Trading Spouses

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study of partnered civilization and its discontents, We Don’t Live Here Anymore isn’t exactly a pleasurable experience — you’re bound to see too much of yourself in its story of two couples whose boredom, silences, miscommunication and subtle competition draw them into infidelity. Jack and Terry (Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern) and Hank and Edith (Peter Krause, Naomi Watts) are two academics and their stay-at-home wives; Jack and Terry are prone to battling about his inattention and her drinking, while Hank and Edith’s J. Crew-model marriage slides glacially into oblivion (Hank, who almost brags about his disinterest in Edith, sleeps around). As Jack and Edith pursue an affair — and Jack falls in what he thinks is love with her — Terry and Hank retaliate. Adapted from two short stories by Andre Dubus, the film contains two career-high performances by Laura Dern and Mark Ruffalo as the deeply conflicted Jack. We spoke with Ruffalo about infidelity and the future of marriage. — Michael Martin

It’s interesting to see a movie that presents infidelity in a non-sensationalistic way, because it’s way more common — and mundane — than movies like Unfaithful would suggest.
The statistics show that seventy percent of men have cheated on their wives and forty-five percent of women have cheated on their husbands. Fifty percent of marriages in America end in divorce. There’s something that’s really topical about the subject matter. I never thought of it until I read the script, and it just struck me. But I think this film isn’t so much about infidelity as it is about the marriage in crisis — going south as far as communication, the phenomenon of the gray itch. I’ve seen friends go through it, sort of blow their lives apart with infidelity. Infidelity is a symptom of a greater, deeper malady.

The showdown between you and Laura Dern was a great scene. Her character says she’s never really known him. Which raises the universal question: by the time you say, “Can this marriage be saved?” is it really too late?
I think it depends on the players. I think it depends on what’s come to pass up to that point — who they were in their happier minds. In this film, one couple survives and one doesn’t, and the couple that’s fighting incessantly and bickering is the one that survives. I think two people can’t fight like that unless they’re very connected. I like to think this movie is kind of a love story in an odd way — an unconventional story about two people who at one point loved each other and who have fallen into infidelity.

On one hand the movie is very progressive — exploring the idea of falling in love with someone else after marriage — but it’s also very retrograde: staying together for the kids. It seems to suggest there is no way marriage can expand beyond traditional boundaries.
This material was written in the ’70s, and it was written by a man who was an openly struggling Catholic. He really put himself on the line about infidelity, the question of what marriage is in a modern world, and what it’s like to be a man at the end of your youth. I think every marriage has its difficulties, as does just about every relationship in which people are committed to each other. You’re kind of forced to sort of stay there. You’ve made a promise, and you can’t just leave because you get bored or angry or someone does something you don’t like. It’s a fertile ground for personal growth. Unfortunately, some people have to see some dark things in order to grow. You have to say things you never want to say to another human regarding sex. It takes an enormous amount of honesty.

I would like to think the progressive marriage takes care of each partner’s needs. The idea of marriage in which one person earns money and the other person stays home and sacrifices their dreams is a recipe for disaster. I think people have to be open and incredibly accepting and look out, as a team, to see that they’re being taken care of, that their dreams and their identity hasn’t been subjugated to the marriage.

Through the arguments your character has with Laura Dern’s character, you also get to see a complex female perspective on infidelity.
That’s Dubus — here’s this white male writer who’s Catholic, and in a time period in which the female is sort of run over, he’s writing these beautiful female characters. What they say is so valid and powerful. Like in one argument, Laura Dern’s character says, “Who am I, Jack? Am I your love? Or am I your fuck?” It’s so advanced. Her character in the book is really the genius of the two; she’s subjugated her talents to be the mother and the wife. She has no business in the house; she should be at a university. That’s one of the problems of their relationship: she didn’t have the respect to take care of herself.

What do you think is the future of marriage?
I have no idea. I don’t think it’s doomed. I like to believe in it. For some people, it might go into a multipartner thing. I personally think there’s an infinite space you can explore with your partner sexually and emotionally that you sort of grow into, and I find it to be more and more exciting and interesting. I’ve only been married for four years, but I keep learning things, and I’m hopeful for it. I think the more people can get rid of all these old ideas of role models in marriage, the better off we’ll be. If marriage is used as a tool for people to fulfill their lives, there’s a chance. But if we stick to the ideological version of marriage — whether it be only male-female or any sort of dogmatic role-playing — it’s doomed. It’s already dead. It’s over. It’s toast. But I think it’s a great ground for people to grow in. I hope I can continue to do it, that I have the balls to do it and tell the truth.  

We Don’t Live Here Anymore opens August 13 in New York and Los Angeles.

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