After 31 years of marriage and two grown kids, Kay and Arnold from Omaha Nebraska haven’t had sex in five years and are sleeping in separate rooms. Fed up, Kay prepays $4,000 for a week of intensive couples counseling, requiring travel across the country to the tiny town of Hope Springs in Maine.
Kay and Arnold are fictional spouses in the movie “Hope Springs” but their story and dialogue is so true-to-life, the audience might as well be a fly on the wall of real therapy sessions with a real couple.
Kay, played frumpy, shy and retiring, by the brilliant character actor Meryl Streep, is a stereotypical menopausal wife and mother, who rotely serves bacon and eggs to her husband every morning and endures his ignoring her, reading the paper and watching golf on ESPN. The boorish, grumpy, and unnervingly uncommunicative Arnold is brilliantly portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones., as a stereotypical left-brained accountant, terrified of expressing feelings and intimacy. Always having squinted his eyes shut in sex, he – no surprise—turns out to suffer from erectile dysfunction when, in one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, he finally locks in a deep gaze with his yearning wife.
Steve Carell from the TV show “The Office,” portrays an ever-so-even tempered therapist with probing questions and exercises (“homework”) right out of a counseling manual.
The town’s name turns out to be a good metaphor for the fact that Hope can Spring from such counseling.
Here are some highlights that are so true-to-life:
It’s the woman who reaches her wits end and insists the spouses go to therapy. The man resists. (He does have one legit complaint: the $4,000 fee is high for a weeks’ worth of only one session a day, not including room and board!).
Out-of-town week-long counseling is straight out of the original sex therapy model from the early 1970s by Masters and Johnson – dubbed the grandmother and grandfather of sex—where sex-starved couples spent a week at their center in St. Louis. Escaping their normal routine and stress is essential, with a hotel room as a useful setting to jumpstart passion.
The counseling is so true-to-life, as if the writer recorded a real couples’ process.
The initial session is always an exploration about what both partners want and fear. The first “homework” is always to spend the night just holding and hugging, with no sex. Back in the office, they report how it went; sometimes, but not in this case, couples have spontaneous “cures” and shyly report “successful” sex (since disobeying instructions eliminates performance pressures).
Appropriately probing questions about fantasies reveals Arnold’s secrets straight out of statistical surveys: oral sex and a threesome. True also to stereotype, Kate pictures romance, renewing vows on the beach (they do, in the credit-rolling tearjerker scene), longing for deep kisses, and revealing that she’s unschooled in performing fellatio. Ever so stereotypically, the proper matron later steals in the supermarket to buy fruit, and practice in the bathroom on a banana (which she first absentmindedly eats), while following instructions from the real tome by a gay man (who supposedly knows best).
In another key step in real therapy, the couple expresses upsets and angers to each other, to clear the air. She’s shares that he never talks to her, he says she always quietly gets her own way.
An antidote to anger is sharing your best sex experience to reignite the glow. Arnold and Kay finally smile at each other, recalling fondly a romp on the kitchen floor when he thoughtfully placed a towel behind her head so it wouldn’t bang against the hardwood.
As is typical, the man storms out of the sessions when topics get too personal. The woman runs out too, in tears, when she’s too hurt (though against sex-role stereotypes in the film, Kay drowns her sorrows getting drunk in a bar (disappointedly) while Arnold retreats to a museum).
Another essential: Tell each other what you each want. Typical, she wants love, he wants just “to do it.” Ever so sweetly, Kay and Arnold try to accommodate each other, she by performing fellatio in a movie theatre, he by wining and dining her in a romantic restaurant and suite.
The romantic dinner is a must. Kay and Arnold’s night is complete with blazing fire, chocolate strawberries and champagne.
But all does not always lead to the happy ending -- yet, in real life or in the film. When true intimacy looms – as Arnold opens his eyes to finally meet Kay’s in true love-making instead of just doing it - he can’t perform and Kay takes it to mean he doesn’t love her. Ever-so-typical again, the woman blames herself for the man’s erectile dysfunction, feeling unloved, undesirable and rejected, when it’s really his fears and not her fault.
True again to real life, only when the woman is ready to leave, the guy realizes he can’t live without her, drops his defenses and comes to her with more open heart.
Counseling like this really works. The process could be right out of my session notes with many cases, and advice about steps to communication and intimacy in the “The Complete Idiots Guide to a Healthy Relationship” and “The Complete Idiots Guide to Tantric Sex.”
The movie should be standard homework for real couples, following an article I wrote about “Cinematherapy” about how watching relevantly-themed films together is an excellent way for couples to vicariously confront tough relationship issues, model sharing, and experience success.
While laughing out loud and getting choked up over Kay and Arnold’s journey, real couples can see how Hope really does Spring.