I saw Hope Springs over the weekend with my husband of 26 years. Meryl Streep (Kay) and Tommy Lee Jones (Arnold) did a fantastic job of portraying a couple married 31 years whose marriage has soured. Sleeping in separate bedrooms, they've become robotic in their interactions. Kay is desparate to have her marriage back and signs them up for a weeklong intensive with Dr. Feld (Steve Carrell), who alternates therapy with homework activities. The script does a good job of staying true to what therapy is all about, which is to embrace change, which can be painful, toward a satisfying life.
There are thousands of Kays and Arnolds. They are all around us. In the movie, Kay and Arnold hail from Omaha and they nearly disappear into the set in their ubiquitous American togs. But in my experience, sexless marriage visits all kinds of couples--young and old, rich and not so very. You definitely cannot tell from simply looking at a couple whether or not their marriage is hot, or not. When sex disappears from a marriage, it is a secret kept from the world, and even the couple themselves as they avoid discussing what has happened between them.
How do you Kay and Arnold proof your marriage? I have some tips:
1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. I cannot stress enough the importance of talking about your sex life. If you are unhappy, say so. Be kind, but direct. Don't yell, shriek, or pout. Set aside some time to address the issues and try to work through them together.
2. Be honest. If your partner needs to shower more often, exercise to get fit, or become socially active to be more of a turn on, let your partner know. It is too easy to become complacent and get into a rut like Arnold. Adults are not supposed to freeze in development at any point in time. We are supposed to keep growing and developing ourselves. As Kay and Arnold learn, their best years may be ahead of them.
3. Have sex. But have realistic sex. Lucky Arnold is still able to function sexually. Seems like Kay doesn't have any problems either. However, many older couples need some medical assistance in order to continue being sexually active. So what if it takes Viagra for him and some extra slippery lubricant for her? A little extra sexual excitement wouldn't hurt either--there's no age limit on hot!
4. Don't give up. If your partner is avoiding problems, if you can't seem to make changes on your own, get help. I cannot tell you how many couples come into my office with one partner a complete skeptic. I don't make it my aim to "convert" anyone to a lover of therapy, I just try to understand what it is about therapy that they are afraid of or don't like, and we talk that through. I figure that if I could treat Marines, I can convince (almost) anyone that they can benefit from sessions.
5. Get tune-ups. If you have had therapy, but have experienced a backslide, get a tune-up. Too many couple throw up their hands when old patterns return, but it's a normal part of life to forget or get distracted from what works. So don't be afraid to pick up the phone and go back to your therapist or get a new one on board to get things back on track.
6. Last, but not least, love. Remember the reason you got married or made a commitment to monogamy is became you loved one another. What was it that you loved so much that you were willing to give up some of your freedom to be with this special person? How can you treat your beloved in a way that will recapture some of that original sparkle?
I don't know that Hope Springs will excite younger couples or teens dragged along with their parents. It really is a movie for boomers who are facing high rates of divorce after neglecting their marriages, perhaps spending too much time and energy working and raising kids. But it can also be seen as a cautionary tale for younger couples who want to avoid empty spaces in their relationship. Not everyone ends up as lucky as Kay and Arnold.