How To Make Love Last

Marriage help: Lessons from Hope Springs, an alternate fairy tale.

Kay Soames (MERYL STREEP) and Arnold Soames (TOMMY LEE JONES) in Columbia Pictures' HOPE SPRINGS.
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First, the bad news: Tons of Americans are unhappy with their love lives. Now, for the good news: It's very often fixable.

The aptly-titled movie, Hope Springs, exemplifies that trajectory through the hard-won reconnection of Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones). Thirty-one years of marriage have left the couple bereft of any connection and mired in excruciating monotony: Each morning Kay fries one egg and a strip of bacon for Arnold, who hardly notices her, and the days end with their retreat to separate bedrooms. They haven't had sex in nearly five years.

Desperate for physical and emotional intimacy, Streep's character, though timid and traditional, plunks her savings into a weeklong retreat to rescue their marriage, despite her husband's disgust at the notion. What happens next are the heart-wrenching heroics of a couple working to find each other again after years of hurt, anger, and, ultimately, withdrawal.

Although this plot line often escapes the happily-ever-after mantra of so many Hollywood rom-coms, the story will likely resonate with the many longtime couples who have wrestled to reclaim lost love. And for those who hope to attain lasting, loving partnerships. The screenplay actually developed from the writer's own soul-searching after a series of ill-fated relationships. The resulting film reconceptualizes romantic partnership as less fairy tale and more deliberate, in which we "choose our partner every day," Vanessa Taylor tells U.S. News. And she projected those values onto a more seasoned couple, for whom the effort would be tougher but the reward, perhaps, sweeter.

Indeed, sustaining a long-term relationship takes effort. "You start to gain such familiarity that you don't put the effort into paying attention to each other," says Sheryl Kingsberg, clinical psychologist and professor in the department of reproductive biology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. "The long-term couple that's the most successful is the couple that has figured out you really have to work at maintaining a relationship and maintaining romance."

Sex plays a huge role in that effort. "You need that sense of intimacy that separates this relationship from all others," says Pepper Schwartz, a relationship columnist for AARP's magazine and website, and professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. "We're talking about far more than a set of sensations here," she says, explaining that sex creates comfort, closeness, and connection—literally, through the release of bonding hormones.

A lack of sex is particularly damaging, experts say. "Bad sex or no sex does way more to subvert an otherwise really good relationship than good sex does to promote an average one," Kingsberg says, citing statistics by American University psychology professor Barry McCarthy, who claims that a healthy sexual relationship boosts marital satisfaction by 15 to 20 percent, while a "dysfunctional, problematic, or non-existent" sex life saps a relationship by 50 to 70 percent. The latter category describes the sex life of at least one in five couples, Kingsberg says.

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Among those who seek Schwartz's advice, sexless unions are a frequent source of dismay. "It's not like this need goes away. It's very common, and people are hugely upset about it," she says. Worse, the situation carries a sense of shame, which leads to silence on the subject. "There is a taboo about talking about it, because it's seen as not just a relationship failure, but a personal failure...the longer there's no sex there, the longer the couple themselves can't talk about it." A lack of both sex and communication reinforce each other, wounding the partnership repeatedly. "You get a sense of rejection, you feel hurt, you feel the person doesn't see who you are...you start to withdraw," and all of that pain damages your sex life, further unraveling your relationship, Schwartz explains.