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.
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.
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.
Remember that relationships take work and can work. "Most couples assume that their passion and their love for each other will carry them forward through the years, and that's a mistake," Kingsberg says. "Although it sounds paradoxical that you have to work for romance and passion, it's what works," she says.
For Weiner-Davis's part, she's confident that even distant couples can rekindle their romance. "We know so much about how to heal medical issues, how to fix relationship problems and personal issues," she says. "There really is no reason why anyone wanting a more robust sex life can't have one...Desire is a decision."
Vanessa Taylor would agree.
Clarified on 08/13/2012: An earlier version of this story used only part of Michele Weiner-Davis' hyphenated surname in several instances.