A friend of mine employed in a large non-profit organization from time to time discussed in an anonymous way some of the challenges he is facing at work. He confided to me that his wife, whom he loves dearly, always has a suggestion to fix his problem and this frustrates him. All he wants is for his wife to listen to him as he unburdens himself from a thorny problem at the office. He does not want his wife to fix it. When his wife offers unsolicited advice, he takes it negatively as evidence that his wife does not think highly of his professional ability to solve the problem on his own.
This communication problem is at the heart of a very touching family drama about alcoholism, When a Man Loves a Woman. Alice Green, a school counselor, has a serious drinking problem. Married to Michael, an airline pilot, she is a loving wife but subject to unpredictable mood changes brought about by her secret, but obsessive, drinking. Her life begins to fall apart dramatically when she slaps her daughter, Jess, in a rage and soon after shatters a shower door as she falls down in an unconscious stupor. Jess contacts Michael, who immediately returns home to care for his wife.
During her recuperation, Michael and Alice for the first time confront the reality of Alice’s alcoholism, and conclude that Alice must get professional help. This decision to enter rehab means that she will be away from family for a significant length of time, and Michael will now be in charge at home.
As Alice recovers, she finds new friends at the rehabilitation center who also are working through their alcohol problems. As she overcomes her alcohol dependency, Michael feels increasingly isolated and disconnected. In the past he has always been a player in handling family matters, but now he is confused and ill at ease with his wife’s new found identity. In desperation, Alice asks Michael to go with her to a marriage counselor and he agrees, but it is not a quick fix.
One of the beauties of this film is its verisimilitude. Problems are not always resolved neatly. Things take time, and spouses say hurtful things even during the healing process, especially if they are emotionally fragile. Michael loves his wife and wants to fix things; but Alice does not need a husband who fixes things, and who, by implication considers his wife incompetent to take care of her home and her children. Alice, instead, wants a husband who listens, who acknowledges her problems, and who gives her the space and trust to solve her problems on her own.
A Judaic Studies teacher once told me that man is born with two ears and one mouth to teach him that he should listen more than talk. Listening is an art, and it is a pillar of the Jewish faith. When God tells the Jews to obey his law or suffer punishment, the Bible uses an unusual double phrase of the Hebrew word for listen. Loosely translated, it means “if you will surely listen.” The commentators point out that this double language means that one has to listen with great attention. Listening is not a casual activity. It means you have to engage your mind and heart and pay attention to what is being said. This is the kind of listening that Michael eventually does in When a Man Loves a Woman, a deeply honest film that encourages husbands and wives to listen attentively to one another to maintain and fortify their marriage.