Unless we are very lucky, most of us have been there in a relationship. The moment you realize that your romantic partner’s feelings are beginning to change. You can feel him or her slipping away. The balance of power has shifted and not in your direction.
What “Marriage Encounter” emphasizes is that Betty never had the power — not from society that favors the man, and not from her husband who often treats her as a housekeeper. She can feel Dan’s feelings changing. Consumed with work, he doesn’t talk to her anymore. Doesn’t touch her hair. Doesn’t even seem to notice her. “Something is happening with us,” she tells him. The impending divorce of their friends Yvonne and Patrick are a cautionary tale.
Betty takes a proactive approach and tries to get out in front of the problem, convincing Dan to go to a “marriage encounter” weekend run by their church. She writes him a letter that says, “The number one thing I love about you in the beginning was how much you loved me and showed it. […] you are the most important person I have in the whole universe bar absolutely none.” Her entire identity is wrapped up in being Mrs. Dan Broderick. She leaves the marriage encounter weekend thinking their union is stronger.
Throughout this episode, Dirty John hones in on how men and women handle divorce—especially in the ’80s, when, in many marriages, the men made the money and women kept the home. During a lunch, Yvonne is fully embarrassed that her husband has decided to leave her. Elsewhere at another lunch across town, Patrick is plotting with his buddies about the best financial way out of his marriage. “We really don’t have anything in common except the kids,” he laments. Um, last I checked, Patrick, kids are a lot to have in common.
Patrick is advised to close all his joint bank accounts, secure the liquid assets in his own name, defer his bonus, and pay in advance for the kids’ orthodontist appointments. The objective is to get out of the marriage giving your wife, the woman you have built a life with, the least amount of money possible. From the jump, the wife is seen as an adversary.
Dan remains detached and, as Cyndi Lauper tells us, their money begins to change everything. Betty wants to marvel at how far they’ve come from when they were in Boston and living off food stamps. He’s mortified for anyone to know their impoverished past. At first they are thrilled to go to a fancy restaurant, but over the years, eating at that same restaurant just fills Dan with ennui. They need to decide which country club they want to belong to. “Tennis fits us better than golf, don’t you think?” Betty asks him. Betty spends her days shopping and buying expensive outfits and things for everyone. Dan has taken to referring to himself as “the Count du Money.”
Yet Betty thinks things are good between them until one night she overhears Dan saying to his friend Mitch “she’s just so beautiful” about an unknown woman. “You don’t say things like that. You don’t call anyone beautiful,” Betty tells him.
Dan is talking about Linda, the women he’ll eventually marry after Betty, and it’s the first glimpse we get of the other main character in this tragic story. Betty knows something isn’t right when Dan hires Linda as his assistant — she’s a receptionist with no legal background who can’t even type — and she gives Dan an ultimatum: “Get rid of her by the end of the month or you can get out of this house.”
As the fissures in Betty and Dan’s marriage get wider, there are two extremely telling moments in the episode. The first comes when Patrick gets remarried, to Yvonne’s devastation. Betty is the only friend who refuses to go to the wedding. We see flashes of both Betty’s anger and her loyalty and begin to understand that she’s not going to do something or behave a certain way just because it’s what her husband or society wants.
The other is during the marriage encounter where Betty tells Dan that she “loves kids but feels trapped by them all the time.” That is a sentiment that will be familiar to many mothers. Raising children, especially in the early years, is exhausting. It can do a number on both your physical and mental health. I’ve heard from many female friends who say watching this show fills them with a relatable rage. Even though the story takes place decades ago, there’s probably still a little bit of Betty in all of us.
Through the episode, it appears that Dan is on the brink of a midlife crisis. Even his marriage encounter speech is about regret, regret that he hasn’t accomplished enough in his life. He’s gotten contacts and we’ve already seen the red sports car he was driving in the premiere. He seems primed to trade Betty in for a trophy wife.
But he also remains unreadable to the viewer. Does he go to marriage encounter because he loves Betty and wants to make their marriage work, or is he playing the long game? Already plotting his departure, but not wanting to tip Betty off?
As for Betty’s ultimatum, Dan is having none of it. “You think you decide but you don’t. I pay for your life, everything about it […] if anybody is going to be getting out, it’s you,” he tells her. Just like that, Betty realizes that their marriage is no longer a partnership. They are no longer in this together. And most likely they never were. All she has done for him — from typing his briefs in law school to working two jobs while pregnant to put him through medical school — meant nothing. She’s become like the restaurant he’s tired of. He’s willing to cast her aside and forget about her and trade her in for a newer model.
Thoughts For Your ’80s Mixtape
• Having Cyndi Lauper’s “Money Changes Everything” playing as Dan and Betty get more and more accustomed to their wealth is a little on the nose, but I still loved it.
• Dan’s big piece of advice to Patrick is to “establish the legal date of separation definitely.” That feels like some serious foreshadowing to me.
• The ’80s fashion is on full, glorious display in this episode, but I have to give a special shout out to Dan’s powder-blue V-neck sweater.