Conversely, an emotional connection can create the physical one. That sensibility inspired Meryl Streep's performance, says the film's director David Frankel, who also directed The Devil Wears Prada. "Meryl was at pains to make clear in her performance (that) physical intimacy wasn't the ultimate goal," Frankel says. "Satisfying physical intimacy only came because there was genuine emotional intimacy."
At the same time, sex therapists, like the one depicted in the movie, often encourage physicality as a prescription for renewed bonding. Consider "the Nike philosophy, and just do it," says Michele Weiner-Davis, author of The Sex-Starved Marriage and Divorce Busting. "Most people think that first you have to have sexual desire, and then you get physically aroused," she says. But for half of the population—and that's not split along gender lines—the order is reversed, she says. "I'm here to tell you that so many times people are experiencing garden-variety problems, and they're not touching each other, and sometimes the very first and best thing they can do is to begin to touch again," she says. "It lowers their guard. It makes them more vulnerable. It makes them more open, and it's much easier sometimes to resolve emotional issues once the physical connection is in place."
Physicality can resume at the most basic level: spending time together, which Weiner-Davis calls "a precursor to wanting to be sexual." Often, couples who have focused on their children will realize the distance between them once they become empty-nesters, she says. "It's not exactly an aphrodisiac to feel like you're living with a stranger."
Illustrating such estrangement, the film's couple, Kay and Arnold, serve as a cautionary tale as much as a motivational one. The movie is meant to entertain and inspire moviegoers, Frankel says. "If they're in a relationship where the walls have built up, understand that it's possible to tear them down," he says. And for those involved with someone "where there's still great intimacy, be aware that it's so easy for life to overwhelm you, and for that intimacy to get corrupted."
So how can couples get and stay on track?
Touch each other. Start by holding hands, especially if you're discussing a tough subject, Schwartz says. "Use a little affection to show that you're still a unit; no matter what's the problem, you're in this together." Affection signals loving reassurance that "even if we exasperate each other, or we're having problems...this is worth fighting for. This is my partner."
If you're just starting to reconnect, start slowly. "Sex is off the table for a while," Kingsberg says. Sometimes people stop all touching because they don't want it to lead to sexual arousal and the consequent pressure or rejection, she explains. Work your way back. "Human touch, beyond words, is a tie that binds," Weiner-Davis says. "If you want to stay alive, if you want to have a good relationship, you really do have to touch."
Talk to each other. Accept your partner's "bid for discussion and understanding," Schwartz says. If one partner dismisses or rejects the other's attempt at discussion, that can set up a dynamic of shutting each other down, she explains. "Can they say how they feel? Can you listen, and can you try, with compassion, to understand the other person's feelings?" A relationship is not likely to succeed if the partners can't hear and support each other to resolve conflicts, she says.
And don't forget to communicate your sexual needs and desires as well. "What turns you on changes" with age, "so you need different kinds of stimulation," Weiner-Davis says. "If people aren't talking about [current needs] which they often don't, then you're operating off of outdated data." Also, people "really have to know their own bodies" to guide their partners, she says.
Consider professional help. "There's no way in the world this couple [in the film] could have come together" without a therapist who "gives them a path," Schwartz says. Self-help books can also provide steps for rebuilding relationships, Kingsberg says. If you are experiencing sexual dysfunction or pain, seek medical help, as either could signal an underlying health issue.