‘This Is 40’ Helped Me Choose Happiness And End My Marriage

"Seeing 'This Is 40' that night wasn’t the romantic date night I was hoping for, but it ended up being an important wake-up call."
Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd in "This Is 40," directed by Judd Apatow.
Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd in "This Is 40," directed by Judd Apatow.
Illustration: Chris McGonigal/HuffPost; Photo: Maximum Film/Alamy

I’m a sucker for romantic comedies. So 10 years ago, when I started seeing trailers for the movie “This Is 40,” I knew it would be on my date night list. What I didn’t know was how unforgettable that movie would be ― not because of how much I loved it, but because it turned out to be the last movie I saw with my husband before we got divorced.

In “This Is 40,” which premiered Dec. 21, 2012, Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd play Debbie and Pete, a married couple both about to turn 40 while dealing with struggling businesses, parenting two daughters and trying to rediscover a connection in their marriage. I’d been looking forward to seeing the movie for weeks, knowing my husband and I could use a date night with some comic relief, with some way to focus on someone else’s marital problems instead of our own.

The movie was supposed to be date-night gold: a rom-com about the ups and downs of marriage, the complicated relationships between parents and their kids, and the horrors of turning the big 4-0. I was supposed to laugh along with all the other couples in the movie theater, relieved that I still had a few years before the scenarios like mammograms and colonoscopies became my reality.

From left: Iris Apatow, Maude Apatow, Rudd and Mann in a promotional photo for "This Is 40."
From left: Iris Apatow, Maude Apatow, Rudd and Mann in a promotional photo for "This Is 40."
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

But the movie wasn’t funny. In fact, by the end of “This Is 40,” I almost hoped the main characters wouldn’t get their happy ending because, as I sat there with a husband who wasn’t laughing either, I knew that we weren’t going to get ours.

Maybe if we hadn’t gotten into an argument before we left for the movie theater. Maybe if the Debbie and Pete characters didn’t spend most of the movie bickering like we did. Maybe if the scene where they “talk to each other the way the therapist told us to talk to each other” didn’t remind me of our own failed attempts at marriage counseling. Maybe I would have thought the movie was hilarious like everyone around me if it didn’t hit so close to home.

I almost chuckled when Debbie and Pete go on a road trip, letting loose as they escape the demands of parenting and sneak in some quality time alone together. They kiss in the hotel pool, they get high, they jump on the bed, they ask each other why they fight. Then they hold hands in the car on the ride home, gazing lovingly at each other as if they found a secret life reset button.

Mann and Rudd play a married couple, Debbie and Pete.
Mann and Rudd play a married couple, Debbie and Pete.
Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

But as they walk right back into the same problems they had before they left, I saw my own disappointment in theirs. I knew that disappointment because my husband and I did the same thing. I lost count of how many times over the years we ran away from our problems, attempted to hit a reset button with romantic getaways, decided we were fine and then returned to the same issues, the same fights, the same unhappiness.

“The happiest period in people’s lives is from age 40 to 60,” Debbie says to Pete. “So this is it. We’re in it right now.”

I thought about that. I was 36. I would be at the start of that age range in a mere four years. Would enough change in my life — in my marriage — by then for me to be that happy?

“We have everything we need right now to be completely happy,” Debbie says. “We’re gonna blink and be 90.”

Did my husband and I have everything we needed to be completely happy?

“So let’s just choose to be happy,” she concludes. Was it that simple? Could we just make a deliberate choice to be happy?

I kept looking over at my husband throughout the movie to gauge his reactions, to see if the comedy was chipping away at his bad mood, at his anger left over from our argument. But I saw not so much as a glimpse of a smile. He didn’t look at me, he didn’t hold my hand, he didn’t want to share space with me in that movie theater.

I wondered if he was seeing the same similarities as I was between us and these fictitious characters; if he was taking mental notes on how Debbie and Pete ultimately repair their marriage and end up finding their happiness. I wondered if he cared. I wondered if he was as done as I was.

The movie ended, the theater cleared out, and my husband and I left Debbie and Pete behind. And as my gut told me while we sat through a movie that couldn’t put our problems on pause even for a couple of hours, my husband and I didn’t get our happy ending.


A week later, I met with a divorce attorney. Shortly after that we legally separated, and a year later we were divorced and moving on with our lives in different directions.

Seeing “This Is 40” that night wasn’t the romantic date night I was hoping for, but it ended up being an important wake-up call. I didn’t want to blink and be 90 and realize I had spent what was supposed to be the happiest time in my life being unhappy. I didn’t want to wonder why my husband and I had everything we needed to be completely happy but still couldn’t figure out how to put it all together in the right configuration that would fix us. I didn’t want to continue choosing happiness, to deliberately make that choice and still never manage to turn that conscious decision into reality.

“This Is 40” was the last date night I shared with my husband before we got divorced. For many years, I couldn’t watch it again, flipping past it whenever it popped up on my TV.

But it’s been 10 years now ― a decade since the romantic comedy felt more like a tear-jerking drama. Now, every time the movie is on, I watch it. I embrace it for what it was, and I’m thankful for how it nudged me to choose happiness, even though it was a different version of happiness than what Debbie and Pete find.

And finally, I can laugh.

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