In reviewing last year’s relationship-oriented Hollywood movies, there is one that stands out as the perfect Halloween film, namely Gone Girl based on the best-seller by Gillian Flynn. The movie is dark and offers a frightening look at worse case scenarios in marriage. For those who have NOT seen this movie, please see it first before reading further…there are many plot spoilers in my blog. For those who have seen it, read on!

Gone Girl tells the story of Nick and Amy (aka the Amazing Amy) Dunne who re-locate from Manhattan to Carthage, MO because of failed finances and a desire to care for Nick’s mother with terminal cancer. Nick and Amy’s relationship starts with the familiar trajectory of immediate attraction illustrated by a beautiful evening scene in a NYC alleyway that backs up on a sugar plant! During the course of their relationship, Nick and Amy have to confront many life-challenges — Nick loses his job, Amy loses her trust fund, Nick’s mother has cancer and then dies and Nick has an affair.

All commited partners, sooner or later, have to confront the inevitable crises that life throws their way…the question is whether these events bring them closer together or propel them apart. I like to refer to the former as centripetal marriages and the latter as centrifugal marriages. In centripetal marriages, negative life events bring the couple together; in centrifugal marriages these challenges push them apart.

Gone Girl raises many questions, the most important of which is how do we  know who we are marrying? Will out mate actually be the type of person we can rely on or will they betray us? Will we have a centrifugal or centripetal relationship…one that weathers life’s storms or one that is destroyed by such dramatic changes?

Marriage is a huge leap of faith. Halloween revelers ask the question: trick or treat? And we can ask the same question when we marry; will we find treats on the other side of that betrothal or will we be tricked, watching as our once sacred union devolves into bickering, loneliness and despair, and, at worst, a real-life Halloween nightmare?

In the movie, Amy and Nick start out seeming to have a relationship that will deal successfully with their external stressors. They pride themselves on their ability to put these sort of things in the background in order to focus on loving each other. Things turn seriously south when Amy discovers that Nick is having an affair, an admittedly poor choice triggered by his depression about his failings as a provider and his increasing conflict with Amy  who has a difficult time adjusting to life in Carthage. Sadly, when Amy sees Nick kissing his girlfriend in the midst of a snowstorm (reminding her of their first kiss by the sugar factory), she  reacts in the darkest of manners…she disappears and frames him for her murder! Amy has plotted the ultimate revenge and watches Nick squirm on tabloid television from the safe distance of a lakeside lodge many hours away.  She is, in fact, a sociopath.

One wonders if there were any clues that Nick may have picked up on before he walked down the aisle with Amy…any predictors that might have tipped him off to her mental illness before casting his lot? Are there, in fact, ways couples can “vet” their partners before taking their vows?

In a recent interview with Bill Murray, the actor recommends that those considering marriage spend three weeks traveling together in a car before tying the knot. Not bad advice….but something that few could actually put in play. Health professional John Van Epp has written a book How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk (and also offers an on-line course entitled How to Avoid Fallingfor a Jerk or Jerkette) which hopes to help readers make an informed decision about their potential life partner. Van Epp suggests that you observe your boyfriend or girlfriend as they interact with others — friends and service workers such as waiters, handymen or parking attendants. Are they kind or cruel? Ask questions about past relationships…what attracted your girlfriend or boyfriend to their previous partners and how did these relationships end? Is there a history of infidelity? Also ask questions about your partner’s relationship with their parents and siblings…are they close, distant,  dismissive, complimentary or contemptous? These are often indicators for how you will be treated in the marriage. I am often amazed in my work with couples when I find out how many individuals neglect to ask these important questions of their partner before walking down the proverbial aisle.

It might also be helpful to educate yourself about psychiatric conditions that can pose serious challenges to marriage, including ADHD, OCD, major depression, substance abuse and eating disorders. If such conditions are present, explore your partner’s willingness to seek professional assistance. In the absence of such willingess, it might be appropriate to take a step back.

Gone Girl also intimates that all marriages will be full of conflict and negativity. This certainly is Amy’s view. This does not have to be the case. I recommend that all couples considering marriage read any of the excellent books by John Gottman, such as the Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work to find  out what behaviors distinguish happy marriages from distressed marriages.

Finally, affairs need not be the end of the marriage. I work with many couples who re-commit to their marriages after an affair and do the difficult work to affair-proof their relationship and create a better relationship. My favorite books on this topic are Not Just Friends by Shirley Glass and After the Affair by Janet Abrams Spring.

So I hope you enjoy Gone Girl…but don’t despair. There are ways to improve your chances of having a good marriage when you decide to enter the state of matrimony! Be mindful and do your due diligence. It is, after all, much better to have sweets on Halloween rather than tricks!!