Interpersonal Conflict in American Beauty

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In the film, American Beauty (Mendes, 1999), the turmoil of a failing marriage and the excruciatingly painful interpersonal conflict that accompanies such a state is explored. The components of interpersonal conflict, as discussed by Fitness (2001), fall into a sequence, with one act of betrayal followed by another. The context for the interpersonal conflict in the movie is the humiliation of both the husband (Kevin Spacey) and the wife (Annette Benning), the two main characters: the wife is humiliated because her husband doesn’t have a job, and the husband is humiliated because he feels betrayed by his wife who is having an affair. This interpersonal conflict does not just interrupt the lives of the husband and wife, it also interrupts the life of their teenage daughter. According to Fitness:

… the power balance between two, interdependent parties has been disrupted. … The next important step in the interactional sequence, then, is for the betrayed partner to respond to the act of betrayal and to the shift of power it implies (2001, p. 7).

In American Beauty, both husband and wife feel betrayed, so they both vie for power and comically scramble to “out-humiliate” each other. But the comical exploitation of their situation is exposed as profoundly self-indulgent and smug; in their anger, they have literally forgotten about their love and concern for their child.

Since the roles have shifted, quite literally to the teenage daughter acting more like an adult than her parents, the audience can easily discern what should have been done to resolve this interpersonal conflict. The nastiness could have been resolved by the husband admitting to his wife how much he hated his career and approaching it from a professional standpoint by seriously looking into viable and alternative options. The wife could have acted more like an adult and accepted her husband’s decision with grace and empathy and helped him find an alternative career.

The daughter appears to be almost immune to their constant bickering, but we know she is not because the movie opens with a series of close-up shots of her talking and her tone of voice is very decidedly depressed, as well as angry. Crockenberg and Forgays (1996) note that sadness and anger are indeed part of the fluctuations of feelings that children must often straddle. The viewer of American Beauty finds out at the end of the movie that the daughter leaves/escapes her situation with her boyfriend, and so this would fit Crockenberg and Forgays’s assertion that anger appears to be the more proactive of the feelings experienced by children who are often cast in the middle of marital conflict:

If a child’s experience of marital conflict is characterized by his/her failure to obtain certain goals, and if that child also sees that he/she … sometimes get what they want with renewed efforts to reinstate the goal, we would expect anger to become a pervasive response to marital conflict (Crockenberg & Forgays, 1996).

In the case of American Beauty, the daughter is the only one who reaches her goal. Her goal was to remove herself as far away as possible from her very destructive and immature parents. To this end, she succeeded and her parents who lacked the interpersonal skills to resolve their conflict experienced a harrowing fate. In keeping with Fitness’s model (2001), the viewer is privy to the states of interpersonal conflict that include betrayal, rejection, and revenge only. The determinant state of forgiveness is not, however, reached by any of the characters.

References

Crockenberg, S. & Forgays, D. (1996). The role of emotion in children’s understanding and emotional reactions to marital conflict. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 42(1), 22-47.

Fitness, J. (2001). Betrayal, rejection, revenge, and forgiveness: An interpersonal script approach. In M. Leary (Ed.), Interpersonal Rejection (pp. 73-103). New York: Oxford University Press.