With honest conversation, "Hope Springs" for all

By Ginger Manley | Posted: Wednesday October 10, 2012

Dear Ginger

I took my sweetie to see “Hope Springs.” He liked it—he said he thought it was funny and that Tommy Lee Jones is a good actor. I would really like to try some of the things that the movie showed but I don’t know how to get him to go along. Help!


Dear Veronica

You and your sweetie may have been in the theater at the same time as John and I were there. I had been dying to see “Hope Springs” and luckily, John had heard from some of his buddies that it was really good, so on a rainy Sunday afternoon it was definitely a good choice. (Once, years ago, I suggested we go see “Bridges of Madison County,” also starring Meryl Streep along with Clint Eastwood, both actors he enjoyed. As we left the movie, John asked me what I thought of it. I told him I loved it, and he said he thought it was the dumbest movie he had ever seen and that Eastwood should stick with making westerns. I was not eager for a repeat of that scene!)

The theater was packed and I overheard lots of chattering as we exited. The story rang true on so many levels to me, both as a wife and as a therapist, so I am glad you are asking about it, Veronica. It is so seldom that Hollywood actually captures the essence of a story like this without sensationalizing it, so I hope this movie makes a ton of money and garners awards along the way. I also hope it is still playing when this column comes out in October—if not, for those of you who missed it in the theaters, or who just want to  watch it again at home, check out Netflix or another source for recent old movies.

You are actually more than fifty-percent of the way to what you want, Veronica, because the two of you participated in watching the movie together, and you have that as a place to begin talking about change. For those who haven’t yet seen the movie, Kay and Arnold, a couple who have been married for 31 years with two grown children, lead an outwardly comfortable suburban lifestyle in Omaha. Kay, however, is deeply unhappy and Arnold is oblivious. They have not touched one another or had sex for five years and they sleep in separate bedrooms. Kay uses $4000 of her own money to schedule a weeklong intensive counseling retreat in Maine for the couple, and Arnold goes along with great reluctance. Over the course of the week, we see them starting, then stalling, then making great leaps forward and a few backwards before heading home. Just when it looks like all is lost and no change will happen, they “break a nose” (you have to see the movie to learn what that means) in a way that transforms their relationship and each of them.

The characters embody great courage in the face of enormous fear and a sense of humor that all of us could cultivate. Just as Arnold is about to bolt, the therapist (played by Steve Carrell) confronts him with the question most of us should heed, “Is this the very best you can do within this situation?” (I've paraphrased a little), and in response, we see Arnold reach deep inside himself and begin to thaw his frozen feelings.

The therapist starts their week of sessions with asking them to recount "the best sex we ever had." In later sessions, he asks them to reveal a fantasy each has had but never shared, as well as each one's hope and dreams for the relationship and the point at which for them the deal is broken.

If you have been reading my column for a while, you know I am fond of calling these kinds of conversations “true oral sex”—using one's mouth and ears to communicate intentionally about the sexual experiences. In the movie, Kay was quite clear that she wanted her husband back in her life, but she wanted more than for sex to just be about sex--she especially wanted intimacy and to be cherished by Arnold as a person. On the surface, Arnold seems to have never given the topic much thought, but clearly, once he gets beyond his defensiveness, he also wants change. I don't want to give away more of the story, but suffice it to say, each character shows great spirit in their willingness to tackle new behaviors and new frames of mind, a wonderful example for ordinary folks like most of us.

Veronica, I think you might invite your sweetie to sit down with you in a quiet place where you are not likely to be interrupted. Give him a time frame--say forty five minutes--and ask him to join you in true oral sex (or just call it conversation about your relationship if you think he would be offended by those words). Invite him to speak first, and then it is your turn. Keep to equal time periods, and always lead off with what is working well and what have been the strengths and joys, then tell him what you might like to have change. Perhaps you have something specific in mind like you saw in the movie or maybe it is a more general experience, like having dinner together in a nice setting. If there are specific activities you don't know how to do, go to a bookstore or shop online. Today there are explicit guides to just about anything, unlike in the days of my parents' sex manuals with their stick figure drawings of limited sexual activities.

For most couples, if there is still a tiny spark of caring between them, adding some oxygen to the embers will fire up even long dormant embers, but that transformation can't happen in silence. Make some joyful noises and let me know how it goes, Veronica.


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