couples therapy

A Relationship Expert Psychoanalyzes Phantom Thread’s Twisted Romance

Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread Photo: Focus Features

Major spoilers for Phantom Thread below. Read at your own risk.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread features one of the most fascinating onscreen relationships of 2017, between Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis), a controlling, fastidious London couturier (also, our ideal shopping buddy), and Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young immigrant from some unnamed European country, who’s working as a waitress in a small English country town when he plucks her up to be his muse and lover. While the film starts out looking like a familiar tale of domineering male genius, it ultimately flips those expectations on their head. Alma vies for power and ultimately achieves it — through some rather unexpected (and twisted) means.

I called up Rhonda Richards-Smith, an L.A.-based psychotherapist and relationship expert, to try and help make sense of the bizarre — and strangely romantic — relationship between Reynolds and Alma.

What was your first impression of Reynolds and Alma’s relationship?
The first thing I noticed was that there were no boundaries between the two of them upon their initial meeting. In any relationship, if there aren’t boundaries set in the very beginning in terms of how you expect to be treated, oftentimes the relationship can kind of go off the rails. Sometimes one partner will encroach on another partner’s boundaries, and you’ll maybe have to reset those at a later date. But it’s always more difficult to reset those boundaries after you’ve started a relationship versus doing it at the very beginning.

Reynolds is constantly referencing his mother, even hallucinating her, and obviously he has this really deep desire to be mothered by Alma that we see come out near the end. What do you make of this?
A man’s first relationship with a woman is typically with his mother, and that relationship will often shape his romantic relationships moving forward. In some cases, it prevents them — the men — from connecting with another woman, because they’re holding these women to the standard of their mother. They might be looking for someone who’s exactly like their mother, which is unrealistic and long-term isn’t as satisfying as they may initially think it would be. Alternately, they may go the complete opposite way and want someone that’s nothing like their mother. So everything really relies heavily on what the childhood relationships looked like.

And how did that play out with Reynolds specifically?
I think on some level, with Reynolds, his desire to be mothered stems from the fact that, with his work, everything is about precision and about having complete and total control, almost to the point where he couldn’t stop himself. And sometimes that would spill over into his relationship, and I think that what he really was drawn to in the end with Alma is that she had to force him to stop. I think that he felt some relief that ultimately someone would go toe-to-toe with him and let him know that he needed to slow down or force him to slow down.

It seems like he has this primal desire to lose control, to be submissive and be taken care of. Is that something that makes sense from a psychological standpoint?
It’s very common for people that are really successful and very precise in their business — oftentimes their personal life and relationships might look very different, because ultimately those tactics don’t work with love. Because love is not precise. Love doesn’t always have a predictable beginning, middle, and end, so to speak. Early on, with his earlier relationships that they depicted in the movie, there was a beginning, he had some interest, there was a middle, he got bored, and then the end, he had his sister lead them out the door and get rid of them, so to speak. So, he was still in control of it at all times. The difference with Alma is that it didn’t pan out the way that he thought it would.

Was there any aspect of this relationship that seems healthy to you? Can you have two people who are so screwed up and yet are kind of screwed up in the right way for each other?
I think that it is possible. Trauma has such a profound impact on all of our lives, and many people on this planet have experienced trauma and loss — which isn’t just witnessing a violent act. Trauma can be anything that has a lasting impact on you, that affected you in a negative way at any point in your life, and ultimately that shapes our worldview. So absolutely. You can have two people that have experienced trauma partner with one another and have a healthy relationship.

My concern for their relationship, though, is while it’s common for opposites to attract, we also have to be careful that we don’t seek too much of the other person to fulfill us. You can’t completely rely on your partner to fill some void that you might have within yourself. You also have to ensure that you’re a whole person, and I think that they definitely both still have a bit of work to do in terms of being completely whole.

I want to talk about the poisoning. It had a weird sort of BDSM quality to it that she is really dominating him and he’s being completely submissive … but, well, with poison. Is this a real fetish that people might have? Have you ever seen this before?
I can’t say that I’ve ever seen it before, to be honest. I guess I observed it as more of an analogy. You have people in life that are type-A personalities that are really high achievers, and I understand the desire to want to have someone slow you down so to speak. Though I think ideally, if you meet someone and that naturally slows you down, it would be more ideal than poison. But I think it speaks to the desire to not have to control everything and to just stop, almost like a fantasy.

In what way would this relationship, which is so extreme, reflect what people go through in real life? 
Despite some extreme situations and unusual things happening, what I really noticed is both of their attempts to compromise. I think she compromised up front, but in the end he compromised a bit more as well and they kind of were able to meet each other in the middle. I think that’s a really universal thing that happens in any relationship.

Watching their relationship was definitely like watching a chess match, and I think early on in a relationship that’s really common as well. As you’re getting to know someone, you want to know, what are their boundaries? How far can I push their boundaries? Are they going to encroach on my boundaries at all at any point?

Reynolds had this very specific way of doing things when Alma entered his life; it was basically, “This is my life, this is how I do things, and if you don’t like them you can leave.”
In your experience, what tends to happen when you have one partner who has such a rigid way of life that it forces the other partner to make these dramatic compromises?
Sometimes for those folks it’s very difficult to find a partner — it’s almost like you have a puzzle that’s already completed, and you’re waiting for that one puzzle piece to fit. That’s very challenging. It doesn’t feel like much of a partnership when one person is having to compromise. What will typically happen over time is the person who’s compromised will reach a breaking point and put their foot down. What the other partner will often say is, “Why is this all of a sudden a problem? This is my life, you knew this is my life. This is what I expect out of a partner. Why do you suddenly have a problem with it?” That’s why it’s important to do the internal work, to be sure that you know and you’re clear on what you are and are not willing to compromise on, what you’re looking for in a partner.

Obviously, there was the twist at the end of the film, where we see that he is letting himself be poisoned, and they’ve got this kind of weird power switch that happens where she takes total control. This was obviously surprising to watch as a viewer — but as a psychologist and a relationship expert, was there anything about it that kind of made sense to you, or helped you understand Reynolds more?
I was really surprised, but I also understood his character much better, and I feel like everything that happened before made a bit more sense. He has such a strong personality type, and oftentimes for people with really abrasive, controlling personalities, it takes something really extreme to happen for them to turn a corner, so to speak. Folks with really type-A personalities, it’s very common for them to desire someone that’s going to provide them with a bit of balance — the balance that they need. They may not always want it, but in the end, they oftentimes know that they need that balance, because they can only go so long at that pace.

He was in the driver’s seat for so much of the movie, but in the end she was in the driver’s seat, and it appeared to me that they had achieved a certain level of balance that I think they both desired in their relationship — which is a good thing, ultimately. Though the way that it happened is not ideal.

If these two came into your office and were saying, basically, “We have this good thing going. Every couple of months Alma gives me some poison mushroom and it calms me down and gives me a little restart, and we both like it,” what would you say to that?
There would be a lot of legal implications for me in 2018 if they came into my practice and stated that, because that would be a danger to others, and I would have to alert authorities in that case.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Couples Counseling: Phantom Thread Edition