Trapped in a sexless marriage: That's where Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) find themselves after 30 years of matrimony in the new movie Hope Springs. I can almost hear you wondering, "How typical is that?" Statistics vary, but the condition is almost certainly underreported: In a society prone to judge the absence of marital sex as proof of some fundamental deficiency (for men, of virility; for women, of desirability), it can be humiliating to reveal that the sex has gone out of your union.
See also: Brand-new sex with same-old spouse.
Indeed, a sexless marriage is one of the few topics women are unlikely to share with their friends. And if women are loath to bring it up, then men — traditionally disinclined to discuss intimate matters with anyone — must be considered highly unlikely to talk about it, even with their wives.
How Kay and Arnold arrived in this bind — and the halting steps they take to break free of it — provides the core drama of Hope Springs. Like many a woman in many a long marriage, Kay has rejected her husband's sexual requests because she feels used rather than loved during intercourse. Part of her evidence for that feeling: Her husband will not look at her during sex. But as the sexless months turn into sexless years, she turns to the Internet for answers. There Kay finds a therapist, Dr. Feld (Steve Carell, in a serious role), who gives her hope for reviving her marriage.
Because Hope Springs is anchored in real life, Arnold balks when Kay asks him to attend a first meeting with Feld. Only when his wife makes it clear that losing her is the price of nonparticipation does he finally consent. I've watched countless couples get locked into this same dynamic.
In another mirroring of reality, the therapy proves crucial. When sex disappears for a long period, I've observed, both husband and wife tend to close down emotionally. They may still be able to communicate about day-to-day household operations, but they cannot cross the sexual chasm that has cut them off from each other. Deeply hurt and on the defensive, they may, as do Arnold and Kay, take to sleeping in separate bedrooms. This move typically strands each partner both spatially and emotionally: Neither one has any idea how to reunify the marriage bed.
And that's typically where a good therapist comes in, serving as a change agent who can help a distanced pair reopen their lines of communication, and eventually their hearts.
In the movie as in life, the therapist begins by discovering what prompted the pair's sexual separation, and what sustains it. Once he or she has gained some credibility with both partners, the therapist will "assign" them a series of intimacy exercises — baby steps designed to break the conjugal ice. These may seem modest — cuddling in the same bed is a typical assignment — but such exercises can be daunting in a relationship where touching has become nearly taboo.
Assuming there is still some love left, therapy can often melt a marital glacier. It's not a mystical process; instead, as Kay and Arnold discover together, it demands honesty, courage and a commitment to understanding your partner's interpretation of events and feelings. And that, I think, is what Hope Springs is ultimately trying to tell us: The true cost of losing sexual relations is much more than (long-) delayed gratification, but even badly damaged couples can redeem that loss if they are willing to work with a skilled therapist.
Does Hope Springs earn its title? In my mind, yes: It doesn't make happy endings look easy, but by showing what to expect from therapy it does make them look possible. Older couples who watch the film together may see themselves not just as they are, but as they could be.
Also of interest: Tune-up your marriage.
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