fan of time-limited, renewable marital contracts, which actually have a long, sometimes successful, history, and devote a chapter to it in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (in fact, our contract was used by Mandy Len Catron to draft a relationship contract with her partner, which she wrote about in a Modern Love essay and her new book, How to Fall in Love With Anyone). In other words, it’s really practical and doable. It enables couples to have hard conversations about things that matter — money, sex, children, chores, careers — so they can be on the same page about their goals, values and expectations in their partnership.

So when I had a chance to preview the movie, which opens Labor Day weekend, I jumped at it.

I wish I could say I loved the movie, or even liked it. I don’t. In fact, I was deeply disappointed. Instead of offering a balanced look into how a time-limited renewable marital contract might actually benefit couples, the movie just reinforces the simplistic views we already have about marriage — that “death do us part” is pretty much always the best option because, well, vows — as well as our views on monogamy, misunderstanding what open relationships are truly about and thus treating them with disdain.

Such a missed opportunity!

Here’s the premise: recent (and, of course, a cliched bitter) divorcée and sociologist Vivian Prudeck is working on a documentary that seeks to prove that traditional marriage is outdated. (It is!) She enlists — well, pays handsomely, which is clearly unethical — three couples: Alice and Noah, 30-somethings stuck in a 10-year marital rut and dealing with infertility; Alice’s free-spirited sister Fanny and her open relationship with longtime partner Zander, with whom she has a child; and Cybil and Harvey, an unhappily married middle-aged empty-nester stepfamily.

Marriage as an archaic institution

First, kudos to Bell for wanting to explore marriage, what she calls an archaic institution:

I was interested in the concept of this old-fashioned, somewhat — in my opinion — archaic institution that seems to again and again be thrust at us as some sort of requisite. But it was my intention and want and hope to ultimately inspire hope and romance in whoever comes to this old-fashioned albeit worthy commitment.

It’s the “worthy” that’s problematic (well, and her desire to inspire romance). Bell admits she wasn’t coming from an open-minded place when she started writing the screenplay (she chose a contract of seven years is because she heard about German politician Gabriele Pauli’s call for a renewable seven-year contract in 2007). In fact, she says she was “staunchly opposed to the concept of marriage.”

The inception of the idea really did come from a jaded place. I always set out to end it by finding the hope in it, but I didn’t know what the ending would be, because I hadn’t had the experience of a meaningful, trusting, real relationship, where you’re like, “I’m seeing you, I see you eye to eye, and I will walk with you through the mud and the light.” That hadn’t found me yet.

Coming from a jaded place is hardly the way to approach a topic. But then she met and married Scott Campbell in 2013, before her film was completed, and one has to wonder if that changed her viewpoint. It must have because as she tells Vulture:

I’m really proud of this movie — it’s so personal, and one day I get to show my kids, you know? What a nice thing, to show them something that has these good values. And I’m not even conservative! … And look, sometimes relationships between two people just don’t work. But every relationship deserves an effort.

Questionable values

And here are the “good values” she’d like to preserve, or that she thinks at least “deserve an effort” to preserve: Alice lies to Noah on numerous levels, most importantly about wanting to have a child; she confesses she was only going through the motions because he wanted a baby. Great! Let’s bring a baby into the world even though we don’t want it! And, she only seems to be able to fully be honest with him once she’s in front of Prudeck’s camera, and what she says reveals a long-simmering frustration. She’s also distrustful of him, but, hey — no problem there!

Meanwhile, Cybil and Harvey have a relationship filled with anger, disappointment and contempt. If you are savvy to the work of the Gottman Institute, you know that contempt is the worst of what’s considered the four horsemen — contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling — that typically lead to divorce. As therapist Esther Perel has said, there are many ways to betray a spouse besides sexual infidelity and — yep — contempt is in the mix.

As for Fanny and Zander — an unmarried but committed cohabiting co-parenting couple — they at least have conversations about monogamy and transparency even if they’re struggling with feelings of jealousy. Bell pokes fun at their weird crunchy-granola-like diet, music, bohemian lifestyle and beliefs, but they are actually the most genuinely happy of the couples presented (well, they are having lots of sex!). While trying to explain her relationship to her sister Alice, Franny uses a clumsy metaphor about heroin, but it’s relatable and honest: they have the means and resources to get heroin if they want to, and they could use it if they want to, Franny tells Alice, but they don’t. They just choose not to. And that’s how they approach their open relationship.

This is what one of the couples I interviewed for the open marriage chapter in The New I Do told me — they, too, didn’t have sex with people outside the marriage all that often, but just knowing they could made them feel much more connected and respected.

If only Franny ended there!

But, alas. Because the next thing she tells Alice is: “We don’t cheat.”

Of course not! Because an open relationship is not cheating! C’mon people; do we still have to explain consensual non-monogamy to you in 2017?!

Predictable outcome

You can probably tell where this movie is going. It’s not going to be team anti-amatonormativity, that’s for sure.

As if all the prior missteps weren’t enough, one of the movie’s final scenes — warning: spoiler alert, here — once again reinforces the desire to make marriage be a one-size-fits-all model.

At an event filmmaker Prudeck sets up, based unbeknownst to her on a revenge plot the three couples agree to (is revenge a “good value,” too?), Harvey stands up and, to loud applause, states: “I think I speak on behalf of everybody here. You don’t have to get married. But, let others figure it out. Don’t make it worse. We have enough problems.”

Then Franny chimes in, “People only partake in open relationships for the bragging rights.”

At which point Zander asks Franny to marry him.

Please — just smack me now.

And of course all the couples in the film reboot their love and deepen their connection by the film’s end. But here’s why: They just become kinder to each other. That’s it. It’s true kindness and generosity go a long way in making us feel good about ourselves and our partner. But here’s the thing about a time-limited renewable marital contract; spouses wouldn’t have been able to have gotten away being so unkind and resentful for so many years if they had to be accountable for their behavior every few years or so. And they would have to be clear about expectations about such things as monogamy, and if jealous thoughts came up, well, that’s just another opportunity to address fears.

So “I Do … Until I Don’t” was a missed opportunity to bust free from what we think marriage should look like and explore what it could look like. But you can decide the kind of marriage you want for yourself anyway.

Want to discover how a marital contract might actually help a marriage? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.