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Ask a Marriage Counselor: How Messed Up Is the Couple in ‘Deep Water’?

From a clinical standpoint, the Van Allens (played by former real-life couple Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas) probably need to communicate more about things like parenting, and killing

Hulu/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s a tale as old as time: A woman falls for a man who pressured her into becoming a mother; the man falls for the woman and, out of either happenstance or desire, eventually she is allowed to have extramarital affairs that she can flaunt in his face until he makes an off-color joke about killing a former lover and suddenly develops a taste for actual murdering.

With Deep Water, now streaming on Hulu, the erotic thriller has risen from the grave with an abundance of trashy style and star power. (Shout-out to Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck and all their memorable COVID paparazzi content.) And suffice to say, you don’t exactly need to be a therapist to know that a quid pro quo involving a child and rampant infidelity aren’t necessarily the hallmarks of a healthy marriage. But because we’re as dedicated to seeking out expert opinions as Affleck’s cuckolded Vic is to taking care of his snails, I called one anyway. For Laura Young, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist and marriage counselor, the relationship at the heart of Deep Water has plenty of red flags—and not just because all of Melinda’s partners keep dying. Below, we discuss the problematic conditions of the Van Allens’ marriage, the importance of not keeping secrets from your spouse, and how to make challenging (and murder-free) relationships work.

Now that you’ve had a chance to see Deep Water, what did you like and what didn’t you like about it?

I don’t know what your definition of a dysfunctional couple is, but sometimes when I look at couples, I think there’s usually a function and a dysfunction. At first, I hated the movie. I was like, “Oh my God, this is so disgusting,” on a personal level. But on a professional level I thought that’s kind of interesting how they’re positing this idea of this dysfunction in both characters—it sort of weaves its way into being their own level of functionality.

It’s also not clear whether, at the end, you see that there is a new understanding within the couple. That she was going to accept him, as he had been accepting her in a weird way. He didn’t really put his foot down, he didn’t really want to know what she was doing, which led to his fantasies, his speculation. He never saw them having sex; it was only assumed they were having sex. She could have been a cock tease.

One thing that bothered me: I’m not a man, but I can’t believe that these men would be so willing to flaunt a relationship with a woman in front of her husband, especially a high-powered alpha like the Ben Affleck character. That seemed, to me, to be a little unrealistic.

The only thing I could think of is that they assumed humiliating him in front of his wife was turning him on—that he was fine with the arrangement.

Yeah, that could be a reframe in their heads. But when it’s clear that he’s not turned on—I don’t know. I just don’t know that many men would literally look at a lion, get a warning shot, and continue to provoke the lion.

The other thing that really bothered me, because sometimes I’m very technical: When he was riding his bike, he didn’t have toe clips. I thought that was ridiculous. There was no way he could mountain bike through those hills without having toe clips.

Vic treats Melinda almost like a trophy wife. It seems like he pressured her into parenthood when she didn’t want to start a family. She doesn’t have a lot of maternal instincts with her young daughter. What are your thoughts there?

I work with couples, and I’m not sure that’s a true statement, because even at the end, you see her on the couch with the girl. It’s clear that she loves her child. Did you ever watch the movie The Lost Daughter?

Yeah, I did.

Most moms have conflicting feelings about having children. They both love them and they feel burdened by them. Their body changes—everything changes when a woman has the baby. I thought that was interesting, and then there’s always the whole idea that, since the woman is carrying the baby, how could he make her have a baby? Because even if she got pregnant, couldn’t she have gone off and had an abortion and said that it was a miscarriage? She’s not a dumb person.

I don’t know very many women who would have a baby if they didn’t really want to have a baby. She doesn’t come off as a kind person. It’s hard for me to believe that she would sacrifice anything, because she’s very selfish.

So here’s where things get tricky: Vic starts killing his wife’s lovers and covering up the murders to look like accidents. Melinda becomes suspicious, but she can’t prove anything. What should she do in this situation?

First of all, I don’t know how much she knew and didn’t know because how could you not know after what he did to the blond guy, by saying, “I killed the other guy to scare him off.” Then the guy ends up dead in the swimming pool and he’s going around town, supposedly telling people he murdered the first guy. So how does this girl not realize that her husband’s dangerous?

I think she likes it. In fact, if you see, some of the best sex happens after they have some heated fight, because the whole dynamic is, “You would be so bored without me.” She’s always delighted when he surprises her. So there’s something about her pathology that really gets off on the masculine lion coming to protect his pride. In reality, if somebody was doing that and they wanted to get out of a situation, I would think you would document evidence and give it to the police.

What, if anything, can Vic’s creepy snail collection tell us about his psychological profile?

So, I Googled snails, and one of the things with snails is metamorphosis. Maybe that was the image or the metaphor that the author was going for: the metamorphosis of these characters.

In terms of portraying couples and how they handle marital strife, do any movies or TV shows come to mind as a compelling example?

Big Little Lies. I really liked how they presented that couple [played by Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgard] and the dilemma of both parties, and how she was getting support from all of her friends when they killed him. He had moments of remorse, but at the end, he couldn’t handle his own emotions and he didn’t do any of his own work.

Do you have any final pieces of advice for the couple in Deep Water?

I would say, Look, if you don’t want him to kill anymore, don’t screw around with other people. That would go a long way in terms of curtailing his behavior and then something new would happen, right? They would find other ways to not be bored. Because it really feels like the theme in this relationship is boredom, but I think the boredom is just a facade. There’s something else going on that makes you feel bored. If you really want a relationship of any meaningfulness, the core is vulnerability. So in a way, her discovering [that he’s killing her lovers] makes her vulnerable and also makes him vulnerable, right?

And look, there’s all these tools. They could do role playing where he’s a stranger at a bar. He could even wear a costume, like new hair and makeup, a mustache, and she could pick him up and they could have wild passionate sex behind the bar as teenagers or whatever, right? Just use your imagination in a way that doesn’t harm other people.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.